February 10, 2021

Historic Preservation design review in the time of COVID-19

Betsy H. Bradley, Ph.D., Goucher M.A.H.P. Faculty

M.A.H.P. faculty member Dr. Betsy Bradley considers how design review has changed to respond to unforeseen conditions due to the pandemic and proposes how preservationists may use this moment to reassess the field's long view.

  • Streetscapes are altered and historic buildings become part of the setting for new street life: a temporary festival atmosphere becomes the everyday condition. Photo Credit:  APK, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An important strand of local historic preservation consists of reviewing and approving proposed changes to historic buildings and districts. We have justified this work as taking a long view – occupants will come and go, but the historic buildings will remain as community assets. How, then, does our field respond when we need these assets to be altered in response to unforeseen new conditions and needs? There is no better time than this to convey that historic preservation has heard the call for flexibility and supporting a range of values and community needs.

Local historic preservation program commissions are fielding applications for changes to buildings that would normally not be approved because they would remove historical elements (such as windows or doors) or require a modification in design to historical features that convey the building's age. These requests reflect the needs of businesses that occupy historic buildings for take-out windows and sometimes even opening up a storefront to the sidewalk to meet requirements for businesses to be open during restrictions on occupancy. These requests bring to the forefront some of the questions being asked in the field of historic preservation. Should we approve more changes to commercial buildings? How should temporary situations be addressed? Should project-specific solutions be used rather than the across-the-board approach that is most commonly used?

A time for flexibility and reassessing goals

The goals in historic preservation have been to retain historic fabric and original features and limit changes to historic buildings as part of the long view to preserve historic buildings and districts. However, the new need for flexibility based on keeping businesses in operation suggests we answer yes to the questions posed above and expand our long view. Revising our long-term goals to keeping historic buildings in use by adapting them to current needs and keeping people wanting to use historic buildings because historic preservation programs are flexible shifts the emphasis from buildings to our valuing of them and using them.

Our historic buildings house businesses operating in different ways, and commercial historic districts are hosting more activity on sidewalks and streets. These somewhat altered historic settings still provide a sense of place as they support important activities that have somewhat different meanings right now: staying in business, supporting local businesses, allowing for social distancing. Through this lens, seeing outdoor seating take over sidewalks and some streets, newly installed moveable window walls so that more of a building is open to the outdoors, and new take-out windows are welcome sights.

Historic preservation, as a field, should actively seek ways to be flexible and work out project-specific solutions. Let's avoid lamenting: "I wanted to be more flexible during the pandemic, but the standards made me deny that application." Yes, we have been successful in preserving and using historic buildings. But the future holds many uncertainties. By broadening our primary goal to keeping historic buildings in use and shifting our long view to wanting people to occupy these buildings, we can be in positions to meet unforeseen circumstances, support more community goals, and feel that our work meets the demands of 21st-century life.