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Opinion: Preservation Efforts Should be Used for Progress, Not NIMBYism

Josh Lapp Josh Lapp Opinion: Preservation Efforts Should be Used for Progress, Not NIMBYismRendering by Moody Nolan and EDGE.
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Numerous proposals, contentious meetings, and contemptuous rejections characterize the 18-month saga of a proposed development at the corner of Livingston and City Park Avenues on the edge of German Village.

Through multiple iterations, the opponents of the hotel have depicted it as “huge” and “alarmingly different” and bemoan further development of the neighborhood remarking that they’d prefer if it could “remain our little historic German Village.”

These comments to the media — and many more online — demonstrate an all too frequent phenomenon: the co-option of the ideals and methods of historic preservation to satisfy the agenda of NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism). As a professional preservationist and urban planner, the regular and growing occurrence of this type of opposition effort makes me fear for the future of the preservation movement and our city’s built environment.

The preservation movement in Columbus began in the 1960s as a response to federally sponsored “urban renewal” and highway programs that encouraged the widespread demolition of entire neighborhoods — particularly low income and African American areas. Today’s German Village was preserved thanks to tireless grassroots advocates who worked to prevent demolitions, saving the historic fabric of the area. These efforts led the City of Columbus to codify the German Village Commission, establishing a framework for the system of historic review commissions that is in place today. Subsequent groups, especially Columbus Landmarks, helped to solidify the movement throughout the city.

Today’s urban renaissance owes much to early preservationists who ensured that our city retains our jewels like German Village, Victorian Village, Italian Village and Bryden Road. That urban revival though, does not fit into a narrow view of what the city and its neighborhoods should be. We hear so often about parking and traffic concerns that it seems many of the complainants would rather not live in historic neighborhoods (that were never constructed with the car in mind), but rather in car-oriented communities where there is ample parking and little fear of the ‘horrors of density.’

The concerns of density and parking, oftentimes with undertones of racism and classism, are so omnipresent that they seem to overshadow any valid concerns about preservation and historic urban character. Meanwhile, in neighborhoods that lack the privilege of German Village, demolitions are frequent and protections are minimal. At commission meetings and neighborhood forums in areas with protections, preservation is often a convenient excuse to justify the prevention of further development. This does nothing but preserve an already exclusive and expensive neighborhood, favoring non-dense development over people-centric development that enhances urban vitality.

The proposed hotel in German Village is a great case study in verifying the concerns of those who share my point of view. The proposed hotel would replace a mostly vacant parking lot, adjacent to a freeway and in view of 20-story buildings. The current proposal features a modern, five-story design along Livingston Avenue (which currently functions as a highway offramp) that steps back to a more traditional, smaller-scale red brick design as it advances into the neighborhood along City Park Avenue and Pearl Street. By most measures this high-end development is a sympathetic treatment, allowing for modern design where it makes sense and creating a more historic aesthetic as it interacts with historic buildings. It also creates a transition from the large scale development that is already nearby.

A view of the existing parking lot in historic German Village, with Downtown’s Franklin County Courthouse complex in the background — image via Google Streetview.

Unfortunately for German Village and the city at large, if the commission follows the will of the outspoken few, we are likely to get a car-oriented development that creates a false sense of history and embraces NIMBYism over urban vitality. And while development is stymied here with preservation as the excuse, lower income and historically minority areas of the city have their historic buildings demolished regularly without regard for history or preservation.

A city is a living, breathing organism, not a time capsule of a by-gone era that in reality, never existed. German Village itself was the result of adhoc development with no regulations for signage let alone horse manure. We must continue to preserve this historic gem, but that does not mean that we should prevent sensible development where it has no negative impact on the existing historic built environment. Just as importantly, we shouldn’t let those who use historic preservation and the goodwill that comes along with it to justify their own NIMBYism.

And while we’re at it, let’s extend our protections and preservation outside of high-income, majority white areas to include other neighborhoods and buildings that deserve preservation too.

– Josh Lapp

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