Debating Downtown Development and Preservation

Luckily, it's pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper's Weekly, Jan 3, 1863

Luckily, it’s pretty much been uphill since then. (Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 3, 1863)

My last post on the tension between preservation, development, and economic inequality in Fredericksburg attracted quite a bit of attention around town, which was gratifying.  By far the most interesting and engaging reaction came from Michael Spencer, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Historic Preservation in the Department of Historic Preservation at Mary Washington, in the form of a private email.  His email sparked what I found to be a challenging exchange about preservation, economic development, and the specific proposals that are currently on the table for downtown Fredericksburg.  I was extremely gratified to get the feedback of a professional preservationist, since my training has prepared me to work with documents and words, not brick and slate.  I think our debate reflects our disciplinary differences in a productive and illuminating fashion, so I have (with his permission, of course) shared it here in its entirety.

Michael Spencer: 

Hope your holidays are going well. Saw your article on your blog regarding the mill district proposal and found it interesting.

Of course as a preservationist and downtown resident I agree that gentrification is and has always been an issue and one that is exceedingly difficult to solve. That said I was curious about the data analysis concerning income inequality. From just a superficial glance at the data it would seem to me that such comparisons and numbers could be quite deceiving. For instance the same data presented could be used to indicate diversity in a location where high incomes come in close contact with low, a walk down upper Charles Street would support such a statement. A place like Fairfax may indeed have a lower ratio because poverty is relatively limited compared to a place like Fredericksburg. Have you had a chance to look at the numbers any further? Just curious.

In regards to the bank building, I think the main preservationist argument has to do with incompatible use and contextual design. Insertion of restaurants in buildings like the bank often do incredible harm to the structure…think of all the exhaust fans necessary as well as the accumulated grease etc. produced by the kitchen. Mike Adam’s solution to this was a “gap wall” between the historic interior moldings and mantles, a situation ripe for mold growth, rot and eventual deterioration. Regarding the infill design, the massing was incorrect and would detract from the integrity of place/setting, a basic contextual analysis of the surrounding building bears this out. Furthermore, some of the materials used were out of line with the rest of the neighborhood.

I would have to disagree that Fredericksburg, particularly the downtown, needs to change its “small town character”, but I can understand the point you are trying to make…unfortunately I think things were lost somewhat in translation when interpreting the “preservation” point of view. In fact the historic buildings and the spaces they provide over “class A”, new space, have proven time and again to be great incubators to startup businesses (Jane Jacobs, Life and Death) which cannot always afford space out in Central Park. Donovan Rypkema, Economics of Historic Preservation, is another great read on the economics of preservation and what it brings to the table if you’re interested. What I can agree with however is the need for more affordable housing and I think preservation and the spaces historic buildings offer, can contribute greatly to any solution without hurting Fredericksburg’s historic character. For the record, I like the idea of the Mill District and adapting some of its buildings but I think public input and discussion is always worthwhile…after all I have yet to meet the developer who isn’t first concerned with their wallet.

All that said, I congratulate you on posting this article and found it quite thought provoking and insightful! I look forward to future discussions you might post on your blog regarding the issue. 

Will Mackintosh:

Thanks for your very interesting email.  I have a lot of thoughts, which might better be shared over coffee.

First of all, let me say that I wrote that blog post with a sense of profound ambivalence, because my argument was leading me to make common cause with developers, for whom I certainly have no love lost.  As you say, “I have yet to meet the developer who isn’t first concerned with their wallet,” and I couldn’t agree more.  I kind of hate that the post makes me seem like a shill for developers, or “market solutions” to anything.  I am certainly not be in favor of unrestrained development in Fredericksburg, and I think the city needs a very strong regulatory presence to make sure that development is thoughtful, appropriate, sober, and in the public interest.  But the city already has that, between the historic district, the ARB, and zoning.  You can argue with their specific standards, but the fact is that Fredericksburg has much stronger regulatory power over developers than most jurisdictions. And that’s as it should be.  The problem is that in these cases … especially in the case of the George St. development … city council overruled its own regulatory apparatus, which makes a mockery of the regulatory process overall.  It politicizes regulation, which ultimately undermines it, because if development is subject to the whims of city council, all that will do is incentivize developers to buy off council.  In overruling the ARB in the way they did, they are winning a battle but losing the war.  So yeah, I’m skeptical of developers, too, but they deserve a predictable (and strict!) regulatory environment, which is not how they were treated in this case.  And the politicization of the process will ultimately undermine the goal of ensuring responsible development in the city.

