Saturday, March 7, 2009

hysteric districts

Y'all thought I was dead, didn'cha? Guess again.

I've been enjoying the discussion about historic districts. I tend to be with Ed: Prices need to be kept within limits that encourage compliance. If we encourage violation of rules with ridiculous fees, the city will just end up spending even more money placing liens on property and crap like that. And everyone loses.

But the debate between John, Gilman, and others -- and probably the essential issue surrounding the creation of historic districts -- strikes me as far more philosophical than the discussion lets on.

Namely, I think the disgreement is really over the relevant verb. Is one group's aesthetic sensibilities being pushed over everybody else's (possibly under false pretenses), or is history being preserved for future generations? The chain-link-fence discussion really brings that out, since many people think it's ugly but it has historical value under some circumstances.

I've been wrestling with this issue ever since I read a quotation from the late Nell Soto a while back, asking why she should care about Lincoln Park when her ancestors were never allowed to live there. This fact too is part of the history, and to my mind also important to preserve.

So my position is this: We need to preserve architectural history even when it's butt-ugly. By preserving it, we not only give ordinary citizens the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of past construction practices, but we also preserve the evidence of those practices for future study. If we are headed for a whomping big energy crisis -- to say nothing of a whomping big earthquake -- we may have a lot to learn from old structures for coping with forces beyond our control. Including construction practices that we may currently consider unimportant.

At the same time, we need to preserve the human and social history associated with neighborhoods (not the historical status quo, mind you, but the knowledge that it once was the status quo). History is an important way of remaining alert to the ways that social groups (whether linguistic, ethnic, religious, economic, or what have you) piss on each other (among other dealings). There are other ways to remind ourselves of this (and, one hopes, guard against it), but they tend to be more contentious than thinking about what's past and done. Just look at this discussion, which is proof that some residents of historic districts feel pissed-upon.

17 comments:

John Clifford said...

Meg,

Good to see you poking your head into your own blog. As always, thanks for giving us a forum.

I mostly agree with everything you said. I think I've made it clear that I think that the fees are way to high. How they managed to sneak a fee increase from $35 to $500 is something I kick myself for as I try to keep up on these issues. Just shows that even those who watch can miss things, we all need to be vigilant. Thanks to Ed, the fence issue is now out there in our faces (not thanks to me, again).

I agree that chain link has some historic relevance. It was a cheap alternative for poorer neighborhoods, and did proliferate beyond construction sites, particularly during the 1950s. So you can make an argument that it has a place in those neighborhoods, if it is properly maintained. Just as we don't want to see aluminum windows on Craftsman bungalows, they are totally appropriate, and essential to mid-century moderns.

As far as the human and social history associated with the neighborhoods, I (and Pomona Heritage) fully support the efforts of the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley and their work, in association with the special collections section of the Pomona Library, to preserve just such history.

The historical society and library have a program for oral histories. All of us have stories about our lives in Pomona that will help future generations understand us. Even if we've only been here a short time, we still have stories that are relevant. We should all make an appointment to have those stories recorded.

I'm as bad as anyone else. My 20+ years here have not been recorded (unless you count my comments here and elsewhere) so I also need to get to the Ebell or the Library and add my voice for posterity. Meg, that means you and K too.

calwatch said...

At some point, though, you're going to have to make a decision. Some of our early Wal Marts and K-Marts are going to hit that 50 year mark. Is the Cardenas (nee Alpa, nee Hughes) a historic resource? I think not. There's room to be selective with historical designations, to ensure that those structures with integrity hang around while the mundane and pedestrian can be replaced with something better.

John Clifford said...

Agreed Cal. That's why the ordinance has criteria. Is it over 50 years old? Is it a unique architectural form? Does it have a connection to persons or events of historic significance? etc.

If we were to end up with the last Walmart in California, or Cardenez became the site of some important historic event, then they should be saved. It's the history we want to preserve.

Our districts are contiguous homes that reflect a distinctive era of our history. As such, they reflect our history. To allow them to change, changes their significance to our history. Talking about something that's "only" 50 years old, we'd love to see Westmont, a contiguous surviving example of midcentury modern architectural housing by famous architects, built for an industry that had important significance to the city, preserved as a district. It's not all that old, but it has (the operative word) significance.

Anduhrew said...

i'm glad i don't live in the historic district! When I thought it was for all of pomona I was scared!

Anonymous said...

I have a question...

Assuming the formation of Historic Districts does create a situation whereby history is being preserved for future generations, why do the property owners in these areas have to assume the entire burden and cost of such preservation? If, in fact, this preservation benefits the entire society why do so few have to burden the responsibility to maintain this public benefit?
Just a question....

Gilman said...

Oops...sorry the previous post/question is mine. I am still getting the hang of posting here.

While I am asking questions...who should determine if an area is "Historic"?

meg said...

Gilman (I think) posed the question, "If, in fact, this preservation benefits the entire society why do so few have to burden the responsibility to maintain this public benefit?"

That's an *excellent* question, sir. I'd prefer to live in the sort of place where the treasures of civilization are protected by civilization rather than individuals, but frankly I don't know of any such places.

