Homes of black heroes such as Frederick Douglass and Carter G. Woodson, where roofs leak and walls are collapsing, are historic landmarks located in our nation's capital that need protection. A still-operating grocery store and a boarded-up hardware store, however, are less obvious candidates for historic preservation. Yet some think these retail sites are historic landmarks. By doing so, they risk denying city residents basic goods and services which suburban residents take for granted.
In their zeal to preserve everything they deem historic, preservation activists often fail to balance desires with a community's needs. Since many sites designated for preservation are located in or near minority communities, historic preservation decisions raise concerns about environmental justice.
Historic preservationists nearly denied residents in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Cleveland Park the conveniences of a modern supermarket when they tried to convince city officials that a local Giant food store was a historic site. The preservationists argued this Giant store was historic simply because it was the first area grocery store to anchor a shopping center. But the designation jeopardized renovation plans because the store's exterior might be altered.
This particular Giant really needs remodeling. Plans initially called for the store to expand from 12,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet - adding a deli, pharmacy and bakery. Although these renovations would still leave the store with less amenities than many suburban supermarkets, they would at least provide Cleveland Park residents a supermarket with some of the conveniences suburbanites regularly enjoy.
Preservationist demands understandably frustrated Cleveland Park residents who wanted better services from their local Giant. "[The Giant] is not historic... Anyone who looks at this building will see it's not historic," said Shabbir Safdar, an organizer of a rally to oppose the historic-landmark application for the Giant. Giant officials expressed similar feelings of aggravation. Barry Scher, Giant's vice president for marketing, noted that "the building is about as historic as my two-year-old grandson."
Fortunately, the three-year battle to stop Giant's renovation plans was resolved this past spring. Giant was prevented from implementing all of its planned renovations, but local residents will be able to enjoy at least some of the benefits of a 21st century supermarket.
City residents are not always victorious in other "historic" battles. In 2000, a similar controversy involving a site just over a mile away from the Cleveland Park Giant forced Home Depot to abandon plans to open in a space that once housed a bankrupt hardware store. Home Depot could not design a functional store within the confines of the regulations imposed on this designated historic site. Target similarly considered the site and moved on. Best Buy and The Container Store are now eyeing the long-empty property.
The liberal application and enforcement of historic preservation regulations that prevent the modernization of supermarkets and deter redevelopment restricts citydwellers from conveniences and lower prices available to suburban residents.
These regulations limit access to basic conveniences for city residents, many of whom cannot afford to own cars. Public transportation is available, but how many people are likely to use a combination of buses and trains to obtain their groceries, lumber or a new television? Historic preservation rules deny the poor, elderly and people of color who cannot afford cars the same variety of goods and services at competitive prices.
In Washington, these rules add more traffic to the roads of one of the nation's most congested regions. Increased traffic due to urbanites venturing to the suburbs for supplies increases air pollution. A recent report by the American Lung Association rated the Washington-Baltimore area as having the seventh worst ozone pollution in the nation.
To protect truly historic sites is a noble cause. Our history
is important. But sometimes protecting sites of questionable
historic significance denies urbanites basic goods and services.
That isn't noble - it's scandalous.
(Syd Gernstein is a research associate for Project 21. He can
be reached at SGernstein@nationalcenter.org.)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.