Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Safeguarding Community Sense-of-Place

Last week, a headline appeared in Durham, North Carolina’s The Herald Sun using a quote attributed to long-time Mayor Bill Bell.  It noted that the Mayor said the skyline of the community shouldn’t be the concern of the Historic Preservation Commission.

In the article Mayor Bell is quoted as saying that this element of the community’s sense of place should be reserved for elected officials rather than the commissions they appoint to review developments.  Some members of the City Council have been under pressure from a private group it funds in part to lobby local government on behalf of downtown development.

I can understand these points of view but both the City and the downtown advocacy group obviously didn’t value the skyline enough back in 1997 when the City sold a strip of land along the left field wall of the then-new city-owned Durham Bulls Athletic Park to the team’s Raleigh owner.

Until now, the dramatic view of the Durham skyline over that wall has served as a reminder to the 60%-70% who are non-residents at the games that they are enjoying themselves in Downtown Durham.  That is now all but disappearing behind a new office building that fills nearly all of the remaining gap shown in the image in this blog.Durham Bulls APark 2

Having won a hard-fought battle to keep the Bulls in Durham which included an agreement to erect the award-winning ballpark, apparently no one in City government at the time - administrative, appointed or elected - nor the downtown group lobbying on behalf of the developer nor even “yours truly” appeared to think to protect the inspiring view-shed.

Elements of sense-of-place are fragile and to adapt an African proverb, they take the vigilance of an entire village to safeguard.

Similarly, when it was transferred to private owners no guarantees were embedded in property that runs in front of the Durham Performing Arts Center, another source of pride.  Only the Great Recession has delayed a development that will make the beautiful, huge-glass-walled view of downtown from the theater lobby mute.

As Marcia McNally, a downtown Durham resident, professor emeritus in landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC-Berkley and urban ecology pioneer cautioned in an op-ed for the Durham paper this past weekend about the proposed 26-story tower that spurred the Mayor’s comment:

  • “It must look like Durham and respond to our history, climate, and public spirit.”


  • “Durham is an integral part of the Research Triangle [home to RTP, located four miles from Downtown] where significant advances on energy efficiency are being made.

Duke University is a leader in climate change research. Durham must demand progressive, top quality engineering for a project this size.”


  • “…word on the street is that the community needs to bury criticism – that we somehow can’t afford to offend the developers because this project is important for Durham.

Well of course it is. But I want to know what will be done to ensure the above and other issues the public has are heard and met?”

The appeal of Downtown Durham is its historic appearance and its scalability to pedestrians, rare in mid-sized communities these days.  Exceptions finagled over the years are readily apparent.  I know and trust the sensibilities of current elected officials but even they have proven vulnerable to the push and shove of back-room lobbyists.

Those impatient with design review are well advised to read the Urban Land Institute’s Ed McMahon whose most recent essay appears in the April issue of Birmingham magazine under the headline Design Matters.

For the reasons Ed notes, I too favor a system of checks and balances that helps remind generations to come about sense-of-place which includes scale. I also agree with the Mayor that the reviews need to be timely but it should be no surprise to developers that in a community with an incredibly high sense of community pride and passion, people will take interest and expect to be involved.

It is far too common, as illustrated in this video about a special tree in Fort Lauderdale, that community values about place are forgotten when money is involved.

Unfortunately distinctive sense of place in communities is under a full attack in the North Carolina General Assembly, as evidenced by new bills such the one at this link introduced by Senator Harry Brown.

Accountable only to the citizens of Onslow County, he is also the architect of the give-away a few years ago to out-of-state billboard companies, including an over-ride of local tree ordinances along state highways and the wanton sacrifice of one of the state’s signature assets.

This new and equally bad bill now seeks to strip local governments of all authority to regulate any activity where there are state regulations on that activity, e.g. billboards, landfills and homebuilding etc.

Apparently, the Republican-controlled legislature, while adamantly defiant of federal laws now ironically wants to superimpose its will on local governments.  This subverts the community sense of place so crucial to economic development and what makes North Carolina worthy of love from so many North Carolinians and tourists.

Rather than trying to intimidate the Historic Preservation Commission, Durham officials and advocates need to celebrate that reviews such as this are in the community’s best interest.

They also need to do everything possible to make sure Governor McCrory, a long-time former Charlotte mayor, is prepared to veto bills such as Brown’s and protect the right of communities to set higher standards.

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