A recent Statesman story caught my eye: the heirs to a popular and historic drug store – Nau’s Enfield Drug – also own the longtime family home nearby that they want to sell because of its dilapidated condition and the value of the land it sets on. However, the structure is located in a designated historical district and is 50+ years old, meaning it requires city permission.
As the next generation of owners pursued the required city permits to demolish the building before having to pay significant taxes they can’t afford, the local association board expressed concerned. They claim they want to preserve the character of the neighborhood, and that apparently includes saving historic structures, regardless of what shape they are in.
While most reader comments to the story denounced the neighborhood association, this is not a black and white issue, and it is indicative of a long-standing battle between developers and neighborhoods: the balancing act between preservation and revitalization.
On one side of the argument, deteriorating structures are often unsightly and unsafe. Whatever is put in its place has the potential to increase surrounding home aesthetic and values while reducing the risk of injury. On the other, architecture is as much art as it is function, and neighborhoods have the right to hold on to their heritage, including the structures that make it a neighborhood, and to preserve the character that attracted them to that part of town in the first place.
In many cases, this issue comes down to a matter of fear: fear of change or of the unknown. What would be put in its place? How much will my property taxes go up as a result? What will something new look like and will it “fit” with the established character of the area? Who will be my new neighbors? These are all valid concerns, even if the property owner isn’t responsible for addressing all of them.
The property owner(s) wanting to make the change, however, should be mindful they are creating change and would have a greater shot getting what they want if they work to quell the fears with some classic communication techniques:
- Anticipate questions the neighborhood might have. See the initial list above, add to them and develop appropriate responses, even if some of the responses may not be what they want to hear – at least you’ll reduce the fear of the unknown.
- Talk to the neighbors. Explain the situation, ideally on an individual basis, to help those most affected become neutral on the issue or even become supporters.
- Study the neighborhood’s character. If you’re the property owner redeveloping the site, try incorporating the appropriate character into the new structure. While design should never be created by committee, examine adjacent architecture and add elements of it into the design, when possible.
- Remember you’re a stakeholder, too. It’s easy to focus solely on the needs of the most vocal or most critical stakeholders, but you need to make your position clear and explain what you are willing and not willing to do.
- Document your outreach. If your neighbors are combative or unwilling to compromise, be sure to note all of your attempts at outreach and compromise to show a regulatory body, should it come to it.