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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Social Media Use by State Historic Preservation Offices

Think how you’d respond if a stranger approached you and asked, “What if I could give you tools to communicate directly with people throughout the entire world about causes that matter to you. And, by the way, it will be free.” It is hard to imagine answering anything but a resounding YES! to an offer of that magnitude. A recent review of State Historic Preservation Office websites reveals that fewer than 20 of the 51 websites have an active Facebook page that is promoted from the home page of their website. The number of SHPO’s with a Twitter account that they promoted on their website was even less. And only 11 of 51 sites, or around 21% had both a Facebook and Twitter account that they promoted.

We can do better.

Here are a few tips to help guide SHPO’s with developing a more robust social media presence.

  1.  Having both Facebook and Twitter accounts is now essential. Today there is no excuse to not have both of these essential tools. The following SHPO’s have both Facebook and Twitter accounts that they actively promote on their website: Arizona, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming.
  2.  Link your Facebook page and your Twitter account together. That way your Facebook posts will automatically appear on Twitter. Here is one how to guide. One benefit of having a Twitter feed is that whatever gets posted to Twitter can be picked up by news agglomerators that combine information you share along with other sources to create even more robust communication tools. For an example see Preservation Daily.
  3. Make links to your Facebook and Twitter accounts clearly visible on your website. Common practice is to put all of the social media tools in the upper right hand corner. The Ohio Historical Society has perhaps one of the best designed examples of this. Be mindful of the Twitter Trademark and Content Display Policy for how to use the Twitter logo.

SHPO’s that follow these principles will find their base of followers expand and grow. Over time this has the potential to develop ever more powerful communication tools to help promote the work of historic preservation in your state, and for preservationists to better track and monitor work being done from one state to another.

If you have examples of SHPO’s that have effectively utilized social media tools, please include a note in the Comments section below. We will periodically come back and review progress. How great would it be if within the year every SHPO had a more robust social media presence? That surely would help to advance the historic preservation cause all across the U.S.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Dream for Mobility - Disintegration of Downtown Detroit

A vision for mobility in Detroit, ca. 1935.

Recent proposals for demolition of the State Savings Bank in Detroit, ignited a debate about parking downtown and the impact this has had on the quality of place . Melanie Markowicz, President of Preservation Detroit weighed in with the following op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press.

Detroit is dotted with the palimpsest of heritage erased for one reason or another. In many areas of the city, the end result is a disjointed assemblage of buildings amid a sea of vacant lots. However, in the central business district, we still have some building density left; and that is something we should safeguard as responsible stewards of our city. We can no longer afford to ignore that continuing to demolish our reusable historic buildings for parking lots directly affects the revitalization of Detroit and all of theinvestments in it. Hopefully, the outcry of concerned citizens and organizations is heard loud and clear.
A glut of parking in downtown Detroit is not an altogether new phenomenon. Instead, the roots of the parking vs. place debate are as old as there were automobiles. A Street Traffic survey was conducted between 1936-1937 by the Works Progress Administration. This called for increasing parking downtown, as well for novel systems of circulation including multi-level roadways (see above). Were a retroactive manifesto to be written about Detroit, the story writ large would be accommodating greater mobility by sacrificing the historic fabric and quality of place. While each incident where this happened might have a limited impact, in total this disintegration of the historic fabric made Detroit less interesting and desirable of a place to live, visit, and work.

Detroit Traffic Survey showing the chipping away of buildings around the downtown core.

Early parking lot with vintage cars, ca. 1935.

As economic malaise set on Detroit with a decline of population, this put great pressure on the downtown. Many partially or fully vacant buildings proved too hard to maintain. These were too frequently removed and replaced by vacant asphalt parking lots. In a way this was a sort of fulfillment of planners plans from 1930's to make parking cheap, accessible, and abundant downtown. A review of historic maps and photographs between 1976 and 2006 showed that over 50% of the buildings in downtown Detroit were demolished in four decades. When added to other losses, this led to a historic downtown area fundamentally changed.

