The idea of preserving an evolving thing (a city) is somewhat troubling to me. We preserve things that are dead (like animals taken to the taxidermist, for example). Preservation gets caught up in the idea of one sudden snapshot of a city that’s suddenly worth preserving - an inaccurate perception, in my mind. All I can think of is little cities (almost as if they were snow globes) encased in jars of formaldehyde.This dynamic is at work in Takoma Park today. Activists there cut their teeth blocking the North Central Freeway, which would have run right through the neighborhood. Then they fought to preserve beautiful Victorian houses from being torn down and replaced with bland, square apartment houses, winning historic districts in both DC and Maryland.
Cities ought to be alive. I much prefer the term and concept of adaptive re-use. How can we keep the historic elements intact, maintain that connection to the past, and still adapt the structure and the neighborhood to a modern use?
That freeway was worth fighting because it would have created vast expanses of concrete devoid of humanity and ruined the street life. Now, the same activists, “caught up in one snapshot of a city,” want to retain the large, bland WMATA parking lot that separates the Metro station from the neighborhood. Where once that parking lot was a lively commercial street, WMATA proposes to build a village green and a few blocks of townhouses without taking away the existing parking or bus loading. That would restore a streets in the area where they once existed. To some, however, townhouses are just as noxious as a 12-lane freeway.
Richard Layman writes about the generational difference among activists between those who fought to stabilize their neighborhoods as cities were shrinking, and those who now strive to improve cities as they grow again. The guide who led our tour for WalkingTown DC (a member of the earlier generation) referred to the “small town” feel of the neighborhood, and residents’ desire to keep the town small. The City of Takoma Park, Maryland has over 17,000 residents. WMATA wants to build 90 townhouses. Are new residents so undesirable?
Our guide also disputed the value of two-car garages under each townhouse. On that, we agree completely. Transit-oriented townhouses next to a Metro station need one per unit at most; shared spaces and ample Zipcars would be even better. Fewer spaces could alleviate residents’ reasonable concerns about heavy traffic. But if residents just oppose more residents, that’s neighborhood taxidermy, not preservation.
Below, more photos of Takoma Park from the walking tour.