COMMISSIONER AND CITY BIAS FAILS THE COMMUNITY
The decision on August 10th to deny Commissioner Page Wilson’s application for exterior siding change was, in the opinion of this writer, a complete and utter failure by the part of the Historic District Commission and the City of Little Rock in their representation of the MacArthur Park historic district and goes to show the total lack of non-biased debate related to the application of the Design Guidelines within the district. If we, as commissioners, can not see passed our own ignorant prejudices toward contemporary and modern design then we are doing a disservice to the community and do not deserve our position as a commissioner.
Matt Snyder, a representative for Page Wilson and a designer out of Rogers, Arkansas, made a very well prepared and concise presentation to the commission in defense of a change of exterior siding material from an inferior NON-CODE COMPLIANT fiber cement siding to a superior ribbed metal panel. Both materials, when judged on their appearance closely mimic horizontal wood siding. The fiber cement siding, it’s inability to meet building code requirements for the project aside, has a very large 8″ profile exposure which is not found in any historical style present within the district. In contrast, the presented ribbed metal panel would have a +/- 3″ profile exposure and shadow line which DOES very closely mimic the majority of exposure profiles found on multiple historic architectural styles throughout the district. Simply because the material is metal should have no bearing on the commissions decision for denial of the application and shows a clear and present bias within the commission against a modern, durable exterior finish simply because of it’s base material. Furthermore, during the presentation City Staff even attempted to further that bias by suggesting the proposed material is similar to corrugated tin roofing, which is a ridiculous comparison and was a completely inappropriate comment to make. When asked to provide justification for their denial, the dissenting commissioners simply offered “the material is not appropriate for the district” as their sole rationale. No further comment or discussion was allowed after Commissioner Russell (me) asked those commissioners to justify denying the proposed material based on specific cause.
The current Design Guidelines, as published on the City of Little Rock website, states very clearly in Section VB: New Construction of Primary and Secondary Buildings that “new construction of primary and secondary buildings should….not be too imitative of historic styles so that they may be distinguished from historic buildings.” The Guidelines go on to list 4 criteria with which the Commission is to base it’s decision for approval or denial of an application: Building Orientation, Mass and Scale, Form, and Materials. In each of the first 3 requirements, all elements of the design were approved by the Commission previously. Last night’s application related only to the exterior finish material. The 4th section states “building materials that are similar to those used for major surfaces in the area should be used…New materials may be used if their appearances are similar to those of the historic building materials.” The key here is “appearance”. The guidelines say nothing about the physical properties of the material itself. Therefore the determination should be made solely on the ability of the material to mimic an existing historical style. For MacArthur park the predominant exterior material is horizontal wood siding with exposure profiles ranging from 2″ to 4.5″. As I mentioned before the previously approved fiber cement siding would have had a profile of 8″ – double even the largest examples within the district. In contrast, the proposed metal panel would have a 3″ profile which VERY closely mimics the predominant profiles of the district and therefore is a more appropriate exterior finish choice if we are to apply our existing guidelines. The metal panel is also superior in it’s durability and structural stability which not only achieves compliance with building code, but also provides a building that will require little, if any, major maintenance over the course of several decades.
The entire goal and purpose of the Historic District Commission is to preserve and protect the historic resources of our historic districts, not just the MacArthur Park district. The tools and resources at our disposal to do just that are plentiful. Yet when it comes to new urban infill projects there is a complete and total lack of understanding within the Commission, City Staff, and the community as to what constitutes preservation and even the elements that make the MacArthur Park district so wonderful. To preserve something means to “maintain in it’s original or existing state”. Preservation is NOT manufactured replication of previous historic construction. You can not manufacture history. If it is gone it is gone. Let us also not forget that the single goal that helped create our design guidelines and the Historic District Commission was to preserve EXISTING historic structures. The guidelines were never intended to dictate new construction on lots with no historical significance.
Finally, if our goal is to preserve the character and the charm, the eccentricity, of our historic districts then we have to understand them for what they truly are and not what we want them to be. Our historic districts are not and never were frozen in time, nor created in a vacuum. They are made up of generations of building styles all competing for attention and prominence within their time. Our historic districts are a series of windows into multiple time periods and that is precisely what makes them so desirable. In order to sustain that charm and character it is important that we continue the tradition and add to our districts in a way that is reflective of OUR time and place in history rather than of a time long past. It is long overdue for the Commission and City Staff to move forward and allow modern development in our districts. The health and future sustainability of our city depends on it. Anything less is an utter failure to lead our city into the 21st century.
Note: All images provided by and used with permission from Matt Snyder of masWorks design+consulting and Page Wilson of Paul Page Dwellings.