In search of an aesthetic that honors both past and present

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Dec 08, 2016

At the recent City Council workshop, members of the public and council examined proposed ordinance amendments that would allow infill development in two residential zones. The major changes would reduce some minimum lot sizes, as well as permit accessory apartments on properties.

Councilor Valli Geiger, the sponsor of the ordinance, is a proponent of urban infill. At the workshop, she gave a quick overview of how municipalities are using infill as a way to counter suburban sprawl and to encourage walkability by increasing the number of people who live near schools, libraries and other downtown amenities.

The proposed ordinance revisions strike a careful balance between increasing the density of buildings and preserving appropriate setbacks, especially from existing buildings. While 19th-century neighborhood practices were frequently brought up, the proposed density would still be fairly spacious, compared to many of the lots currently in Rockland.

Infill works by allowing smaller lots and more building on those lots. Proposed minimum lot sizes in both zones would decrease to 0.14 acre, which is actually larger than many of the properties in the South End. Fulton Street, a two-block street with 24 lots (all built on), is a good example, because half the existing lots are smaller than 0.14 acre. Many of them also have a larger building footprint than this ordinance would permit.

This version of infill is happily more 19th-century-lite than 19th-century.

Realizing that the ordinance revisions preserve more open space and separation between houses than we see in the city currently allayed many of my concerns about infill packing us all in like sardines. (There are smells Rockland does not want to return to.)

But I question the extent to which this ordinance will increase in-town, affordable housing because we don’t have the data to indicate how many buildable lots this new ordinance would permit or how many properties are large enough to allow an accessory house. We also don’t have a clear sense of the effect of increasing the number of accessory homes on short-term rentals. Without such data, we’re dealing in hypothetical effects. As always, I want more data before a decision is made.

One controversial revision this ordinance includes is a design standard to encourage architectural consistency. Geiger was clear that this was a conversation-starter and that she wants feedback from the community about whether to include design standards and, if so, to what extent. Other councilors pushed back on the idea, so it’s definitely in the discussion stage.

The design standards would only apply to the Residential A zone, where accessory structures over 200 square feet in size would have to “be constructed of and clad with materials of similar quality and appearance as the principal structure.”

In the meeting, this revision was explicitly targeted at preserving the historic character of the city by excluding trailers or manufactured homes and modern construction (with a few modern buildings in Rockland and Rockport being cited in the larger discussion as examples of modern architecture that do not fit with the historic neighborhoods).

Requiring design standards is a slippery slope. As we’ve seen with the discussion about the Tillson Avenue design standards, it’s difficult for planning boards to enforce them. But I’m not convinced there’s a strong rationale for enforcing design standards in the first place.

According to Brenda Scheer and Wolfgang Preiser, in "Design Review: Challenging Urban Aesthetic Control," over the last 25 years, towns have increasingly been using design standards outside of historic neighborhoods to create architectural consistency in all neighborhoods. Scheer and Preiser contend that the goal is to “preserv[e] and enhanc[e] a sense of place.” This is precisely the discussion at the workshop: that Rockland has a historic character and that should be preserved.

If there is concern that the historic character of Rockland is fading, then the much-talked-about historical preservation ordinance, which would recognize buildings of historic merit and preserve them, would be more appropriate than regulating aesthetic merit in new construction.

But otherwise requiring a historical aesthetic outside of designated historical zones is ahistorical and constrains the sense of place that Rockland aspires to. We frequently describe ourselves as a town that’s reinventing itself, melding new ways with old ways, looking forward at the same time that we embrace and respect our past.

Design standards that require historical design change a sense of place to prioritize the past, rather than reflecting growth and change. Neighborhoods in Rockland (and most places) often have a mix of styles: 1920s bungalows sit down the street from grand 1890s homes; downtown used to have gas stations mixed in with the historic architecture; the South End has historic homes, cement towers and warehouses, and at least one modern home. It creates an unexpected, yet vibrant, harmony.

To cut off that aesthetic growth imposes arbitrary restraints; we live in a community, not a historic theme park.

I don’t want to see us destroy historic properties; I’m from Atlanta, so I know what it means to have a fight to save the last building from a previously ubiquitous architectural style. But taste — and that’s what we’re talking about when we say that modern design doesn’t fit in a historic neighborhood — is subjective. As a community, we must accommodate divergent aesthetic tastes — even tastes we don’t personally find aesthetically pleasing.

Design standards, even when imposed on the very small scale that this ordinance revision proposes, create unhealthy expectations about a “sense of place” that is static and predictable.

Ultimately, the infill ordinance is a promising and exciting development for Rockland. But there are still essential questions that need to be considered: what do the data tell us about its effects, what specific revisions could be made to ensure that the ordinance achieves its stated aims, and how do we as a community grow while continuing to honor both our present and our past?

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