Preservation ABCs: V is for Viewshed

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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V is for Viewshed

The viewshed of historic downtown Montpelier, VT.

The viewshed of historic downtown Montpelier, VT. {click for sharper image}

Viewshed can be applied broadly, depending on the resource, but an easy way to understand it is like this: (1) Consider the historic property. (2) What would its surroundings have looked like during its period of significance? (3) Evaluate what changes would adversely affect that view from the historic property? (4) What is the view to the historic property from other locations?

For example, a neighborhood of small bungalows overlooking the lake would have an altered viewshed if high condominiums were constructed between the houses the lake. Think of the monstrous beach houses that block the views of the older, smaller homes. Or a historic farmstead – house, barns, outbuildings, fields – would lose its viewshed if all of the neighboring properties were developed.

This isn’t to say that all development can destroy the integrity of a viewshed; rather, new development must be done in a considerate manner with designs compatible to the historic character of its neighbors. How do you protect a viewshed? Identify what is in view from/to the property. An easement might fit the purpose of protection, or design ordinances on a municipal/town level.

Take a look at the photograph above. Both sides of the streets are lined with historic building blocks, and all are contributing properties in the Montpelier historic district. What if one of those building blocks were removed due to development pressures or fire, for example? The view of the district would be altered. Sympathetic and compatible infill would need to be constructed in order to save the integrity of the district.

Why does viewshed matter? It relates to the setting, association, and feeling of a historic property, which are three of the seven aspects of integrity, as per the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Change the viewshed and you’ve altered the integrity, and quite possibly the significance of that historic property.

Preservation ABCs: U is for Utilities

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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U is for Utilities

This photo show two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

This photo (taken in St. Paul, MN) shows two types of street lights and a traffic signal, without wires strung between structures. Imagine how different it would look with wires.

Our streets, towns, and cities have telephone lines, fiber optic cables, cell towers, water lines, sewer lines, etc. These are utilities, and they are a fact of life for just about everyone (unless you’re choosing to live “off grid”). Utilities are most often above ground if you’re referring to wires and cables (see this discussion), whereas water and sewer lines are underground. All come into play in all sorts of projects, whether new construction, rehabilitation, or transportation, to name a few. The locations of utilities are important, as is the sustainability of utilities. Are underground wires the better choice for weather related problems?

While utilities wires are a necessity to modern life (until everything is wireless someday), the fact is that there are more wires than in the past. And these wires can obscure viewsheds to and from historic buildings (example seen here). Traffic signals, telephones, cable: sometimes these can be overwhelming in our view. Consider these questions. Should traffic signals have mast arms or overhead wires? Should street lights be attached to telephone poles or separate structures? Where should a traffic signal control box be located? To which part of the house should the utilities connect?

Not sure what you think? The next time you see a telephone pole, count how many wires are strung across it. How would your neighborhood look with wires or without wires (hence, they are underground)? The next time you are in a downtown or neighborhood core, look around. Do you see wires?

What do you think is the best solution? Undergrounding utilities is expensive, but makes an incredible difference, whether people consciously realize it or not.

This Could Happen to You

Sprawl and poor development decisions pop up everywhere; infill that adversely effects its surroundings can happen almost anywhere, even in a historic district in picturesque Vermont.

Let’s use Fair Haven as an example. Traveling through Fair Haven, VT on VT Route 22A or VT Route 4 you’ll pass well kept historic buildings; the highways lead to a large open town green surrounded by historic commercial blocks, civic buildings, and significant homes overlooking the green, including two historic residences constructed of marble. This area is the Fair Haven Green Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Standing on the edge of the town green.

While driving into town from Route 4A West, something jumped out at me. See below.

Fair Haven, VT. Dollar General has moved in next to the public library.

What? Dollar General sits next to the Fair Haven Free Library, a 1908 Carnegie Library. And on the other side is the Fair Haven Grade School – in another historic building.

Fair Haven Grade School, Dollar General, Fair Haven Free Library.

This is located in the Fair Haven Green Historic District – a nondescript modern strip mall type shopping building sandwiched in between two architecturally significant buildings and adjacent to many more. It’s like a slap in the face – and it’s not even my town!

It gets worse. Take a walk further down the green and this is your vantage point:

The Dollar General sign must be at the very edge of the property line. Talk about ruining the view shed. Click and zoom in for the full effect.

