Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kirkwood Historic Preservation Efforts

Some Kirkwood residents are organizing around the issue of historic preservation. Lately, more and more of Kirkwood's historic building stock is being demolished in favor of building expensive new replacement or "infill" homes.

The situation is similar to what the St. Louis region has witnessed transpire recently in Clayton, another historic St. Louis suburb. Just a few years ago, old town Clayton was a highly intact, historic residential area. Visit the old town section today, and you see more and more of the original homes being replaced with large, very high-end, new infill construction.

In response to this same tear-down-and-build-new trend, some in Kirkwood are working to establish local historic preservation codes. These new codes could place strict limitations on the demolition of historic buildings.

The issue is controversial. Not everyone believes such government restrictions are reasonable. On a personal level, we love visiting the historic sections of Kirkwood. However, is it reasonable for government to prevent a private property owner from selling a historic home so that a developer might tear it down to build a larger, more expensive home on the same site?

There are no signs pointing to an end to the controversy. To the contrary, this past weekend, outside Kirkwood's wonderful Greentree Festival, "Save Historic Kirkwood" signs could be seen in the front yards of historic homes all around Kirkwood Park.

One of the most appealing features of the St. Louis region is our historic neighborhoods, with parts of Kirkwood certainly among our best examples.


Michael R. Allen said...

Without legal protection, historic districts erode over time. Kirkwood will never retain its charm without an ordinance regulating demolition.

The property rights argument has validity, but people tend to like the public goods (opposed to property rights) of character, sense of place and beauty. Without laws in favor the public good, the market might obliterate sections of St. Louis beloved by residents and visitors alike.

Anonymous said...

*With* legal protection, historic districts degenerate into museum pieces over time -- at best.

Historic preservation has a property rights argument on both sides. On the one hand, you should be free to do what you want to improve the value of your own property.

On the other hand, part of the value of residential property in Kirkwood results from the fact that it's in Kirkwood. There's no inherent value to the 63122 zip code; the value comes from the charming surroundings.

What you want to preserve is not necessarily the old housing stock (in most of Kirkwood, anyway; a lot of the houses are themselves small by today's standards and unremarkable); what you want to preserve is the charm. If you attempt to preserve Kirkwood in amber, you're going to wind up pushing people who need space out to O'Fallon etc., and you'll lose a lot of the charm as the demographics shift to retirees, childless couples, and other people who don't need the space.

Too many 'historic preservation' ordinances really boil down to 'we don't want rich people moving in and building a nicer house than ours' ordinances. If the goal is really preservation of charm and character, the better approach is a planning ordinance that requires that new construction be 'charming'. Want a giant house? Okay, but it's got to look reasonable from the street. There's a new-ish house at Lockwood and Austin (which is actually Glendale, I think) that's at least twice the size of its neighbors and that might be a bit too tall, but that blends in reasonably well.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the last comments.

The corner of Lockwood and Austin in Glendale provides a fantastic example of the problem in the Kirkwood area. There was a century old Tudor mansion on a large lot. Is was demolished and two houses were built in its place of not nearly the character or significance. The house on the corner does not fit into its surroundings well at all in my opinion. This was definitely not to the benefit of the neighborhood. It ocurred because there was profit to be made in splitting the lot and building two houses at the expence of a local landmark of architectural significance.

This is what needs controlled (not stopped). Housing stock will need to turn over and folks need to have the right to improve their property. But, this can not be allowed to happen at the expense of the immediate neighborhood and the greater commuinity. Balance is necessary and right now the only variable in the equation is profit. Often what is built is not in charcter or scope to what is around it. It doesn't contribute. Reasonable ordinances need to be made to protect the "charm" of Kirkwood. Experience has taught us that it isn't preserved by a completely profit-driven approach. Neighborhoods in Kirkwood are of varying historicity but all citizens deserve to live in a neighborhood with charm and continuity.

Kirkwood is in no way in danger of becoming a retirement community. It is a very desirable place because of its intact historic neighborhoods and the people that inhabit them. These community resources need to be managed more effectively before they are eliminated by the "market" and there is no appreciable difference between Kirkwood and O'Fallon.

A planning and zoning ordinance is in the works for the whole city and local landmarks designations will offer a modest level of control over the destruction of structures significant to Kirkwood's history in historic areas. Done right, this will hopefully restore balance, protect the character of the community but allow it to be a living community.