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City Guidelines Hurt Old Neighborhoods, Preservationists Say

An ideological battle over how best to preserve Richmond's architectural history has gone digital.

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An ideological battle over how best to preserve Richmond's architectural history has gone digital.

Laura Daab is one of a number of people calling for reforms to the city's method of approving construction and housing renovation applications in designated old and historic districts. She's launched an online petition that asks City Council to consider changes in how those applications are approved. There were 113 signatures as of Monday.

Guidelines for historic districts prohibit new construction or additions from mimicking the historic look of an area. The approach is to make such new construction appears modern instead of faux historical.

Daab, a Church Hill resident, says such an approach could dilute historic districts by overwhelming them with modern architecture. The guidelines should be changed, she says, before new construction dramatically alters treasured historic city neighborhoods such as Church Hill, Jackson Ward and Shockoe Slip.

Decisions on new construction and renovation in the city's 15 existing old and historic districts are made by the city's Commission of Architectural Review, an appointed body made up of local preservationists, architects and other experts in the field.

Daab's petition — at www.petitiononline.com/saveohds/petition.html — asks the city to remove clauses in guidelines requiring that “new construction should be contemporary in style, yet compatible with surrounding historic structures,” and prevent construction in the districts from attempting to “mimic previous architectural styles in such a way that creates a false historical appearance.”

That approach to historic preservation — which seeks to avoid Williamsburg-style proliferation of new structures that appear historic — follows established federal Department of the Interior guidelines.

But it's also an approach that over time could dilute neighborhoods like Church Hill, Daab says, where an abundance of vacant lots means old homes could be outnumbered and overwhelmed by new construction.

“Old and historic districts belong to all of us,” Daab says. “We all benefit from them and enjoy them.”
 
City Councilman Bruce Tyler is leading a task force reviewing the city's guidelines for preservation in old and historic districts. The group is soliciting public comment on possible changes to the guidelines.

 

Editors' note: In the print version of this story, we misspelled Laura Daab's last name. Style regrets the error.

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