Taken out of context, this library now looks like it’s the owner of the Dollar General sign. How did this happen? Granted it is just a sign, but in a state that outlawed billboards and in a historic district like Fair Haven, it’s unfathomable. You could say that a sign isn’t a billboard, but if you consider relative size to the building it’s in front of, that Dollar General sign might as well be a billboard. And to clarify, I’d have the same opinion regardless of the sign in front of the building. This is not an issue of Dollar General, although I was ready to be up in arms about yet another Dollar General. However, Google Maps shows the street view as a Ben Franklin store in the same building with an equally large sign in the same location.

Unfortunately, I cannot find any information about the development of this lot. The questions to ask are: (1) How did this happen? (2) Was it a question of zoning? (3) Why did no one stop it? (4) Why wasn’t a better infill design chosen for this lot? (5) Has the Town fixed the problem so this doesn’t happen again?

I’d consider this a cautionary tale, especially as small scale sprawl continues to be a threat. Since it’s not a strip mall, it’s easier to slip through the cracks. Chain stores are not necessarily the main issue here – poor “architecture” is the bigger problem of the moment. Be on the lookout, because poor development results in adverse effects to historic properties and districts and a decrease in quality of life (it’s all connected).

Historic Preservation Basics No. 2

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation.

No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation.

Every field has its jargon, historic preservation included. Some may be shared with architectural history or planning, for example, but most of the preservation vocabulary has unfamiliar connotations to those who are in other fields. So here is a list of words that will help you to understand and participate in conversations about preservation. Without a doubt, there are many more than I include here, but these represent my most commonly used technical words.

You’ll notice that many of these words tie into the definitions of each other, and many derive from federal regulations. The explanations are

Adverse Effect:

An alteration to the historic resource that will diminish the property’s integrity and its characteristics of integrity that qualify it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Usually referenced in discussion with Section 106 and regulatory review.

Context:

When discussing context, it often refers to understanding a resource within its historic context (e.g. an art-moderne gas station within its context of roadside architecture and the associated context of the growing United States and automobile industry, etc.). Resources out of context are at risk for losing their significance (e.g. a lone Queen Anne house that was once part of a neighborhood, but now sits lonely among a sea of strip malls). Concerning the National Register, “historic contexts are historical patterns that can be identified through consideration of the history of the property and the history of the surrounding area.” Read more about historic contexts and the NR here.

Historic:

Listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Typically, such properties are 50 years or older, though that is a guideline, not a rule.

Integrity:

When referencing historic integrity there are seven aspects to evaluate: location, design, setting, workmanship, feeling, association, and materials. Integrity will convey the significance of a property. When integrity is lost, the property is no longer significant, which is why alterations must be carefully reviewed. Read more about integrity from the National Register Bulletins.

National Historic Preservation Act of 1966:

Often abbreviated NHPA or NHPA 1966 (16 USC 470). As explained by the National Trust, this is the “primary federal law governing the preservation of cultural and historic resources in the United States. The law establishes a national preservation program and a system of procedural protections which encourage the identification and protection of cultural and historic resources of national, state, tribal and local significance.”

National Register of Historic Places:

Called the National Register for short, or “NR,” it is the scale for significance — how we know what is important.  The National Park Service clearly explains it as, “The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources.”

National Trust for Historic Preservation:

Abbreviated NTHP or referred to as the National Trust. From the National Trust “about us” section: “The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to saving historic places and revitalizing America’s communities. Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Trust was founded in 1949 and provides leadership, education, advocacy, and resources to protect the irreplaceable places that tell America’s story. Staff at the Washington, DC, headquarters, six regional offices and 29 historic sites work with the Trust’s 270,000 members and thousands of preservation groups in all 50 states.”

Old:

Referring to a property that does not possess historic significance or historic integrity. Not eligible for listing in the National Register.

Preservation:

The maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. (Protection and Stabilization have now been consolidated under this treatment.)

Reconstruction:

Re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes.

Rehabilitation:

Acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character as it has evolved over time.

Restoration:

Depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.

