Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Zoning Rant

Read the article at the following link and then return to read my post:

In Santa Fe, an Architectural Battle Goes Casa a Casa

Having been to Sante Fe several times, I recall and can understand the desire to promote more adobe buildings that match the surrounding buildings. There is no question that more abode buildings will further the illusion that an invented historical community projects. It's interesting that just last night I read an article about a guy, Gilles Trehin, who has spent the last twenty years or more documenting (i.e. drawing and writing about) an imaginary city in France. People seem to be heavily preoccupied with living in the past or in some state other than reality. (“Man cannot bear too much reality. – T. S. Elliot)

The entire case for historic districts ignites the question: Why? I can support the idea that certain (few) buildings should be designated as historically important and therefore should be preserved, but I have trouble with wholesale designations that usually include a percentage (or majority) of mediocre buildings that have no historical significance whatsoever. What, exactly does a community require of a property owner when he or she wishes to remodel or replace a poor example within a historic district? How can rules be efficiently and fairly applied, in the absence of any defined rules? Don't tell me that some committee (possibly the very people responsible for bad architecture) or a committee of neighbors (perhaps including color-blind or even entirely blind ones) will do this extemporaneously. This is simply not an acceptable approach.

Certainly, I too respond positively to the visual and psychological atmosphere that such areas capture and strive to maintain. But, I believe that owners of residential property, short of being strangled by a deed restriction, should have the right to choose what their home looks like. Am I willing to take a risk that my neighbor will make poor choices? Absolutely yes! You should see some of the horrible buildings in my neighborhood. And you know what? Life goes on.

I think that zoning could/should include a category called "Tourist District," or “Disney District,” or something like that, which would be a zone of similar buildings that capitalize on that nostalgic atmosphere that their architecture exudes and promotes. Such districts would have remarkably strict regulations regarding design, scale, colors, materials, hardware, and mandatory design reviews. Like the inside of Disneyland. And those people who choose to live there or choose to own a business there will know exactly what they are in for before choosing to move there (or choosing to stay there). There will be no question what material the barge board shall be; or what window style/color/size/proportions shall be. Instead, zoning districts are ambiguous, fluid, changing and designed to result in trouble, anger, litigation, and other impolite behavior, because the “rules” are entirely and completely arbitrary and subject to the whim of whoever happens to complain the most.

For balance, can there be a district called “Anything Goes?” Just a small pocket in some corner of the community that allows variety, freedom of expression, original thought, and (take a deep breath) color.


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