There’s a lot of drama surrounding City Place, a proposed apartment complex on South Fifth Avenue, and it’s all much ado about history. Residents had been trying to halt the complex’s approval by forming a historic district in the neighborhood. Now that the developer is working to preserve the history of the homes with a new design, the focus of the objections has shifted to preserving a tree — notably the tree on the Ann Arbor city seal. The old bur seems to have found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As City Place developer Alex de Parry told AnnArbor.com on Oct. 12, “I hate to say a tree is driving a lot of this, but this tree is driving a lot of it.” Well, sir, I hate to hear it, too.
But then again, I’ve really disagreed with the residents’ objections the whole time. I’m an appreciator of the arts (I’m a senior arts editor, after all), and I fully acknowledge that architecture is considered one of the original fine arts, but I simply do not support the idea of historic districts — here or anywhere else. To halt Ann Arbor development because we want to keep some old houses around is absolutely ridiculous. Population density needs to be a key focus of the city right now, and no amount of rustic porches is going to solve any problems.
Low-income housing is needed now more than ever, and we ought to be building as many complexes as possible to support low-income families in Ann Arbor. To argue that the need to preserve historic architecture supersedes the need to provide shelter is preposterous. There is no building so beautiful or old that its value is greater than that of preserving people’s well-being.
But there’s a simple supply and demand counterargument to be made here, too. You don’t need to be an econ major to know that people wouldn’t want to build something that wouldn’t be profitable, that a service is only profitable if people buy it and, finally, that people usually don’t buy things they don’t want. Logically deduced from these simple points, we can gather that buildings are built to meet some form of popular demand. And while there may be some demand to have old buildings sitting around to remind us what cities looked like back when smallpox was still a big deal, this seems like a paralyzing outlook when it comes to modern expansion. There are plenty of reasons not to want a Wal-Mart in the middle of your small town, but the fact that old Jeremiah Jenkins once used to rock in that old rocking chair in your attic shouldn’t be one of them.
But there is one argument in favor of historic districts I have failed to address — the artistic argument. It’s a prevalent but unfortunate trend that all the old buildings are pretty and all the new ones look like parking lots. We have museums and other forms of preservation for most every other kind of art, but a museum full of old buildings is hardly practical. The point here is that the only remaining viable defense for preserving these old homes would be to consider the phrase “historic district” as code for “outdoor museum full of old, pretty buildings.” As I said, I’m all about the arts, but no amount of artistic value is worth taking up so much prime real estate for a giant museum that most non-residents don’t even see. Call me a dystopian, sightless fool for pointing this out — I’d be flattered if you did, actually — but there’s no practical need to preserve every bit of art in this world, no matter how big or old it may be. If I had my way, we’d tear down all the old historic forts and monuments to put up homeless shelters.
Historic districts, especially in a time of economic recession with a need for low-income housing, serve no pragmatic purpose. If you want to value aesthetics over advancement, be my guest. But now is not the time to get bogged down in buildings of bygone times.