Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oasis Commercial Building


The questions asked by city council members at the July 22, 2009 hearing regarding the nomination of the Oasis Commercial Building as a Class 1 Site are more revealing than Council may have realized. Their questions were so basic; it was as if this process were absolutely new to them. Had they never seen the city’s preservation ordinance before? Did they never read it? Or do they feel their own highly politicized desires constitute the necessary and sufficient justification for their actions?

Historic Preservation is hardly new to this country, or even this town. The local process is a fairly straightforward one wherein the Historic Site Preservation Board (HSPB) makes recommendations to the Council regarding the designation of local historic resources. If the Council concurs, the property is listed in the local registry and the HSPB then monitors any changes proposed to the resource. Variations on this scenario are played out on a daily basis in thousands of cities and towns throughout the country and no city has died as a result of historic preservation. In fact, most cities that incorporate historic preservation planning into their general planning strategy discover that both growth and development thrive as a result.

Although Councilperson Foat is generally a consistent preservation supporter, the rest of the Council’s eagerness to “compromise” the most recent nomination by embracing (unbeknownst to them) a far more restrictive preservation tool – the Conservation Easement – reveals their fundamental lack of understanding in this area. With this tool, changes to an historic resource must be monitored by a private non-profit entity, removing the decision-making process even further from public review. They seemed ready to embrace this notion, even as they discussed proposed changes like “owner consent” requirements and “feasibility studies” to the existing ordinance that would diminish the already weak designation process.

City Council members and city planners, whose responsibility is the management of community resources and shaping options for the future, should recognize that preservation planning offers both short-term opportunities and long-range advantages. Knowledge of the community’s past helps in understanding emerging patterns and future expectations. The Department of Planning Services, in particular, seems to have adopted an aggressive anti-preservation policy of late.

For existing towns like Palm Springs, preservation planning may be the most enlightened and sustainable approach to reviving or maintaining the viability of our town. Preservation planning makes for a better community by preserving its important assets. By providing assurance that Palm Springs’ special sense of place will survive, locals and outsiders alike are given reason to commit their own futures to the community. Sadly, these ideas do not seem to be understood or valued by local planners or Council members who operate on the entirely specious assumption that historic designation prohibits development.

There remains a strong and vocal divergence of opinion among Palm Springs’ citizenry regarding how far government should be permitted to go in regulating the use of private property. The current “frontier mentality” regards buildings, whether of cultural importance or not, as commodities to be freely traded to maximize income or capital gains for the current owner, rather than as scarce resources to be treated with respect and consideration for the public good. Political corruption has been defined as “the diversion of public resources for private or politicized ends.” It appears Council’s current unwillingness to designate properties clearly meets this definition and may constitute an abuse of the public trust. Leadership must be less about the “man” and more about the “people.” The city’s motto, emblazoned on the façade of City Hall is “the people are the city.” But the City’s interpretation of this motto has devolved into “the people who own or want to develop property are the only city we listen to.”

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