In terms of your point about the data, I think you are correct to be skeptical about it for one huge reason: it compares vastly unequal jurisdictions.  Because of the oddity of Virginia’s system of independent cities, a small place like Fredericksburg city gets compared to a huge area like Fairfax County.  As you point out, one of the realities of Fredericksburg is that rich and poor live relatively cheek-by-jowl, especially compared to most places in America.  That reality gets highlighted by the very small population that gets compared to the very large population of the counties.  If Fredericksburg city were folded in with Spotsylvania County, the way it would be in other states, it would obviously look really different because Fredericksburg’s rich and poor would get relatively overwhelmed by the vastly larger number of middle income people in the county.  That’s the case with places like Fairfax and Prince William.  But: I think this only serves to illustrate my point.  The fact that we can get data on Fredericksburg city alone reveals the income inequality that is otherwise masked by middle-class people in suburban tract developments.  It’s not that income inequality doesn’t exist elsewhere, it’s just more visible in the Fredericksburg numbers.  And given that the ratio measured is the ratio of household income at the 80th percentile to that at the 20th percentile, it shows that Fredericksburg is really, really unequal.  Also telling is that similarly-sized jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, especially the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, are considerably less unequal.  So ultimately: yes, the comparison of Fredericksburg and Fairfax County isn’t really fair, but the city of Fredericksburg still has a lot of very rich people and a lot of very poor people and relatively few people in the middle, which is precisely the problem I was trying to think through in my post.

I certainly bow to your expertise on the matter of the reuse of the bank building … it’s not something I know anything about.  But certainly sensitive modern reuse of historic structures is possible, no?  To my mind, the biggest threat to historic structures is neglect.  If we don’t come up with a way to use them, they cease to have a reason to exist, which is the most dangerous situation for them to be in.  In fact, it’s precisely the sometimes highly insensitive reuse of Fredericksburg’s historic structures that has enabled so many of them to survive.  Generations of landlords and residents and business owners haven’t preserved them in pristine condition, but they have preserved them in a much more reliably intact state than in most historic districts in the US.  Say what you will about the crappy “antique” stores of downtown (and I have!), they kept those buildings from falling down or being torn down.  So as regards the bank building, I’d ask you: what realistic reuse would best preserve it?  And I mean a reuse that is within the realm of the possible, right now.  If another bank won’t buy it and use it as a bank, then who will reuse it in a way that preserves it?  A bank might be better than a restaurant, but people want restaurants, and to my mind a restaurant is better than it being empty, in terms of the long-term survival of the structure.

I am less sympathetic to your argument regarding the townhouses.  Questions of “height” and “massing” are fundamentally aesthetic and subjective; what you mean is that the new buildings won’t precisely match the buildings that are already there.  Now, that doesn’t bother me.  I’d rather live in a vibrant small city with a range of architecture styles from a range of periods than a Disneyfied historic district where everything new is a slavish copy of the old.  I am capable of distinguishing the old from the new and appreciating both on their own terms, and I think the juxtaposition of the old and the new is a sign of the economic, social, and cultural health of a place that has been lived in and loved over centuries, which I find much more aesthetically appealing than a mere museum.  (This is why I find Fredericksburg a thousand times more interesting than Williamsburg.)  I also think that a parking lot is the worst possible use of that space, since it’s not a historic use, and it also represent wasted, unused space that could be better put to use serving new residents and businesses.  But all of those observations are matters of taste, too, and certainly subject to debate.

I know the work of Jacobs and Rypkema well, and I definitely think they are applicable in this situation.  Under no circumstances would I support removing or replacing the built environment that makes Fredericksburg unique for both residents and business owners.  And full disclosure: my husband owns a small business on Caroline Street, so I am highly aware of the opportunities that historic districts give to small entrepreneurs, because I live it every day. The only reason I felt the need to write in favor of these two projects is that they both represent opportunities to add to Fredericksburg without taking anything away, except empty, unused, and unproductive space.  And here’s another insight I’ve gained from my intimate connection to the downtown Fredericksburg entrepreneur crowd: they want more people living downtown, not fewer, because those people represent their most reliable and supportive customer base, the everyday patrons whose business is not susceptible to the vagaries of weather, traffic, parking, and vacation budgets.  So again, I am completely in agreement with Jacobs and Rypkema that Fredericksburg needs to preserve its historic streetscapes, its mix of uses, and its diverse collection of structures that provide lots of opportunities.  But that doesn’t mean freezing out all development.  Indeed, for both Jacobs and Rypkema, historic neighborhoods need to be lived in, occupied, and used on their own terms; they need to grow and shrink and change as times change while retaining the things that make them uniquely livable.  That’s all I want for Fredericksburg.  I can’t help but think Jacobs would be horrified with what her beloved Greenwich Village has become … a shopping mall and playground for the wealthy … and that’s what you get when lots and lots of people want to live in a desirable place that is unwilling to change to accommodate them.