Fast forward to present. Some effort has been made to provide "infill" and convert parking lots to buildings. Certainly the location of casinos on the west and northwest section of the downtown and the side-by-side stadiums on the north-east corner prove this trend. Balancing it are the many vacant places waiting to be filled. Notable is the former Hudson's Building site on Woodward Avenue. Following demolition of this iconic building, an underground parking garage was constructed, though nothing else.

One lesson to take way from this ever-changing transformation of downtown Detroit is that where buildings have been retained they have gone on to have productive uses. Where historic buildings have been lost, however, it has proven very hard to replace them with something new. And while new development has transformed the downtown for the better in many cases, this is hardly enough to replace what has been lost. Hopefully Detroit will find an equilibrium with the right balance between  accessibility, parking, and having a livable city too. Retaining historic buildings ought to be an important part of such a strategy. Meanwhile, for close followers of downtown Detroit the surest sign of success will be when surface parking lots and parking garages begin to disappear. Removal of parking has heralded the resurgence of livable places elsewhere and hopefully will do the same for Detroit too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Restoration of G.A.R. Building in Downtown Detroit

Photo of G.A.R. Building, July 18, 2005 
December 5, 2001

The Grand Army of the Republic Building in Detroit is now on its way to a complete restoration and will soon serve as home for a PR firm and a restaurant. That was not always the case. Preservationists were engaged in a pitched battle with those who would have preferred to have seen this iconic building demolished. Luckily, clearer heads ultimately prevailed. We provide some pre-restoration photographs of the building as well as a particularly scurilous Op-Ed piece that ran in the Detroit News in 2006.

Tour of the G.A.R. building in October 2006
A tour was held for potential developers in October 2006. They were given an opportunity to walk through the building, take photos, and prepare proposals for restoration of the building. Just a few months prior an editorial in the Detroit News advocated for demolition of the building. Fortunately, that would not the case. Some photos of the restoration as it is underway today are available via Detroit Curbed.

"History not preserved with decaying building; Preservationists should buy, not sue to keep building," Detroit News,  August 22, 2006.
The redevelopment of Detroit is a tricky business. But it's made even harder by preservationists who rally behind every abandoned building as if each was the last vestige of the city's history.
That's the case with the Grand Army of the Republic Building that sits at the corner of Grand River, Cass and Adams. The castle, which was completed in 1901 and served as a memorial and home for Civil War veterans, has been vacant for more than 20 years. In reality, it lost its luster long before that.
Detroit city officials wisely decided it was time to sell the building, which unloads another unneeded property and gets it back on the tax rolls.
Unfortunately, preservationists would rather it stay vacant and decrepit. Three nonprofit groups are suing the city to stop it from selling the building. They turned down offers from the city to buy the building themselves.
Why is that? If the building is as significant as they say and its intact existence is essential, the best way to ensure it remains a piece of the city's history is to buy and renovate it. In 2003, the city placed a value on the property of $200,500, which sounds like a steal.
That won't happen, of course, because it's easier to file a lawsuit than spend a minimum of $1.4 million to renovate the aging structure and try and find a suitable tenant to recoup that investment. 
Nonetheless, developers showed an interest in the property before the meddling began. The Ilitch family, in particular, owns a considerable amount of property in that area and could use it to build a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings.
Whether that would require the demolition of the building is unknown. The building's 1986 designation on the National Register of Historic Places makes that option more difficult, but not impossible. And as difficult as it is for some to consider, all options must be on the table.
Keeping the building boarded up won't help it or the city and it certainly isn't a fitting Civil War memorial if nobody knows what it is.
Selling it to a developer won't diminish the significance of the actions of those who served in the Civil War, and the estimated $1 million in historical records that have been saved from the building can be made accessible to the public through one of the area's historical library collections.
The city is right to try and sell the building. Those who want the building to stand as a Civil War memorial should buy it outright, or get out of the way.