RITC:

Abbreviation for Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit. Also called the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit. From the National Trust, “The federal rehabilitation tax credit encourages the preservation and reuse of the nation’s built environment by offering federal tax credits to the owners of historic properties. Since it was enacted in 1976, the tax credit has generated over $50 billion in renovation and revitalization dollars. As a disincentive to demolition, it allows the owner of a historic building to receive an income tax credit of 20% of the amount spent to rehabilitate a certified historic structure. There is also a 10% credit for older, non-historic buildings…To qualify for the 20% rehabilitation credits, a building must be a “certified historic structure.” A certified historic structures is one that is listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places or located in a registered historic district and certified by the Secretary of the Interior as being of historical significance to the district. In addition, the rehabilitation work must qualify as “certified rehabilitation.” A certified rehabilitation is one that is approved by the Secretary of the Interior as consistent with the historic character of the building and, where applicable, with the district in which the building is located. All elements of the project must meet certain standards to ensure that the historic character of the building is preserved in the process of the rehabilitation.

Secretary of the Interior’s Standards:

Sometimes referred to as the Secretary’s Standards or Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties and sometimes Standards for Rehabilitation. The Standards for Rehabilitation are the most common, but there are four sets: preserving, restoring, rehabilitation, and reconstructing. Read all about the Standards for Rehabilitation from the National Park Service. From the National Park Service, “The Standards are neither technical nor prescriptive, but are intended to promote responsible preservation practices that help protect our Nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources. For example, they cannot, in and of themselves, be used to make essential decisions about which features of the historic building should be saved and which can be changed. But once a treatment is selected, the Standards provide philosophical consistency to the work.” These Standards are the benchmark for work on historic properties and for maintaining a property’s significance.

Section 106:

Federal regulations (36 CFR 800) implementing the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This process determines the effect that a project has on a resource and then seeks ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the effects. Section 106 is applicable to all federally funded projects. Read more about Section 106 from the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.

Section 4f:

Section 4(f) of the DOT Act stipulated that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and other DOT agencies cannot approve the use of land from a significant publicly owned public park, recreation area, wildlife or waterfowl refuge, or any significant historic site unless the following conditions apply: (1) There is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of land and (2) The action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property resulting from use. Read more from the Section 4f interactive training site.

Sense of Place:

Without finding a technical, regulatory related definition, sense of place refers to the feeling of a defined place, whether it be a town, village, landscape, park, etc. Sense of place means that people understand the built environment and how each element ties together. Sense of place gives people pride and connection to their environments, which is an important part of understanding historic preservation. To understand, consider sense of place in reference to a small town or a big city — both have a strong sense of place, usually. But then consider sense of place among highways of strip malls and run down neighborhoods. It’s not there, right?

SHPO:

Abbreviation for State Historic Preservation Office (or Officer, depending on your state). Pronounced S-H-P-O by some or ship-po by others. Established by the NHPA 1966, the SHPO has many roles including: surveying properties across the state in order to determine their significance, nominating properties to the National Register, administering grants, assisting local agencies, conducting and consulting on Section 106 review, reviewing applications for federal investment tax credit projects.

Significant:

In relation to the National Register, significant means historically significant. In order to be historically significant a property must have high levels of integrity and be significant under one of the criteria for evaluation of the National Register. Local, state, and national levels of significance may be different; i.e. a property may be significant locally (perhaps a barn where defining town events happened) but not nationally (as it would have to be important to the shaping of the nation). In short, when you read significance think historically significant and National Register.

Streetscape:

Streetscape refers to the massing of buildings, the street plantings, the physical environment and feel from the ground, from the human experience. It often goes hand-in-hand with view shed.

Viewshed:

This is a term often used in analyzing the effects of a projects. Essentially, will the view from or to a property be adversely affected by this change? Often the viewshed contributes greatly to the setting, feeling, and association (integrity!) of property or district. The Wilderness Battlefield case addressed viewshed.

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What vocabulary words would you like to add?

And, as a side note, thank you for the very positive response to the beginning of this series. Please let me know what you would like to read! I’m not sure on the length of this series, but for now, I’ll try for Wednesday and Friday posts for a few weeks.

Change is Inevitable. Ugliness is Not.

Scenic America is the only national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated solely to preserving and enhancing the visual character of America’s communities and countryside (quoted from the “About Us” on Scenic America).