It is in this way that I think it is absolutely necessary for Fredericksburg to rethink its “small-town character.”  It’s a small town, but it’s a very desirable small town, which means relatively speaking lots and lots of people want to live here, like Greenwich Village.  If we don’t do something to accommodate at least some of those people, the simple operation of supply and demand will make Fredericksburg so expensive that it will become a simulacrum of a small town, a rich person’s playground whose historic loveliness is a privilege of the wealthy only.  I’m thinking, for example, of old town Alexandria, or indeed Greenwich Village.  And I don’t think that represents the social values of “small-town character” that are worth celebrating.  The problem with stopping all development is that you preserve the physical form of the small town while completely destroying its social character, which to me is a hollow victory.  I’d like to see Fredericksburgers celebrate the small-town values of social inclusivity as much as they do the historic architecture.  These two things are necessarily in tension, and we need to do a better job of balancing them.

Like I said, I have thought a lot about this topic, because of my odd position straddling the worlds of historian/critic of capitalism on the one hand, and of husband-of-a-downtown-entrepreneur/beneficiary of capitalism on the other hand.  Perhaps we should get coffee in the new semester to discuss.  Hope you had a nice break, too, and a nice impending return to campus.

Michael Spencer:

Definitely need to do coffee, lots of fun and interesting subjects to discuss. I don’t know how you feel on the subject but I greatly enjoy intellectual discussions regarding these issues…anything that challenges my viewpoint and lets me think another way.

I’ll respond later in more detail to other items but I do want to point out that scale and massing when used appropriately are (should be) quantitative not aesthetically subjective. Also, regarding the bank building, I would and did suggest keeping the drive in area for a kitchen adaptation. As you pointed out in other references and I believe this is a good illustration, re-use as a restaurant will win the battle but ultimately loose the war…what good is it to re-use a structure if it leads to its destruction because of unsympathetic use?

Not sure what your schedule is like but I’m around and happy to get together for coffee to discuss further. Lots of people in F-burg on the preservation side/planning side that you might be interested in meeting as well (if you haven’t already).

Will Mackintosh:

No, I totally agree that scale and massing are quantitative measures.  I’m just saying that judgments about the appropriateness of juxtaposing differing scales and massing are fundamentally subjective and aesthetic.  For example, and I know this is probably a minority opinion, I am a fan of the Executive Plaza building on Caroline and Wolfe (see a blog post about it here) precisely because it gives variety of scale to the streetscape.

Michael Spencer:

I’m with you on the executive plaza…too tall for me but I’m a big mid-century modern fan…check out 900 Sunken Road if you like the stuff, a true diamond in the rough.


And then we had coffee.


  1. Matthew Kelly says:

    “…but the fact is that Fredericksburg has much stronger regulatory power over developers than most jurisdictions.”

    Just want to take issue with this point. First off I would say we do NOT have stronger regulatory powers than most other jurisdiction. I would be interested in how you support this statement. One thing I have come to understand in my dealings with local government is that we are more perception than outcome oriented. Yes we have ordinances, procedures, commissions, and boards in place that are charged with overseeing preservation in the city. Thus the perception you have put forward. Yet if you take a look at outcomes–improper window replacements, exterior repairs that were not reviewed, demolitions–a few examples– there seems to be a lack of will to actually implement the preservation goals the city has in place. Until preservation becomes part of the day to day workings of the city no number of boards, commissions, or ordinances are going to be truly effective.

    An example or two–during some excavation work downtown a 19th century building foundation was uncovered. When I asked what was to be done I was informed there was a staff group in place– Public Works and planning staff–who were responsible for overseeing further work in the area to protect the historic resources. This group never met regarding this particular case nor others that have since occurred. If fact it has never met since inception that I am aware of.

    Improper windows were being installed in a downtown building. The renovations did go through the process which was basically ignored. Before the work really got underway the violation was reported, by a resident, and staff did issue a stop work order. During a follow-up on what happened I found that the improper windows were installed with the addition of a piece molding added. And the funding for these improper renovations were paid for through a city grant from the EDA.

    Yes, on paper, we have a process in place. What you and others need to take a closer look at is how that process does, or in a lot of cases, doesn’t work.

    • Will says:

      The fact that we have any aesthetic regulatory apparatus at all, regardless of how creakily it functions, puts us well ahead of most jurisdictions in the United States.

      • Matthew Kelly says:

        …..”regardless of how creakily it functions,” is the issue. Again, you can have any number of boards, commissions, and regs on the books but if there is no effort to ensure outcomes consistent with our preservation goals what is the point in having them. Just having more regs etc than other jurisdictions does not, “put is ahead of most jurisdictions,” if there are no outcomes. By the way another historic structure on Charles Street is being demolished as we speak………

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