Friday, October 22, 2010

Why OTR needs a Facade Retention Ordinance and higher expectations

In Indianapolis, Historic facades were retained as part of the Circle Center Mall development
The time has come for OTR to have a Historic facade retention ordinance as part of new construction developments Unless you are in complete denial, OTR has 'turned the corner', it is on its way back and its becoming popular. In my mind its time to "expect more" in terms of restoration and redevelopment.

The reason I say this is that we have to be looking more than a few years out now. We must stop thinking short term. Over the last few years I think we have 'looked the other way' thinking that ANY development was better than no development at all.. The time has clearly come to raise our standard and expectations of what type of development is appropriate in OTR. If we don't, OTR will become "teardown suburbia-in-a-city", and we need to get ahead of the game now, so we are not fighting constant battles in the future.

European cities have long dealt with the issue of Facade retention. With cities with 4-500 year old buildings it's inevitable that buildings literally want to fall down. The value of the land in terms of redevelopment is great and the need to new uses is there as well. Historic European cities have long maintained the preservation of historic structure but when a structure must come down as part of new development , the historic facade must generally be maintained as part of redevelopment.

This may sound like an strange idea but it has been used here in the United States as well. Indianapolis for example, as part of the multi block Circle Center Mall development Preservationists fought for the retention of Historic building facades as part of that redevelopment. Some facades were literally dismantled, numbered and reinstalled or carefully left in place held up by steel structure and the new construction built behind them.  And yes, I was one of those "crazy preservationists" saying we had to save these facades. It wasn't an easy battle and there was a lot of pushback, but when you look today at Circle Center Mall is is "integrated" well into the street scape and many historic buildings were utilized and kept as part of that development. The feel and massing  of a urban historic streetscape was largely maintained and the new structures at street level compliment the Historic ones.

Even the little cities do this. The city of St Joseph Mo. saved a historic 4 story cast iron building facade and a new building was built behind it, preserving a block long facade of continuous similar architecture

Again, I believe that demolition should be an absolute last resort. we certainly have plenty of vacant lots in OTR where buildings could be moved to. I also understand thats not always possible due to severe structural deterioration. But I firmly believe going forward Demolition is an absolute last resort!

And that brings us to the proposed Mercer Commons project proposed by 3CDC. Now before everyone jumps on me for daring to question anything 3CDC does, credit where credit is due, I appreciate the 200 million dollar investment in OTR by 3CDC,  HOWEVER, I do not think they should get a 'free pass' with this particular project. I think we should expect more.

Fine in suburbia, but not in a historic OTR
Architecturally I am not impressed. I ask myself two things; how would we look at this in 50 years and if this proposed development were being plopped down in Charleston SC, Savannah, or New Orleans what would the reaction be? Frankly, they need to back to the drawing board.

Architecturally this part of the proposed development is a train wreck. It looks like a tacky 70's era motel dropped in a historic streetscape. It might work well in suburbia but it doesn't belong in OTR. The scale is wrong. There is no contextual blend with other buildings on the street. We need something with a more "timeless feel". This building would be quickly outdated. As someone who gets calls on a routine basis from people in cities like Indy which is "overbuilt' with HGTV condos you can't give away and being asked to install  architectural detail in these spaces, Crown molding walls etc. This building is a modern day  granite countertop,  and  people have moved on to quartz and its passe in other cities. As OTR continues its turnaround , the historic structures will become more valued and desired. Rather than in 20 years figuring out how we "fix this" with a new more appropriate facade, 3CDC needs to give OTR more credit for its history and build something that compliments it rather than some HGTV inspired whiz bang, 20 somethings-will-buy-it structure that no one will want down the road as OTR becomes more affluent and stable and expectations are much higher. Don't get me wrong I like contemporary architecture as long as its good contemporary architecture. This look like suburban run of the mill design student work. 3CDC, you can do Better! Most importantly we do not need to tear down any historic buildings as part of this development

If we look at the "big picture" of OTR ten years from now, when hopefully it is  major source of heritage tourism and people come here from all over the country, does this project 'contribute' to a historic OTR To my eye it doesn't. More importantly this project uses an inordinate amount of space for parking. We have to think more of underground as most cities are now. There is no reason why we can't build something that 'looks more historic, preserves existing buildings or at least their facades and doesn't sell the historic potential of OTR short

This is what new construction in a historic OTR
Frankly we need to expect better at this stage of development. Development for developments sake may not be the best course in the long run.


latin hottie said...

