Historic Districts: The Past or The Future?

Cyria Underwood- RReep.jpg

Preservation seems like an easy idea to support. Who would be against it? History, character, and a sense of place are what great communities are all about. They generate tourism and makes us all culturally richer. Landowners in historic districts even enjoy higher land values than nearby landowners in newer, usually blander developments. What’s not to like?

Apparently, a lot. Cities unilaterally impose ordinances from time to time, regulating building size, shape and use, and rarely are there complaints, although the changes affect everyone in the city. Here in Florida, building codes were recently stiffened, causing buildings in the entire state to become more expensive, and there were no complaints to speak of. But in the small community of Winter Park, when a proposal was floated to make obtaining historic district status less onerous, indignant protesters with cries of “property rights” were voiced. Protesters who were shy about fighting the State and the City may have finally found, in individual neighborhoods, a small enough foe to bully.

Protesters claim that they fear restraint of trade, and they’re hoping to cash in on rising land values, particularly where they have been historically low. A historic designation might make an owner think twice before knocking a house down.

There’s mirth in Cyria Underwood’s eyes as she tells us about coming here to Winter Park from Louisville, Kentucky. A tall, elegant African American woman, Underwood works at the Hannibal Square Heritage Center, and observes Winter Park’s preservation battles like this: “Black people have an oral history tradition, and it’s a good thing we do. We don’t expect our own buildings to get preserved. So here on the West Side, we hand down our oral history from mother to child, father to son. It’d be nice to see preservation taken seriously,” she muses, her eyes still smiling, “but African Americans have learned to make do without it.”

Interest rates remain low. In neighborhoods like the West Side, where Cyria works, owners feel the pressure to sell. Hannibal Square, built originally for blacks in the 1880s, today houses a mix of families, some of whom go back to the town's early days. Walkability, playgrounds and parks make this a dream community for urbanists; many residents ride the buses that travel up and down Denning Avenue, and Sunrail’s Winter Park Station is a couple of blocks away. Finally, it seems, this area has come into its own and become a hip, urban community at long last.

“However,” murmurs Cyria, her eyes twinkling, “the wolf is at the door.” She’s referring to developers who buy small houses on small lots and replace them with much larger homes, townhomes, and even multifamily clusters. West-siders have been clinging on by the skin of their teeth. Service jobs with modest incomes and part-time work (much of it a long bus ride away) have kept this neighborhood afloat. While land values all around have skyrocketed, the West Side — historically African-American — has not been rewarded with such good fortune. Property values are, to put it politely, stable.

Fairolyn Livingston moved out of the West Side in the '70s, but comes back frequently. She explains that when a West Side homeowner sells, he or she walks off counting the cash. But Livingston cites more than one seller who couldn’t replace the Winter Park lifestyle with the proceeds from his or her home, and ended up moving into poorer and even less upwardly mobile parts of town. So goes gentrification: the new buyer, often white, unwittingly banishes an African American family to a lower stratum, hardening class divisions.

Livingston is candid about the younger newcomers. Asked whether they join the neighborhood churches, she chuckles. “Oh, no. There’s no interaction with our community.” The new buyers, however, benefit from the short walk to Park Avenue’s chic restaurants and shops, and can Sunrail to happy hour downtown. The West Side’s character, meanwhile, dissolves under the homogenous new face of urban America, where everywhere resembles everywhere else.

Cyria Underwood, Fairolyn Livingston and many others are unworried about the preservation battles being waged in Winter Park right now. This is not surprising: preservation of the West Side has not been high on the City’s agenda. The same development pressures are being fought all over.

Locally, Friends of Casa Feliz, a Winter Park preservation organization, will be co-hosting a West Side History panel discussion this autumn to help keep what is left of the architecture.

It’s part of keeping a conversation going about the local urban future. Historic districts come into being in most places with a simple majority, but Winter Park’s requirement of a supermajority makes them difficult and rare. Protesters against preservation see this as just fine, and do not want property rights to change.

While he isn’t a vocal protester, realtor Mark Squires is a realist. With a Clark Gable smile and wink, he is a true denizen of Winter Park real estate. “Everyone wants historic character,” Squires offers, “but nobody wants to pay for it.” Smaller, older homes have tiny kitchens and bathrooms, and are often hard to maintain. Squires and his colleagues find that, for many young couples with kids, Winter Park’s lifestyle is in high demand. The last thing on their busy agendas is fixing cast iron pipes or repainting wood trim. Many buyers want new, as the developers, builders, realtors and lenders are well aware. Every home becomes a potential knockdown, if the price fits the formula.

Squires’ local reality is that historic preservation, while it might make everyone a little better off, makes home sales harder. Our local economy is geared towards short-term private profit, and the notion that preservation can also be profitable is rarely considered. While developers in Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere have proven that historic preservation can make money, it has yet to be seen as a both/and proposition in Central Florida. City Hall dithers over the proposed historic district ordinance while the bulldozers roll.

Underwood is philosophical about it. “Willing seller, willing buyer, you know? You can’t control what someone does after you go.” Rich or poor, the same argument applies. The individual decides whether to push the easy button and go for new, or save a little bit of quality for future generations.

The current wave of transactions, fueled by low interest rates and demand for in-town living, is recasting the character of her neighborhood, as well as of the more affluent areas of the East Side. If the City Commission votes to ease historic district formation, perhaps there will be more than just oral history to remember Old Winter Park by. If not, and more bungalows succumb to the McMansion, we’ll all just have to huddle up around her chair and ask for stories about the buildings that used to be here, and the people who lived within them.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo of Cyria Underwood by the author