Have you noticed that some highways and interstates are more littered with billboards than others? Or that the older highways meandering through the country are being rerouted or dotted with new billboards and developments that seem to disrespect the scenic view? What about the new cell phone towers or windmills – what are they doing to our natural environment and views, or what is left of them?

scenicamerica

Issues (click above) such as these are what Scenic America cares about and works to solve and educate the public through advocacy, publications, workshops, and an online resource center. Read Scenic America’s mission statement and its principles and you will understand that they fit in with the rest of us preservationists and environmentalists and planners. Succinctly, (adapted from the Principles page) Scenic America hopes to protect the distinctive character of existing communities, foster respectful new development, encourage regulatory approaches for scenic protection, improve transportation systems aesthetically and environmentally, prevent mass marketing such as billboards, educate the younger population, and engage other entities to promote a more scenic America.

I had never heard of Scenic America until I was perusing the links on PreserveNet, and I’m surprised to learn that pieces of this organization have been around for over a decade (under a different name in the beginning). And it addresses some of the exact issues that many of us discuss time and time again. Scenic America identifies the tangible and intangible aspects of why some people prefer the old meandering highways than interstates and why some places are more eye appealing than others.

And as for “Change is inevitable. Ugliness is not.” – it is the catch-phrase of the organization. The brutal honesty is just what we need. Scenic America is not tiptoeing around its goals. Keep your eyes open for Scenic America in the news. I look forward to hearing of their success. Read long range plans here.

Big Box Retail & Historic Resources Debate

After last Friday’s post, Hey Wal-Mart! Ever Hear of “Historic Significance”?, Missy left a great comment that I think, should spark a healthy debate between many of us. Here is her comment:

Allow me to counter that petitioning Wal-Mart is not going to stop the real problem, nor is it really fair to blame Wal-Mart. They are doing nothing illegal. If people were concerned about this issue or preserving the battlefield they should have done something before that land was zoned to allow commercial development or any large scale development. Just because what is being built there is not what people wanted is not a valid argument. Even if Wal-Mart is stopped, won’t save the battlefield. Who’s to say Target or Whole Foods or Giant won’t try to locate there instead. Also, I wonder how much of a buffer is needed around historic sites in order for their integrity to remain?

For debate, my response to the comment:

It’s true that the umbrella issue of the story is that any big box retailer or developer is capable of doing the same thing that Wal-Mart is doing in Orange County, VA. It is not illegal to build on that site since it is zoned commercially. And yes, the county should have rezoned the land to protect historic resources, especially a national battlefield. (Similarly, many National Parks are faced with encroachment issues).

However, I imagine that it would impossible to keep up to speed with rezoning and development at the same time. Therefore, I consider this issue to be about more than Wal-Mart. It is about corporate America and developers who feel that they can build anywhere and will not consider other options, or only pretending to consider options, pacifying the “little people”. Fighting the law or big business takes money, which is what such national retailers have, whereas the general population and local governments often do not have.

But, if we are to consider Wal-Mart: as one of the largest corporate retailers, they should assume some responsibility as a representation of how businesses operate. While some businesses are choosing to not follow Wal-Mart’s practices, many are because of the fact that Wal-Mart has been so successful. So, if Wal-Mart will build anywhere, then other businesses will build anywhere because that is how to be successful. And maybe Wal-Mart doesn’t want to be a model for American business, but when you get to the top, it’s hardly avoidable. The same goes for leaders, bosses, owners, oldest siblings, captains, etc. By rising to the top, you have automatically earned the position of a successful model. Just because it is not against the law, does not mean that practices should be overlooked. Change is necessary as society progresses.

And no, petitioning will not help initially, but a solution has to start somewhere. Someone has to take that first step. And sometimes petitions and small news articles are the only ways to get attention. If enough people voice their opinion and are proactive about change, then the small beginnings will have made a difference. If the town or county can stand up to Wal-Mart, then perhaps other businesses will shy around from that area because of the fact that a group actually said no to Wal-Mart and won.

Perhaps, the general population needs a better example on how to bring about change to business and the local government. Clearly, we need to promote rezoning and be proactive, rather than reactive towards protection of historic sites and resources. Any suggestions?

In regards to how much of a buffer is needed to protect historic sites: that seems like an unanswered question. My gut feeling would be the viewshed, but of course that is debatable.

And those are just my thoughts. Anyone else?