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Plan B: Managing community change and protecting place

May 12, 2010

The Victor Lofts in the "Nipper Building", on the Camden waterfront, long-abandoned factory adapted for luxury apartments

Preservation New Jersey is poised to announce the annual 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey for 2010.  Each year we highlight places that are facing change brought on by abandonment or new development, by disinterested owners or antagonistic government.  And each year, we explore preservation solutions that often require choosing “Plan B.”

Often, these historic and beloved places face potential extinction because the purpose for which they were originally built no longer exists or is untenable.  Factories that once defined a neighborhood and employed most of the nearby residents may no longer be usable for manufacturing.  Churches, synagogues and other sacred places may have little or no congregation left to worship there.

Often, the passionate advocates for these important places are focused on trying to save the place and its historic or present use.  But the large church in a demographically changing neighborhood may no longer be sustainable for worship.  “Plan A” may just not be realistic, or achievable.

The house of worship that is a visual icon and landmark anchoring the key downtown intersection may, in order to survive, have to find new life as a community center, art gallery or school. Preservation advocates have learned to think nimbly and creatively about how to help manage change in the community, rather than trying to halt it.  Adaptive use, which might be defined as “choosing Plan B,” has been a familiar technique and a common term for saving many important historic places for several decades.  Who hasn’t eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a hotel that has been cleverly and appropriately inserted in an excellently rehabilitated and re-purposed waterfront warehouse?  Many folks have the pleasure of living in a loft apartment in a former office building on Main Street, browsing books in a library located in what had been a bank, or attending a concert in a space converted from a historic government building.

We have found, however, that sometimes Plan B may not be appropriate and in fact the solution is Plan A.  In the present economic and social climate, conversion of a landmark home, even one that was visited by Revolutionary War generals or lived in by a Continental Congress member, may not realistically be sustainable as still another historic house museum.  But it would serve perfectly as a single-family residence.

Ultimately, and not surprisingly, each place that has meaning and importance to a neighborhood or community has a unique set of circumstances that challenge preservation advocates to think creatively and open-mindedly about how to save, use and enjoy it.  “Let’s make it a museum,” “why can’t the congregation stay there?” or “how about converting it to lofts” are potential and possible answers for endangered places.  But it is the very uniqueness of the place that makes us want to save it, isn’t it?  To manage the change that is happening in our communities while protecting what is important and special requires flexibility and imagination.  How about Plan C?

See the 2010 listing of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey on May 18, at www.pnj10most.org

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