PRESERVATION: BUT IT’S JUST A FENCE!
Coming on the heels of my last two posts, preservation: the last 50 years and preservation: the next 50 years, I thought I would share some of my more personal thoughts on the state of preservation here in Little Rock, the attitudes of and toward the Historic District Commission and the impact it all has on the community at large. As you may have guessed by now, I am both Pro Development and Pro Preservation – but on the correct terms. And so, when developing in a historic district it is important to take each project as it comes and treat it as its own entity without any personal or professional bias, but simply as an exercise of applying the guidelines your district is bound by.
Recently an application came before our committee to erect a 6′-0″ metal fence around 3 sides of a parking lot owned by the city. The 4th side of the lot was being left open without gates or fence. The argument for the fence was two-fold. First, to assist in closing off the alley way which has heavy pedestrian traffic from the bus depot one street over. And second to make the parking area safer for city workers walking to their cars at night. Now, lets look at this with a critical eye:
6′-0″ metal fence on 3 sides of a 4 sided parking lot.
Justification #1: Close off alley way to pedestrians the city and adjacent property developer deem “undesirable”. While I find that kind of rationale morally repugnant and a detriment to the neighborhood in general, ok. It’s a safety issue. Sure.
Justification #2: To provide a barrier around the parking area to make it safer for city workers walking to their cars at night. Let’s read through that application again: fence 3 sides of a 4 sided parking lot…..how is that keeping anyone safe when 60′ of the property is wide open? Bogus. My boots aren’t tall enough for that kind of BS.
Now lets look at the guidelines that are lawfully in effect concerning this property which is located within the MacArthur Park Historic District.
MacArthur Park Historic District Guidelines for Rehabilitation and New Construction: Section VI, 3 – Fences and Retaining Walls:
“Fences on street frontage and front yard – 36 inches. Rear yard fencing – 72 inches.”
“Fence material should be appropriate to the style and period of the building.” – It’s a parking lot, so they went with adjoining property previously approved by the Commission. Note: previous approval does not set a precedent within the district. Each application is evaluated on it’s own merit regardless of previous decisions made by the Commission.
Fences with street frontage should be no taller than three feet (36″) tall….The design shall be compatible with and proportionate to the building.” – The argument here is that taller buildings may have taller fence lines if it is deemed more appropriate in scale to the building. But again, this is a parking lot.
Staff recommendation was to approve the fence but with a reduced height of 4′-0″ at the street frontage only. The rear fence height would still be 6′-0″ to close off the alley as allowed in the guidelines. The applicant decided they did not want to amend the application per the recommendations of staff and discussion among the Commissioners commenced. One Commissioner asked about any future plans to enclose and install gates at the open side. The applicant said it might be a possibility, but is not currently possible due to lack of funding and may not be possible for some time. I personally raised the issues I’ve mentioned above regarding safety, which fell completely on deaf ears. The applicant even went so far as to address me directly and suggest that, quote “It is just a fence. We’re trying to do the right thing for the neighborhood. I don’t see what the problem is.” The “right thing” for any neighborhood is not a 6 foot fence surrounding a parking lot at grade. It creates an unnecessary barrier to pedestrian traffic and is completely out of scale with all other residential developments in the district. Ultimately a motion was made to approve the application as is against the recommendation of Staff for a 6′-0″ tall metal fence. When Commissioners, who are tasked with fairly and impartially applying the guidelines to applications that come before them, can not or will not separate personal feelings or are afraid of crossing influential developers, what hope do we have that the character and charm of our historic districts will ever truly be preserved?