Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Design Guidelines Historical Error That Fosters the Trackside Debate and the Real Question: What Do We Want There? (267)

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1. Overview. In this post I will argue that the brouhaha over Trackside is in part a result of an historical error appearing on pages 74 and 75 of the Davis Downtown and Traditional Neighborhood Design Guildenes (images 1 and 2). Inferences based on that error versus historical accuracy contribute to opposing development decisions.  But beyond such historical/conservation technicalities, the real question is brute policy: “what should be built there, anyway?”

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 2. Trackside Proponents. Among other facts supporting their project, Trackside proponents point to the historical fact that Davisville north-south railroad corridor development was of larger scale than in the areas to the east and west. The scale of the proposed Trackside building is therefore simply a continuation of the larger scale of the Downtown Rail Corridor that was created at the founding of Davis and that persisted until not very long ago. Trackside is consistent with, and is in the spirit of, that history, the argument goes.

3.Trackside Opponents. Opponents of Trackside read pages 74 and 75 in the Guidelines (images 1 and 2) as calling for “a transition zone from downtown, from taller buildings to smaller residences . . . .” (Miller, image 3).


Looking at pages 74 and 75, I think the Trackside Opponents read the document correctly. A “transition” is indicated in the very title, as well as in the tenor of the text.

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4. Guidelines in Error. As chance would have it, I participated in the development of the Guidelines. My recollection is that no one, including especially me, was especially aware of (and/or appreciated the significance of) the hefty scale of structures along the tracks from the start of Davisville.

The physical fact is that at the time the Guidelines were developed in the year 2000 period, evidence of that Rail Corridor’s former scale was not obvious. All we had was the pathetic remnants seen there now. In the vernacular “Who knew?”

The Guidelines as written on pages 74 and 75 therefore do not accurately represent the scale of development in that corridor for the bulk of Davis history.

It follows that the Trackside Opponents are correct in using the Guidelines to support their opposition and to argue for “transition.” But their advocacy is based on an error.

5. Two Studies Documenting the Downtown Davis Rail Corridor. Let me report two studies that support the view of a much larger scale Rail Corridor than implied by the Guidelines.

a. Three Unique Photos Taken In 1914 . Independent of all this brouhahas, in 2010 or so I came onto three postcards taken along the tracks in 1914 by a person with a postcard-making machine. They showed, at ground level looking north, the “world of the tracks” and the scale of large grain warehouses and other buildings there. Along with additional photos of the area, I reported on this on this in a post dated November 27, 2011:

 (For a preview, see image 4.)
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 b. 1964 SP Track Corridor Map. In 2015, I published an analysis of a 1964 SP track area map showing that while the scale of buildings had decreased, the volume of enterprises of significant commercial scale had continued vigorously and unabated. The details are here:


(Image 5 provides a preview.) 

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6. City Planners Now Support the Large Scale Corridor View.  Looking at the just issued Trackside SCEA, I see that City planners now appear to have adopted the large-scale corridor view and they even named it  “The Downtown Davis Rail Corridor!” (Images 6 and 7.)

7. BUT: Is Historical Scale What the Trackside Decision Should Be About? This change of view by City Planners could be used by Trackside Proponents to support their case and that is fine with me.

But, I want to back away from the perspective of both Trackside proponents and opponents. Of necessity, both argue from historical preservation “guidelines” and doctrines.

I want to question using historic preservation doctrine at all in -- or at least very much in -- this redevelopment decision.

What was in a place historically might well matter sometimes. But, in addition, what often really matters is not the past but our ideas about the world we want to build. If there is a debate, it should not necessarily be only or mostly about what was in a place previously, but about “Where do we want to go?”
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In the Trackside matter, the issue of transition is a real one. Let it be debated per se and not muddied with the invocation of perhaps even false historical factors. On the sheer historical accuracy of the matter, the evidence favors Trackside. But, I think, this fact should not matter very much if at all.

Instead: regardless of what the past may or may not have been, what do we want there now?

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