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Monday, May 07, 2007

Historical Preservation Once Again a Burning Issue in Davis

At the May 15, 2007 Davis City Council Meeting, the City Council will have a hearing on the Anderson Bank Building EIR (environmental impact report) and a decision as to whether to forward one of the project alternatives.

The issue of the Bank Building has been an issue in Davis for a number of years. On December 18, 2002, the City Council denied owner Jim Kidd permission to alter the windows. However, as seems to be the case with many developers, Mr. Kidd is holding onto his property that he purchased with full knowledge that it could not be developed under the current regulations that regulate historical preservation. However, that has not prevented him from bringing the issue up once again with a different council hoping that a governing body will eventually get elected which would grant his wishes to do the alteration. Preliminary indications are that it may not be this council either. We shall find out the answer to that soon.

In March, the Historic Resources Management Commission (HRMC) voted unanimously to recommend the "No Project" alternative, after voting down recommendations for Project Alternatives A and B.

One of the guiding principles here is Chapter 16 of the “Goals and Policies” from the City of Davis General Plan:
“The City shall review proposed alterations to City designated historic resources and improvements within historic districts utilizing the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings and the State Historic Building Code.”
The Anderson building is one of the few historic landmarks remaining in Davis--one person in the minutes to the HRMC meeting suggested there are just 16 historic buildings left in Davis following a lot of the renovations that took place in the 1960s and 1970s where a number of historic buildings were bulldozed in the name of progress. The current owner of the building was fully aware that the Anderson Bank Building was a City Landmark when he bought it.

This is not the first time the issue of the Anderson Bank Building has come up. In fact, it came up just five years ago. The argument used by the owner then as now is that redesigning the windows are necessary for business purposes. The HRMC expressed the view recently that they were not convinced that the pursuit of Design Option A would improve the chances of retail success for businesses located in the building. Furthermore, as some commissioners suggested at their meeting, one of the single most important features on a building are its windows. The commission argued that "if the windows of this historic building are altered, the fabric of the historic structure will be altered irretrievably and unmitigably."

This issue arose in the newsletter of the Davis Historical Society in January of 2003. Retired UC Davis Professor John Lofland in his Op-ed, "Magical Beliefs, Small Retailers and Preservation" wrote:
"In Jim Kidd’s recent effort to add out-of-character windows to the Anderson Bank Building, we saw many small business people again and again proclaim that certain kinds of windows were critical to the success of the small retailer.

Curious about this, I went on the web and researched the topic of small business success and failure. This turns out to be a well investigated question on which there are a great many quantitative, scholarly inquires.

Signal to me, while there are some well-identified causes of failure and success, the nature of a store’s windows are not among them."
Professor Lofland speculates that the idea that windows are vital to business success as one of the magical myths, constructed to mitigate the uncertainty of business endeavors rather than rooted in any reasonable notion of scientific discovery.

Nevertheless Jim Becket, the volunteer director of Davis' Hattie Weber Museum, in his Davis Enterprise op-ed last week writes:
"The building's owner and the maverick Davis Downtown Business Association are urging the council to override the recommendation of the Davis Historical Resources Management Commission by selecting "Option B" in the recently completed environmental impact report. This option proposes to drastically enlarge the windows of the old bank building in an attempt to enhance its use as a retail outlet."
Mr. Becket following the commission also suggests that the owner purchased the building both knowing of its window limitations and its historical nature:
"I think owner Jim Kidd also made an error at the outset when he bought the building, which had already been designated with landmark status, with the evident intention of using the old bank and post office section for retail. It was a bad business decision, and I do not believe the council, the city or the public owes it to Kidd to bail him out of a bad business decision."
The building is a key part of Davis' rich history. As Mr. Beckett goes on to describe:
"I suggest that the downtown businesses should support restoring the Anderson Bank Building as a visible symbol of its vibrant, successful past. That is why the building was built — the downtown was generating so much cash that J.B. Anderson could not store it in the safe in his store anymore, so he sold his business and established a bank!

But the building was more than just a bank. Pause for a moment and look at the whole building and consider its significance. This businessman, who became the first mayor of Davis a few years later, had the business acumen and foresight to not only build a bank (with windows appropriate for the time period), he built the early-1900s equivalent of the beautiful, modern, present-day Chen Building that proudly stands across the street. The Anderson Bank Building makes a positive contribution to the framing of the contemporary entrance to the downtown."
The decision by the Davis Enterprise to run a computer generated graphic with a caption next to Mr. Beckett's column generated criticism and controversy among those in preservation community who believed it undermined and compromised the message of the author and therefore was inappropriate for placement next to the op-ed. Certainly even if the editors disagree with the opinions expressed in an op-ed, they could provide response or the picture in another location so as to not confuse the reader or dilute the message.

Instead, the caption asserts that the Option B window change would improve the property for business use. It also implies that the computer generated "photo" is attached to the op-ed. It neither states the source for the graphic nor indicates that neither the graphic nor its caption are the work of the author of the op-ed text.

In short, the complaint is that while the Davis Enterprise provided Mr. Beckett op-ed space, it used its editorial discretion and ability to control space to dilute his message.

And it is an important message. As I have become more and more acquainted with contemporary Davis politics, I have also learned in greater and greater detail about Davis' rich history. With so few buildings remaining from the time of Davis' founding in 1917, a founding that we are celebrating this year as a 90th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Davis, it only makes sense that we fight to preserve not only the current character of our city, but also its heritage. That means we preserve whatever historical buildings remain from an era that in the scheme of things was not all that long ago. Hopefully in this year of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Davis, that fight can become just as pertinent as the fight to preserve our present character from large new development or the influx of national chain big box retail.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting