C-ville’s ‘Stagnant Status Quo’ — using History as a Growth Control Tool


By. Neil Williamson, President

1997 BMWIn my garage sits a 1997 car with well over 200 thousand miles on the odometer.  It has long ago started to show its age with the telltale drooping headliner and magical mystery electrical short or two.  While the passenger side widow does not go up; the windshield wipers work (they just don’t turn off).

The car is old, and in need of some repair,  but is it historic?

Should the government have the right to tell me I can’t replace it for a more reliable machine?

If not, why should the government have that ability to limit my property rights with historic designations?

Please let me explain.

According to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s article by Sean Tubbs:

The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review indicated Tuesday (1117) it will protect two buildings from demolition on West Main Street, including one that houses the Blue Moon Diner.

“Every house that we demolish on this street lessens our argument for keeping any of them,” said BAR member Carl Schwarz.

Developer Jeff Levien sought permission to take down buildings at 512 and 600 W. Main St. to make way for a new mixed-use building. Both were built in the late 19th century.
He is proposing a new four-story building with ground floor retail and with rental apartments on the higher levels. That height would be consistent with the proposed West Main rezoning changes pending before the Planning Commission and the City Council.

“Although these buildings are old and no one is going to dispute the age of these buildings, they are no longer part of the character of West Main Street,” Levien said Tuesday. “They are ripe for demolition and on an underutilized site and they no longer have any function for the tenants that are there.”

Under Levien’s proposal, the portion of 512 W. Main St. that makes up the front room of the Blue Moon Diner would be retained and incorporated into the new building. The owners of the diner supported the idea of demolition.

The city’s historic resources planner said she could not recommend demolition.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not have a position on this specific request but we believe this situation shines light on a policy question regarding whether historic preservation should be used as a growth control tool?

While some argue historic preservation overlay districts (and similar tools designed to limit property rights) increase property values, we see them as yet one more expansion of government and stripping of property rights.  We are not surprised many of the cities most often cited have separate, distinct historic preservation commissions with dedicated city staff to support the work of the commission.

Architectural Critic Ada Louise Huxtable of the The Wall Street Journal asked a most appropriate question in her 2004 review of the so called “Lollipop Building” proposed demolition:

The most basic preservation question is not being asked at all. What will be lost, and what will be gained?

The proposal being rejected out of hand is a promising solution by a talented young American practitioner that will reclaim an abandoned building of debatable merit for a desirable cultural facility…

There is a great deal more at stake than this one building. When preservation distorts history and reality in a campaign of surprising savagery, it signals an absence of standards and an abdication of judgment and responsibility. It has lost its meaning when we prefer a stagnant status quo. [emphasis added-nw]

In the West Main case study Huxtable’s question “What will be lost and what will be gained?” certainly rings true.

In a city dedicated to affordable housing, how does restricting housing unit supply impact the price of already existing units?

So the question remains, what difference can we discern between old and historic?

Cities if they grow and thrive will continually remake themselves over and over again.  Adaptive reuse can play a part in historic preservation but should be done at the will of the owner, not the demand of the government.

Blind devotion to historic preservation will perpetuate Huxtable’s “stagnant status quo” and restrict economic development as well as individual economic advancement.

Perhaps if as every historical protection overlay is initiated, all property owners were provided immediate local property tax abatement, cities would be less eager to engage in growth control via historic preservation’s restriction of property rights.

If the City of Charlottesville deems a structure to be of such significant historic value that they want to control the property use, they should buy it.

Otherwise, the city should allow property owners to invest in the city, meet city building and zoning code and use his or her property to the highest and best use.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Photo Credits: Neil Williamson, Docstock.com

One response

  1. I agree Neil. I’m a historian and LOVE preserving and restoring historic building versus demolition and new construction, but only when the building is worth preserving. I think there needs to be a balance in what we are protecting when considering the economic and cultural impact of new construction. So in other words, if an older building has character or historical significance in either past residents or architecture, then yes, protect it! If it’s just an old building, then I say make room for the new if it is aligned with what the city is going for in the long run.

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