Destroy heritage, it's gone forever

July 19, 2000|By Melanie Anson

IN 1868, America's great landscape architect, visionary and planner Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. proclaimed: "No great city can long exist without great suburbs." If alive today, he might add: Great suburbs and metropolitan counties cannot long exist without a great city.

Baltimore's claim to a spot on the roster of great cities advanced several places recently when city officials announced that they have decided to preserve nearly half of the buildings in a 26-block area previously slated for condemnation on the west side of downtown.

This decision thankfully lessens the likelihood that the Weinberg Foundation will proceed with plans for a new 400,000-square-foot glass and glitter mall -- the Howard Street USA retail building proposed at West Lexington Street and Park Avenue.

As the Weinberg Foundation considers whether to withdraw or invest under the preservation guidelines being formulated, its executives might want to go to other great cities and ponder the findings of two respected real estate consulting firms regarding emerging trends in real estate. They are examples that preservation pays.

Visit San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, New York City. Their appeal is rooted in their past.

In addition to wonderful parks (designed by Olmsted and his emulators), they have to a large extent preserved their historic architecture and readapted older buildings to modern uses. By refitting historic structures for today's markets, developers have preserved more than history; they have saved the very elements that give these cities a unique identity and charm. In turn, they have seen their efforts succeed financially, with broad ripple effects on the local economy.

San Francisco's flagship Gap store opened in a rehabilitated 1904 building at Powell and Market streets in 1992; it recently expanded its space.

Boston's Ritz Carlton is not a modern high-rise on the water; it is in the heart of old Boston, in its original 1927 building. Situated across from the Boston Public Garden, it is the Ritz in longest continuous operation in the United States.

Chicago is well-known for its great architecture; tours focusing on its well-preserved edifices are a prime tourist attraction. New York City's hottest areas are those undergoing adaptive reuse, a popular trend in Baltimore's Canton area.

With preservation successes across the country, the Weinberg Foundation's initial opposition and continued reluctance to embrace a plan that preserves significant Baltimore architecture is mystifying.

Perhaps executives of the Weinberg Foundation should read "Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2000," a joint publication of Lend Lease Real Estate Investments and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Lend Lease is an internationally known and diversified real estate investment management organization that operates from more than 30 major cities on five continents. PricewaterhouseCoopers is a leading consultant with a global network of real estate professionals. Want clout? These two firms have it. Here is a sampling of what the 21st edition of the real estate industry's "longest running and most respected annual forecast" says about emerging trends in retail:

"People are looking for real neighborhoods, real experiences -- not something canned." Does this sound familiar? It echoes what citizen activists have been saying for years. Now, global consultants are singing the same refrain.

"Many folks are just plain tired of malls. From coast to coast, they look identical and sell the `same old same old.' Branding strategies only underscore the stultifying homogenization. It speaks to the redundancy in retail square footage and the need for a point of difference."

Building a glitzy re-creation of a suburban mall on the west side to house an Old Navy, Sports Authority and Disney store would be a monotonous repetition of same old same old, despite its disguise as new.

"The whole issue of urban renewal -- regenerating the city and the idea of place -- is finally being accepted by the investor and business."

Baltimore certainly has innovative investors and developers, but they have been more the exception than the rule. The city's decision to preserve a significant number of historic buildings on the west side is a welcome sign that the "bulldoze and rebuild" mentality may be changing.

In commenting on the redevelopment of underutilized space, "Emerging Trends" states: "Local planners, politicians and developers have a chance to get it right this time."

For the future health and vitality of Baltimore City and its surrounding suburbs, let's hope they do. History demolished is heritage lost -- forever. Based on the findings in "Emerging Trends," it also may be economic suicide.

Melanie Anson is a free-lance writer with an interest in urban planning and historic preservation.

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