Agree with you 100%. Id hate to see this turn into anything like the Gateway Condos building on Vine and Central. An embarrassing and dated blemish on an otherwise amazingly revitalized neighborhood.

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

I agree that the look of the Mercer Commons building, at least the glassy part, is inappropriate and just plain ugly. I don't really have a problem with the scale though. While it's a big project, it's broken up into so many little components, all articulated in different ways that incorporate existing buildings. Even the scale of the glass box doesn't bother me. OTR isn't just row houses, there's plenty of larger apartment buildings, churches, and factories scattered around. Still, like much modern architecture it puts way too much emphasis on horizontality, which is not right for an urban neighborhood.

That said, the examples of new construction at the bottom of the post is just as bad if not worse. It's the sort of derivative schlock that can't hide its unskilled cartoonish caricature of real architecture. It's pretty obviously just one building since all the windows line up, and it also shows the heavy hand of a designer who has no sense of proportion or scale. The blue and gray bays in the middle look OK, but the windows are way too small on the yellow and red parts on both sides, the cornices are all wrong, and it's just looks so obviously fake that it loses all credibility.

There's lots of great large buildings that fit just fine in an OTR-like neighborhood without pretending to be four separate row houses. The building at the northeast corner of 12th and Race for instance is a great example, and the old Klinkhammer apartments at 13th and Race is good too, albeit somewhat the worse for wear. There's many more examples a little farther into downtown too.

There's a handful of ways new buildings in historic neighborhoods can manifest themselves, and most of them are bad. There's the completely non-contextual stuff like we see from the hands of Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman. There's the derivative Disney-esque cartoon that's improperly implemented. There's the stripped down classicism that with modern building techniques is so bland and uninteresting nobody even bothers to notice it. There's authentic design and construction that's deemed "too expensive" to even bother with. Then there's the modern buildings that don't pretend to be something contrary to what they are, but are sympathetic in overall massing and material so they just work without being overly trendy or cartoonishly derivative.

That last one is what we should be aiming for. Trinity Flats and 14th/Vine are at least decent examples of this, while the Gateway Condos are a complete failure at it. Projects like City Home are a perfect example of the blandness of the stripped down motif. There's zero design to those buildings, so nobody will bother to care for them. City West is a caricature, though it's done with a little bit better skill than the photo above. Of course there's gradations between all these, but still.

The value of the building stock in OTR is it's "realness". It is what is is because of its history and the design and construction techniques of its time. We should strive to be sympathetic to that, and to fit new buildings in properly, but they shouldn't be shoehorned into being something they're not. Saving a facade is a good way to bridge between the old and new, but that opens up new problems. What if the window openings don't work for the new design, or the programming itself is incompatible? Circle Center Mall is a preservation success, but it's still an urban failure. The doors don't work, the windows are painted over, and because of that there's little pedestrian traffic along that side of Meridian Street. It might just as well be a block of abandoned buildings for all the effort that was put into it. Yes it's better than a blank wall, but it's not the kind of thing we'd want to see happen in OTR or anywhere else if we can avoid it.

St Charles said...

Paul you are absolutely correct about this one. Mercer Commons is an absolute dog and will be a drag on the neighborhood almost immediately. The architect who designed this one needs to be demoted to mail room and forget about architecture.

Not one more historic structure should fall to the ground in the marvelous historic Cincinnati especially the OTR. 3cdc needs to do better.

Paul Wilham said...

I dont think the introduction of "modern' architecture helps OTR from a Heritage tourism standpoint.

My other concern is that if we keep building "HGTV style" lofts we will eventually run out of 20 somethings to buy them.

Look at Indianpolis , it has a four year supply of condos on the market right now. We need to start thinking 'next tier' properties.

Personally some nice upscale single family townhomes there priced between 300-500 K would probably sell. If you look at Dayton street for inspiration for example.

There are several high end restorations over there now, but not everyone is "restoration type" owners. Some high style upscale formal townhomes would likely sell well, particulary if it had a central gated greenspace private courtyard.

St Charles said...

Paul is right. OTR does not need anymore lofts. Hey all you Over the Rhine lovers. It is time to stop the demolition of the historic structures in the neighborhood. Please join our facebook group and lets keep OTR Authentic!/home.php?sk=group_123573741034597