The burden of preserving social values -- whether moral, artistic, historic, or what have you -- always seems to fall on individuals. Laws get made, but real people bear the brunt.

Sigh. I think I need a drink now.

John Clifford said...

Why do individuals have to bear the brunt of preserving history?

How much "brunt" are we talking about here? To maintain their property in a manner that preserves the history is just taking care of the history. While there is a lot of discussion of extra cost to live in a historic district, it's actually not all that much more than living anywhere else in the city.

The problem comes because we are a disposable society and people would rather replace than fix/maintain. Maintenance of old home materials (such as windows) which have survived for decades or over a century is much less expensive than the replacement option that people seem to want to pursue. Wood sash windows are easily repaired. Rarely is replacement necessary. But we've been sold a bill of goods that old is bad and only new can suffice (remember 1984's mantra, "Ending is Better Than Mending"?).

Also, a wonderful mechanism has been set up where homeowners don't have to bear the brunt. The Mills Act is a means whereby you can use the taxes you would pay to restore and maintain your property.

Of course there are strings because the "community" (ready city) wants to make sure that the tax money they're giving up goes toward what is expected. So you can sign a contract with the city that gives a list of the work that you will do over the next 10 years and the city gives you a tax reduction in that amount. You can't back out of the contract and the city expects that you will do the work.

This has been characterized by some as onerous, but it's really pretty cut and dried. The main problem with this is the calculations they use to determine how much taxes you'll not have to pay to use as funds for your restoration/maintenance. Because it's based on taxes, and we have prop 13 which limits taxes, if you bought your home a long time ago and have low taxes, there might not be enough savings to make it worth your while. If you bought recently, it can mean a huge tax savings which you can plow back into your home.

So the community does at least offer to take on some of the burden. But in reality, anyone who owns property has the obligation to take care of that property, which is often times lacking everywhere in the city. Thus people need to come up with fencing ordinances and such.

John Clifford said...

Now I think I'll join Meg in that drink. Oh darn, it's only 6:00 am (but my body says it's 5:00 am). Just a tad early. Sigh . . .

meg said...

The Mills Act is indeed a grand thing. We would hop on that action, except that the state determines how much work you put in on the house, and we're not up for that much work yet. Not complainin', just sayin'.

The brunt that's more relevant here, I think, is the $500 COA. I realize that city staff put in more than $500 worth of work on any major COA application, but I still don't think it's a good idea to charge so much.

High fees like that clearly work *against* the preservation of historic neighborhoods. If I were more paranoid, I'd wonder whether it wasn't a strategic way of undermining the historic districts.

And that's where the community should shoulder some of the cost. I'm all in favor of *some* fees, but it's ridiculous to expect the planning office to support itself on fees.

Anonymous said...

I do not replace windows in my home unless I have to. IF I can I fix them I do, however it is not "easy". Repairing windows can be a very time consuming and/or, expensive project. I am not suggesting replacing widows, just trying to be realistic.

The Mills act as it reads in Pomona? No way am I going to subject myself to such a thing. I would sooner visit the Dentist.

meg said...

Anon. the Latest: It's my understanding that the city doesn't set the terms of the Mills Act; the state does.

Still a pain, but let's let poor Pomona off the hook for this one. Unless I'm wrong, of course.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I participated in a Claremont Mills act home. BIG difference.

John Clifford said...

Actually, Meg, the city does set the Mills Act standards within state guidelines. Pomona used to have a very draconian Mills Act requiring you to spend the money to do all of the work in 5 years, while the tax relief was 10 years. That has all been redone and the new version is MUCH better. It is extended each year and after you've spent the original amount on restoration, you can continue to get the tax relief for maintenance. Under the old rule there was no provision for regular maintenance.

Please check it out with the city planning department. There is a cost involved to process the paperwork, but the benefits can be worth it. Especially for those with a high tax rate. For me, I bought 13 years ago at the bottom of the market and my taxes are fixed at a low rate and I can't benefit, but most homeowners in the districts can.

gilman said...

Mr. Clifford,

I understand you are a true believer and you really believe there is no additional burden for homeowners located in the Historic Districts. However, the evidence simply suggests otherwise.

As for your example of windows...well sometimes old is just old, not historic. Sometimes, repair isn't the best or cheapest option for homeowners...but they don't get to make that decision for themselves and have to pay to have the city/historic commission make the decision for them? Seems like a burden to me.

As for the Mills Act, do you by chance know how many homeowner's located in the Historic Districts have actually been approved by the City for a Mills contract?

John Clifford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Clifford said...

Because the previous version was so awful, we only had about 3-4 up until last year. I believe that one was approved prior to the end of last year, which was pretty quick considering that the new act version didn't go into effect until June 08 and it takes some time to go through the process. Since the contracts begin the first of the year, I expect that we will see new applications begin to come up in about August.

I do know that there were a number of people who had begun the process (about 14 the last I heard) but am not aware of where they are in the process. Our act is now much closer to that of Monrovia which has 23 active contracts. And they have fewer homes that qualify than we do in Pomona.