Monday, September 22, 2008

Albany's future must keep its past

First published: Friday, September 19, 2008

In the Times Union editorial "No parking, please" (Sept. 10) the acknowledgement that "there is a rhythm to a city's landscape, especially an historic one" is music to the ears of preservationists.
In the context of rendering an opinion about a proposal for increased parking for the Fort Orange Club, however, it sounds a cacophonous note in view of the failure of Albany's Zoning Board of Appeals to apply consistently the criteria that would safeguard our city's unique sense of place.

A case in point is the demolition in 2001 of three 19th century buildings on Madison Avenue to make way for a parking lot for a restaurant favored by influential politicians and judges.

Surely, the special interests of a few do not pass what should be the litmus test for the granting of every variance or special exception.

That lapse in judgment and foresight is but one example of a rupture in the "complex tapestry" occupied by residential or commercial buildings since the early 1800s.

Unlike the editorial, this commentary is not intended to be a referendum on the merits of the Fort Orange Club proposal, but rather a plea for city officials in future deliberations to heed the significance of an "array of different designs, the variations of height and mass of buildings, the materials and colors and all the details down to the way the doors and windows were built" to tell the story of a street's history.

A lack of appreciation for our historic treasures, the desire for an immediate return on investment and an inability or unwillingness to take the long view are all too often the culprits in the loss of historic properties or in the desecration of the view sheds along our rivers.

Oversight boards such as the Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Albany Foundation, and neighborhood organizations are essential in helping to educate all of us about the value that historic preservation adds not only to particular projects, but also to the enrichment of an entire community.

Michael Meyer in "The Last Days of Beijing" points to the critical role our cities' caretakers play in preserving our identity and unique sense of place.

He cites the wisdom of historian Anthony Tang, author of "Preserving the World's Great Cities," on the subject:
"The preservation of great cities is ultimately the story of how different urban societies created environments of extraordinary meaning, were affected by their cityscapes through centuries of habitation, and came to realize that the loss of old ancient buildings involved much more that just the visible destruction of ancient bricks and stones."

In the year that Albany is celebrating her 400th birthday, the sentiments expressed in "No parking, please" could not be more timely.

It is meet and right to call on our city's collective nostalgia to preserve the symbols of our identity, and to hold the feet of our city's caretakers to the fire.

Caroline B. Mason of Glenmont is chairman of the Preservation League of New York State.

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