Notice in the title that I purposefully chose the conjunction “and” rather than versus or at the expense of — although that tends to be people’s first reactions to the phrases historic preservation and progress. The reality is historic preservation and progress are not mutually exclusive. Sure, they rub up against each other but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — it forces us to think a little more which is usually a good thing. The issue of historic preservation and progress has been coming up more and more around town as we are getting closer to having redevelopment happen in parts of downtown. With that in mind I thought it might be good to look at how other cities have resolved these issues. I’ve attached an article of the experience of one of my favorite examples of how to blend historic preservation and progress — Charleston, South Carolina.
One thing to keep in mind, the Mayor of Charleston does the speaking circuit now, and he always warns to not be fooled into thinking that Charleston’s success came easy. Quite the contrary. He says the City had to fight for every inch and sometimes that’s all they could get from uncooperative property owners or businesses that didn’t share the City’s vision. But he points out that persistence and patience were the key, and they turned Charleston into what it is today one building at a time.
Charleston, S.C., fuses city policy with preservation strategy
Ruth Todd, AIA, AICP, LEED AP
Historic preservation is not an exact science. There is no formula, no “right answer,” no panacea. But increasingly, American cities recognize the multiple values derived from stewardship of their historic neighborhoods and buildings. Cities can use surveys and documentation to identify and assess their historic resources, and the most enlightened among them assemble preservation plans. To succeed, these plans must fuse city policy with preservation strategy while recognizing and responding to development pressures.
Importantly, a preservation plan helps to maintain the singular character, diversity, and vitality of a community, as well as its historic fabric. Each effort comes with its own set of issues and challenges.
Charleston, S.C., founded in 1670, exemplifies this promising trend toward stewardship; its built environment records a journey from colonial village to modern metropolis. City officials and residents have long respected and fought to preserve Charleston’s architectural legacy, beginning in 1931 with a preservation zoning ordinance and continuing in 1974 with the creation of a comprehensive preservation plan—the first of its kind in the nation.
That plan is now being updated. While all plans have a shelf life, our intent is to deliver a document that has the capacity to evolve with the city over the next three decades. The new document will detail techniques and methods to preserve Charleston as a dynamic city that honors valuable traditions, enhances quality of life, and supports economic development. That may sound unlikely for a preservation plan, but we approached this exercise in a holistic way. We believe that Charleston and its revised plan can serve as a model for others.
The 1974 Charleston Historic Preservation Plan is a powerful document, and the city has substantial expertise and preservation infrastructure in place. But in the face of growth, change, and progress—and new pressures that were unknown more than a generation ago—the city sought to reevaluate its priorities and update the plan.
To develop a unified new plan that creatively answers Charleston’s needs, Page & Turnbull—an architecture, preservation, and urban design firm headquartered in San Francisco—sought ideas and solutions across the fields of urban planning, urban design, sustainability, and historic preservation practice and theory. Because stakeholders view preservation through different lenses, this process relied on broad input—from the public; city and county government; non-profit organizations, including the Historic Charleston Foundation and Preservation Society of Charleston; neighborhood associations; academics; and even visitors.
A series of focus groups and community workshops hosted with the client team helped us gather further public comment, concerns, and opinions. We also brought new technologies to the task, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and analysis. Through this exhaustive research and review in Charleston, coupled with analyzing ways that other cities have dealt with preservation issues, we identified the challenges facing Charleston and are formulating practical solutions. The plan update will be complete this month.
One of the biggest changes in Charleston since the 1974 plan went into effect is the attitude toward the city’s abundance of early to mid-20th century architecture. The current preservation process does not sufficiently address the significance of this architecture, located as infill development in antebellum neighborhoods or as small suburban subdivisions. These assets were not typically included in previous surveys, but they now are seen as important development trends. They contribute interesting design features and vital historic context of their own, and they deserve to be protected as such.
Determining how to approach more recent historic resources is not unique to Charleston. Across the country, we see cities struggle with this question as their mid-century and post-war resources turn 50 years old and trigger the process of review for historic significance.
Peninsular Charleston has experienced rapid growth in recent years. The city has also annexed a large amount of territory, which takes in residential as well as commercial properties of varying periods and architectural styles. The plan update must effectively address contemporary preservation issues in an evolving urban context, giving attention not only to the famous Old and Historic District but also to the rural and suburban Off-Peninsula areas.
Finally, Charleston wrestles with a changed economy. Increasing economic reliance on the tourist industry, as well as issues of gentrification, can complicate preservation endeavors.
As in other cities, these three key changes—building stock becoming newly historic, urban growth, changing economies—raise thorny issues. They run the gamut from affordable housing, new construction, and sustainability to design review, tax and other incentives, and private property rights. All are inexorably linked to preservation.
Preservation therefore must be integrated with the broader planning goals of the city. The Charleston Historic Preservation Plan Update is designed for use in conjunction with the city’s Downtown Plan (1999) and the Century V City Plan (2000).
In continuing its groundbreaking integration of preservation and planning in recent years, Charleston has implemented new zoning and height restrictions in historic areas, begun to evaluate historic resources in Off-Peninsula areas, and re-thought the Board of Architectural Review process to better protect historic resources. The city continues to explore policies that keep it at the forefront of the preservation field.
As of press time, four recommendations are already in place to further strengthen the city’s efforts:
1) Establish tools and processes that fuse preservation and planning decisions.
2) Dedicate resources to surveying the built environment to support the establishment of preservation and planning priorities.
3) Build flexibility into preservation policies and practices so they can be adapted to the ebb and flow of the city’s life.
4) Deepen the commitment to stewardship by raising public awareness of the contribution made by historic preservation to economic development, as well as quality of life.
The Historic Preservation Plan Update is an essential tool in the city’s efforts to preserve its considerable heritage while making room for growth and adaptation. The achievement of this planning process continues Charleston’s long tradition as a leader and an innovator in the field of historic preservation.