Historic preservation needs help

Lord, save us from the excesses of our friends.

Admirers of the modernist pioneer Mies van der Rohe have to contend with the parodic mediocrities left by his untalented wannabes: cold, faceless slabs of glass and steel that deaden downtowns. The Mies knockoffs have given modernism a bad name - a sorry fate for a movement whose best examples exude simplicity, transparency and geometric rigor.

Along comes New Urbanism, born not only out of distaste for icy, iconic buildings that shun interaction with the street but also out of a yearning for the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of pre-World War II America. This good cause, too, is ill-served by its more dogmatic advocates, resulting in thin, kitschy imitations of traditional architecture.

Now it is historic preservation's turn to shoot itself in the foot. Or so it would seem from the battle over a redevelopment project on the east side, a block from where I live. While it's always uncomfortable to write about things so close to home, I'm doing so here because the issues touch on the future of historic preservation in Milwaukee, a cause vital to our quality of life and sense of place.

The project from New Land Enterprises and Van Buren Management involves construction of an 11-story hotel / condo on N. Stowell Ave. and, on N. Downer Ave., new streetscaping, the long-overdue renovation of deteriorating commercial buildings and the replacement of a city-owned parking lot with a garage and retail building. The $55 million effort has the Common Council's blessing and is moving ahead, although design of the garage building is still being tweaked in response to neighborhood concerns.

Some of the criticism has been well-intentioned and constructive.

"The more intense the reaction to a building project, the better the architecture that results," says Bob Greenstreet, the city planning director. "Public participation, however tiring, can make a difference."

The darker side of preservation zeal, however, is resistance to all change - a not-in-my-backyard absolutism that borders on hysteria. To hear the jeremiads from some opponents of the Downer project, you would think a toxic waste dump or Soviet gulag was coming.

And while it's understandable that immediate neighbors of the proposed garage wouldn't be thrilled with it, the push to preserve the city parking lot as "open space" struck me as downright absurd. It is open and it is space, but it's a patch of asphalt, for crying out loud! And more greenery is in the works.

Worse, some opponents used the banner of preservation to engage in character assassination and threats of retaliation against supporters. This is despicable. They also attacked public officials who were their natural allies. This is just stupid.

If historic preservation is to thrive, its advocates will have to distance themselves from those who are eager to use it as a vehicle for private agendas. And activists must learn to welcome well-balanced development that can renew old neighborhoods. With its mix of restoration, new construction and amenities, I'd put the Downer project in that category.

As Ald. Mike D'Amato, who represents the east side, puts it: "As long as preservationists are perceived as anti-development, they lose all clout with the Common Council." The council has always had what D'Amato calls "a tenuous relationship" with the preservation community, as evidenced by the council's willingness to overrule the Historic Preservation Commission.

Ald. Bob Bauman, who serves on the commission, has some other good advice: "Be reasonable. Pick your fights. If you have knee-jerk opposition to everything, people will tend to tune you out. Learn the art of advocacy. Don't antagonize decision-makers, or you end up losing even when your arguments have merit."

Meanwhile, the preservation commission would do well to rethink its cookie-cutter guidelines for new construction in historic districts. Now, the rules are so prescriptive that they make it difficult to accommodate good modern design. As the British-born Greenstreet notes, England has shown how contemporary architecture can co-exist happily with centuries-old buildings. Milwaukee, too, needs to loosen up and embrace the future.

After all, neighborhoods aren't frozen in time. The healthy ones reinvent themselves periodically to meet changing conditions. The trick for preservationists is save as much historic fabric as possible, as a reminder of where we came from, while inviting well-designed buildings of our own time. That lively dialogue between old and new is what makes city life so bracing.

E-mail to wgould@journalsentinel.com or call (414) 224-2358.

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