Monday, June 11, 2007

Being More Strategic About Preservation

A half-mile from where I live on Milwaukee's east side, an intense debate has raged for at least a year about a commercial and residential project to revitalize the aging Downer Ave. business district.

I'm in favor of this classic, New Urbanist plan (full disclosure: my son works for Ald. Michael D'Amato, key Common Council sponsor of the project) because it is exactly the kind of in-fill development that a land-locked city like Milwaukee must carry out to hold its own against suburbs with more available open space.

The project is moving forward: the council has approved it, but there is still resistance to folding a small city-owned surface parking lot into the plan.

Whitney Gould, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's architecture and design columnist, has written a tough piece about this misguided effort in to 'preserve' the parking as open space.

Gould's column has significance far beyond this one neighborhood squabble over a small piece of asphalt by arguing that when preservationists go overboard they loose the political clout and credibility.

Some preservationists' almost routine opposition to many developments is understandable.

Much has been lost in Milwaukee to the bulldozer, and preservationists right to bring their special energy and analysis to situations when bad process and wacky proposals threaten to do lasting environmental or cultural harm.

But there is a difference between saving structures and open space that are historic, or otherwise deeply valuable, and fighting to save properties that are genuinely dispensable.

Not saving the historic train station on the lakefront decades ago in Milwaukee? A huge preservation failure.

Selling off pieces of the Milwaukee County Parks system, again being batted around with regard to Bender Park, in Oak Creek? Don't even think about it.

Stopping the mooring of a battleship within sight of the Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava addition? A great preservationists' victory against a truly inappropriate plan.

Failing to make better use of a small parking lot by integrating it into a $55 mixed-use development - - that includes more parking - - on a commercial strip that couldn't even support an Einstein's Bagel store?


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