Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Preservation or Parking Lot?

I was talking with a Plymouth resident this afternoon when the subject of the 1820 Courthouse came up. For those who don’t know, the Courthouse is a local landmark purchased several years ago by the Plymouth Town Meeting in order to carry out renovations and restore use to Plymouth citizens. For the town’s 400 year anniversary, approaching in 2020, some town planners have recommended that Plymouth use the Courthouse as a focal point and welcoming center for the large influx of tourists that are expected to visit America’s Hometown.

So anyways, the Plymouth resident. The conversation veered back and forth; we talked about the types of shops that make up downtown Plymouth’s main street (mostly bars and antique shops), we talked about local politics (surprisingly factional) and we talked about the town’s upcoming quadri-centennial. The Courthouse was mentioned, as was its potential role in the celebrations. It was then that my companion made a statement that made my blood run cold.

“It’s an eyesore,” he told me, pointing in the direction of the structure. “I think we should knock it down and turn it into a parking lot.”

Whoa. Were we talking about the same building? Was there another courthouse that I didn’t know about? Maybe the structure that he was referring to was a decrepit old slum, or a crack den. Certainly we couldn’t be talking about the elegant, centuries old building that marked the northern entrance into Plymouth’s historic district.

But we were. Incredulous, I listened as he laid out his arguments for the parking lot idea; the increasingly political atmosphere of the redevelopment project, the mounting costs, the lengthening delays. It was reasoning by a not-unreasonable individual, who’d decided that the cost and sacrifice to preserve this particular cultural icon simply wasn’t worth the trouble.

And rather than try to convince him, I walked away. Just like that. Part of it was my unwillingness to catch such a political hot potato, part of it was simply surprise at the direction the conversation had veered. I didn’t know the arguments, didn’t know the parties involved, didn’t have the statistics, couldn’t form the responses. Couldn’t make my case.

So I went home, and I got on my computer. And now I’m going to try again.

  1. THE EYESORE. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I can’t help but wonder whether anyone actually thinks that this,

is more of an eyesore than this.

Some people don’t like certain types of buildings, or certain types of architecture. I understand this. But whether early 19th century construction is your cup of tea or not, I’m fairly certain that more visitors to Plymouth will stop to appreciate the Courthouse as it currently stands than if it was razed and paved. People don’t often spend their vacations taking pictures of parking lots, after all.

  1. THE POLITICS. The 1820 Courthouse was purchased in 2009 by the Plymouth Town Meeting, which is currently leasing the property to the Plymouth Redevelopment Authority (PRA) for adaptive reuse. The political arena is further complicated by another set of acronyms, the 1820 Courthouse Consortium (1820 CC), which represents a diverse set of interests and is charged with incorporating the building into a reinvigorated waterfront district.

With the number of voices clamoring to have a say on the issue, it’s no wonder the project is raising so many hackles, or taking so long. However, all of these voices have come to a consensus on one thing… the Courthouse ought to stick around. Town Meeting bought it, the PRA is (re) developing it, and the 1820 CC is working on ways to integrate it. The question is no longer “should we?”  but rather “how should we?”

  1. THE COST. “The town bought it, and now the people have to pay for it.” Well, yes. Just like a businessman maintains his place of business, or a homeowner his home. It costs a lot of money to stabilize and preserve a historic structure. There are historical and architectural surveys to be undertaken, planners and construction firms to pay. As noted in a report issued by the Urban Land Institute, "given the condition of the existing buildings, the cost to develop the property will be high, for either preservation/adaptive reuse or demolition options.” (Urban Land Institute, p. 14)

But two things make this project different. First, the Town of Plymouth has long branded itself as a destination for tourism. Between the months of May and September, thousands of out-of-state visitors will visit Plymouth attractions, shop in Plymouth stores, eat in Plymouth restaurants. They come here to see what makes Plymouth different from other towns, including old buildings like the 1820 Courthouse. While certainly necessary for tourism, a parking lot is a convenience to your visit, not the reason for it.

Second, this statement assumes that Plymouth residents will have to shoulder the bill all by themselves. The historic nature of the structure means that there are Federal and state resources available to help pick up the slack. Some of the possibilities proposed in the Urban Land Institute's report include Historic Tax Credits, the Community Preservation Act, Community Development Block grants, and more. Coupled with the downtown revitalization project that the Courthouse is supposed to highlight, the town has the potential to receive a very large return on a very subsidized investment.

The issues surrounding this building are… complicated, much more so than this short post may make it seem. And just to be clear, as far as I know it's not currently in any danger. This was a private citizen I was speaking to, a citizen with legitimate concerns and no more or less control over town policy than myself.

But armed with the facts, maybe next time I see him we can have the discussion that we should have had earlier today.

*     *     *     *     *

Are you a Plymouth resident? Is there, in fact, another nearby courthouse (previously unknown to me) currently operating as a meth lab? Did I get all worked up over nothing? If so, please include info and photos in the space below so we can all disregard the post above.
"1820 Courthouse: Plymouth landmark boasts venerable history." Wicked Local Plymouth. March 6, 2013.

Urban Land Institute. "1820 Courthouse Corridor Redevelopment." Plymouth, MA. Sept. 11, 2012.

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