Preservation and zoning

By Felix Salmon
June 11, 2009


These houses are going to be demolished to make room for a parking lot. Says Ryan:

In my view, it takes a particularly unimaginative, short-sighted, and careless sort of person to see a piece of property in this location and determine that the best and most profitable use for it is a surface parking lot (particularly since street parking near H Street isn’t exactly difficult to find).

Not at all. A parking lot is pure optionality. It generates income, it lowers your property taxes, and it makes it really easy to build something highly commercial if and when developers can actually borrow money again. Old houses like these are never going to be particularly lucrative. Best to take any opportunity to demolish them, so that down the road they can be easily replaced with something shiny and new.

As Ryan’s commenters point out, the problem here isn’t that the owners of the houses want to demolish them, or even that the Historic Preservation Review Board neglected to save them. Rather, it’s that the zoning laws allow parking lots (and the associated curb cuts etc) at all. The problem with the parking lot isn’t that old housing will be demolished, the problem with the parking lot is that it’s a parking lot. Historic preservation boards shouldn’t be used as stealth zoning authorities. There are real zoning authorities for that kind of thing.


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Tred carefully Felix, this is foreign territory for you.

While it is unfortunate that these houses, if historic, are slated for demolition, there are numerous other factors at play.

First, this picture is a perfect example of America’s blighted neighborhoods. Yes, the exterior may be attractive and nostalgic, but the interiors are likely dilapidated and unsafe. If they aren’t they soon will be. The homes may also be partially vacant, or in foreclosure. If left in this state, that attractive facade will soon crumble, and various pests and miscreants will move in. The sad reality is that homes are expensive to maintain, and even more so when they are old.

There may also be other factors such as brownfields or land contamination, perhaps emanating from a nearby former industrial facility, the storefront or homes themselves (asbestos, oil leaks, etc). This would restrict what could be built. Parking lots are often used to cap polluted land.

Unfortunately, while parking lots are not the most desirable option, they are better than crackhouses or burned out hulks, which if left abandoned these houses would surely become. At least you captured their history before they are demolished.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Some parking spaces can be profitable. For example, parking in the center Florence, Italy costs approx. $42 per day or $4.2 on hourly basis.

Posted by eu | Report as abusive

Built environment may not be Felix’ beat but he nails this one perfectly: “Historic preservation boards shouldn’t be used as stealth zoning authorities.”