EDITORIAL: Preservation efforts need a new focus

No matter how you feel about the demolition of Tremont Temple Baptist Church and the adjacent Douglass House to accommodate the construction of a Dunkin’ Donuts, the process has to leave us felling kind of -- dirty. In fact, the emperor -- in these cases, Planning and Zoning’s Design Review Board and P&Z itself -- has no clothes when it comes to preservation of historic structures.

In both cases the DRB denied demolition. Big deal. So what? P&Z does not have to adhere to DRB decisions. In the case of the Douglass House, the DRB denied demolition and the full P&Z voted 3-2 to do the same. But what happened? The owner of the property procured an engineering letter stating the property was structurally unsound and either had to be fixed or demolished. Same thing happened with the church.

The argument then becomes an economic discussion. Either property could have been made structurally sound, but would the investment make economic sense? The owner asks, “Do I spend money restoring a property that does not fit my plan, or do I demolish it to suit my purposes?” The decision then is not made by the DRB or P&Z. It is the decision of the property owner.

There isn’t a structure more than 100 years old that could pass a structural-soundness test, particularly if that’s not the result the payer of the bill wants. And there is another factor: time. Once the letter is in hand and the economic decision made, demolition usually occurs before other avenues to address the issue can be employed.

In this particular instance, the DRB and P&Z have proven to be a waste of time. While we doubt the community will miss a house most didn’t know existed and had been vacant for decades, the precedent is obvious. Now the question is whether the process should be changed and if so, how?

The preservation organizations should not be caught flat-footed again. They plan to audit structures that could be seen as an impediment to progress and start seeking ways to save those properties through cooperation rather than confrontation. That new focus won’t help Tremont of the Douglass House, but it could prevent a sad repeat of the situation. The city and P&Z also need to examine its roles in historic preservation. If the process is not changed, structural engineers may see a boost in business to the detriment of our historic infrastructure.