When I decided to look at the new construction going on in Greenhills, I was skeptical. I've seen so much "going green" hype I figured this would just be more of the same. It wasn't — there was a lot of thought that went into the homes (see "Greening Greenhills," issue of April 9.) What I didn't know was what the buildings replaced.
Greenhills holds a surprisingly unique place in U.S. history, and not just the story of our country but also our architecture. Unlike the decorative, ornate and popular Italianate architecture found in Over-the-Rhine, Greenhills has a mix of streamlined Moderne, International and Colonial Revival architectural styles.
Now on Preservation Ohio’s 2008 List of Most Endangered Historic Places, Greenhills presents a unique challenge to everyone who appreciates architecture, community development and making Cincinnati a user-friendly place to live. The challenge is this: How to prevent further decay of historic housing stock, infuse new people and business opportunities into an already-green community and not destroy what other cities are trying desperately to create, a healthy urban community.
“Greenhills is one of three Planned Greenbelt towns built as demonstration projects in the 1930s by the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency,” according to the Preservation Ohio Web site that explains the endangered designation. “Designed using the English 'Garden City' model, Greenhills is a distinctive predecessor of today’s New Urbanism movement. An exemplar ‘walking community,’ it has maintained the original forested Greenbelt parkland and pedestrian pathway system lining its lush pocket parks nestled within residential blocks. The much revered Historic District of Greenhills is listed as a National Historic Planning Landmark.”
The current redevelopment plan completely ignores all of that, according to the same Web site.
“Since 1999, the Greenhills government has acquired residential properties in three specific neighborhoods of the Historic District. Under the auspice of an aggressive Redevelopment Program, absent of any guiding documentation, the government’s stated purpose has been to expand the community’s tax base through a process of gentrification. Federal funds triggering official preservation oversight have not been used. Greenhills officials have rejected advice and assistance extended by noteworthy preservation agencies and consultants of local, state and national standing.”
It desn’t have to be that way, according to Thomas Palmer, executive director of Preservation Ohio. Palmer has volunteered his services to the village administration to serve as a point person for bringing together the local and national experts who can help the village administrators and elected officials find the resources they need.
“Every single endangered historic sites list, and there are at least 34 and a national one, the primary purpose of them is just to focus attention, because there’s such limited funding,” Palmer says. “Take a time out here, consider what’s going on. In other communities, that attention has worked toward preservation of really important sights. It’s to make sure everyone in Ohio know that this kind of thing goes on and that if it can go on in Greenhills, it can go on in your community.”
Jennifer Ruffner, president of the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum in Maryland, lends her support to the preservation effort as well.
“Certainly, from a green standpoint, you don’t want to take up additional new land for housing,” Ruffner says. “But the greenest way to be is to perverse what is already there. In many ways historic preservation and preserving the greenest structures is the greenest option of all.
“We’re the sister town to Greenhills in Greenbelt. We’re one of the three green towns that were built as part of the New Deal. It was the resettlement administration that set up these model cities. They were so forward thinking for the time for the time and … still are now, as you see a new urbanism moving movement come up where they’re a walkable, livable sustainable community. All those terms apply to the historic districts in both towns.”
After learning all of this (see my news story in this week's CityBeat, "Endangered Green"), I still stand by my position that doing green construction in Greenhills is a good idea. I don't believe it ought to be done at the expense of a short-sighted effort to just get rid of what some people consider “ugly” buildings.
“It’s not something that excites a lot of people like they might get excited about Arts and Crafts Style,” says Patrick Karin, Greenhills resident and Greenhills Historical Society president. “It’s modern housing. We struggle with people using the term ‘barracks.’ There’s this tendency to minimize their historical significance and we recognize that not everybody likes this particular esthetic. It’s a hard sell some times.”
The most rewarding work is rarely easy, and this situation is no exception.
— Margo Pierce