Historic Preservation

Posted November 16, 2018
  • One of the sites under investigation in Detroit

  • Students on site in Detroit

    Photo: Randall Mason

  • The Rudolph Walton School in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, one of the sites under investigation in Detroit

    Photo: Pamela Hawkes

  • Students Melissa Luo, Katie Randall, Allison King, and Irena Wight at Strawberry Mansion Calvary Reformed Church, Philadelphia

    Photo: Pamela Hawkes

How Tactical Preservation Can Save Endangered Buildings in Philly and Detroit

By now, the tenets of tactical urbanism are approaching conventional wisdom territory. Start with small, temporary, DIY interventions—reclaim a street parking space and build a pop-up park, for example—and over time, your efforts may model better uses of public space, inspiring more lasting changes in the built environment.

In Detroit, Planning and Development Director Maurice Cox has begun to explore how those principles can be employed to protect the city’s wealth of underused historic buildings.

“We’ve coined a term: tactical preservation,” Cox told Urban Omnibus in July. “The idea is, if you can’t occupy 100 percent of a historic asset, could you occupy two percent, or five percent? What would it take for the financial institutions, the permitting institutions, and the insuring institutions to allow incremental occupation of a larger asset so that it doesn’t fall into ruin?”

To draw out the possibilities, Cox is partnering with the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign.

This fall, with $50,000 in funding from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a generous gift from PennDesign Overseer and alumna Robin Beckett (MCP'75), Associate Professor Randy Mason is leading the first in a series of studios in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation investigating preservation issues in distressed neighborhoods in Detroit and Philadelphia. The project, called the Detroit/Philadelphia Preservation Exchange, will involve three fall studios over the next three years, accompanied by a series of research projects, symposia, student internships, and publications. In the first studio, HSPV 701-201, two groups of around a dozen students each are working on proposals for tactical preservation projects in the Russell Woods Nardin Park neighborhood of Detroit and Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia.

“Different cities have a lot to teach one another,” Mason says. “There are a lot of ways in which we could argue that Philadelphia and Detroit are different cities on different trajectories, but there are enough commonalities in the dynamics at the neighborhood level ... that the situations are similar enough that there is some value to be gained in terms of connecting across cities. These neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Detroit present really urgent issues that the preservation field needs to know how to do better at.”

All 22 students in the studio are pursuing master’s degrees in historic preservation, and seven are working on dual degrees in city planning or architecture, Mason says. For the first half of the studio, students have been studying physical conditions and historic records in the neighborhoods where they’re working, reviewing relevant policies and regulations in Detroit and Philadelphia, and meeting with neighborhood residents. The Detroit group, working closely with the Department of Planning and Development, has identified specific properties that are ripe for intervention—most are not certified historic—and will spend the rest of the semester developing proposals that could work as prototypes for similar properties or groups of properties in other areas. In Philadelphia, students have been working with the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation and other local partners to identify projects. The proposals may involve using a small portion of a site to bring activity back to the property and keep a building from deteriorating more, while generating interest for a longer-term use.

“It’s kind of a riff on tactical urbanism,” Mason says. “If there are ways to partially, provisionally reuse the charismatic buildings in a neighborhood—the churches and commercial blocks and banks and things like that—instead of having an all-or-nothing approach, then that’s the best way to incrementally strengthen the neighborhood and bring economic opportunity.”

In Strawberry Mansion, students have split into teams of two and three to focus on redevelopment strategies for a former church site, an abandoned school, the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor, and the John Coltrane House. One team of students is also working with a group of urban cowboys on a potential new building to house their horses. The Strawberry Mansion section of the studio is being co-led by Professor of Practice Pamela Hawkes and Lecturer Kiki Bolender.

Hawkes noted that while vacancy is widespread in Strawberry Mansion, the neighborhood has a lot of long-term residents who are committed to the community and a high rate of owner-occupants.

“Those are the kernels of a really successful community, and the question is, how can we leverage some of the opportunities in the neighborhood to help strengthen the community, and try to make the revitalization of those neighborhoods equitable for all?” Hawkes says. “The main focus is on having the students engage with the community to understand what their values are and their needs are, as opposed to just coming in with expertise.”

In addition to the three fall studios, PennDesign interns will work in the Detroit Department of Planning and Development next summer. The studio will host convenings in Detroit and Philadelphia during the spring of 2020, with a final convening and a capstone publication in the spring of 2021.

Mason says he hopes the exchange will offer concrete benefits to the neighborhoods where students work in both cities. And, if it’s successful, it will demonstrate an approach to practice in distressed communities, where development capital is scarce, that has eluded preservationists in the past.

“Preservation is a really important way to advance needs for equitable redevelopment,” Mason says. “We can't build our way out of decades and decades of inequity. We have to build on communities’ existing assets.”