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Historic preservation of a strip mall and parking lot

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Author: Brian

Benjamin Ross in Dead End retells the story of a historic preservation movement to save a Washington D.C. strip mall:

It fell to a suburb-like section of Washington, DC, to test the limits of historic preservation. In 1981, the new Metro reached Cleveland Park. Riders entered down a stairway alongside the parking lot of a fifty-year-old strip mall. The owners of Sam’s Park and Shop wanted to replace it with a larger, more urban structure. But the wealthy and influential homeowners who lived nearby liked things as they were – the neighborhood had led the successful fight against freeways two decades earlier – and they didn’t want any new construction. Tersh Boasberg, the local leader, told the Washington Post that “the central question is, ‘Can an urban neighborhood control what happens to it, or is development inevitable?”…

Sam’s Park and Shop, its neighbors thus proclaimed, deserved protection as a pioneering example of strip-mall architecture. But for the historic designation to succeed in blocking new construction, it wasn’t enough for the store building to remain intact. The parking lot had to be saved as well.

The residents’ base was not an easy one to make. In front of the original Park and Shop were a gas station and a car wash (an “automotive laundry” in the preservationists’ inflated prose), later town down to make room for more parked cars. Nearby stores were built in a hodgepodge of styles, without parking of their own…

It was a long way from landmarks to human and appealing places to shop, but in 1986 the fight for the parking lot ended in victory. (p.93)

A fascinating story that illustrates the power of NIMBYism and local control. Generally, those opposed to sprawl really dislike parking lots: they are only filled at certain hours of the day (usually during business hours), often are too large (though parking at a mass transit stop may be for the larger good), they are ugly, and their surfaces encourage water runoff. Yet, in the right setting, this parking lot was viewed as a better alternative than denser construction. (And the stated concerns about such construction might have been about traffic and safety but it often involves social class and status connected to denser development.)

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