|The Old and Historic Fredericksburg District
Why the Historic District was Established
Historic designation of Fredericksburg's Central Business District and its surrounding neighborhoods challenged the concept that destruction of the built environment was somehow necessary to accommodate new growth. In the post World War II economic boom, many cities destroyed entire neighborhoods when they routed highways through them to serve suburban commuters. Other neighborhoods were demolished in the name of urban renewal. In the 1960s, Fredericksburg officials considered plans to bulldoze portions of the lower Charles Street neighborhood to clear the way for commercial development as well as low-income housing projects.
In this destructive setting, the idea of historic districts evolved as a means to maintain good community design, even when specific areas were not directly linked to historic events or persons. Previously, historic preservation had consisted of interested groups or individuals maintaining, restoring, or rebuilding specific Colonial-era structures - such as Mount Vernon, Kenmore, and Hugh Mercer's Apothecary Shop - as shrines that evoked patriotic ideals. This trend culminated in the recreation of an entire Colonial town at Williamsburg, inthe 1930s. The National Preservation Act of 1966, however, recognized that a community's social, cultural, political and economic underpinnings depended on the community itself remaining intact.
Response to a Threat
Commercial development during the post World War II economic boom provided an impetus for the destruction of historic communities. Economic activity had begun to conform to the growing use of automobiles and many property owners demolished old buildings in an effort to make downtown real estate more marketable. The resulting vacant parcels provided an area where new construction could be set back from the street, a paved parking area placed in front, and a large free-standing sign erected to attract the passing motorists. This formula is still very much in use today and is clearly evident in such superstore development areas as the Route 3 Corridor.
This new type of development soon overshadowed pedestrian and community needs by chopping gaps in the street-scape. In a disconcerting reversal of the building and development that had occurred as Fredericksburg emerged from its frontier period, buildings that had been built for permanence were demolished and replaced with inexpensive construction whose useful life would often be measured in decades. The loss of the prominent Maury House, in 1953, as well as the proposed demolition of a dependency behind the National Bank of Fredericksburg, in 1955, motivated a citizens group to establish the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, Inc. This group worked aggressively to obtain several other properties to prevent their destruction, and renovated them for resale. When the National Historic Preservation Act became law, in 1966, Historic Fredericksburg pushed for the establishment of a historic district within the City.
In addition to the public outcry over the physical loss of the community's component buildings, there was an official reaction to a reduction in economic activity that inevitably occurred when the Route 1 Bypass and later Interstate-95 were built. Transportation routes, upon which any community depends, had once been focused on the downtown area. The original town was oriented to the Rappahannock River and subsequent growth retained this focus. Although the R. F. & P. Railroad effectively shifted the main transportation route from an east-west axis (the Rappahannock River) to a north-south one (the railway), the centrally located commercial part of town remained active because it was traversed by the new tracks. The new roadways, however, deliberately bypassed Fredericksburg.
When major retail establishments began moving out of downtown, to shopping centers near the new transportation routes on the outskirts of town, the City government was left to confront the reality of dwindling tax revenues. The City Council addressed the interrelated concerns of its physical resources and its economic health by emphasizing the Central Business District's historic character and the potential benefits of tourism. The City government also took the pragmatic step of annexing the critical new crossroads.
Fredericksburg had a strong basis for developing a historic district because it contains an impressive assemblage of architecture, ranging from the late eighteenth century to the present day. The City has also been the home of a number of citizens prominent in American history, including Presidents George Washington and James Monroe. In addition, distinguished visitors of historic importance have included the Marquis de Lafayette, Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, William McKinley, Winston Churchill, and George Bush. Furthermore, this town has endured the destruction of war, inundation by river floods, and devastation by fire, yet has remained an intact community throughout. The City's resilience, its impressive history, and its distinct community character are all qualities worthy of recognition by the present as well as future generations.
In addition, Fredericksburg's traditional development pattern is a proven concept being used as a model for contemporary planned community development. It is no coincidence that professional planning for new communities such as Haymount, in Caroline County, includes a concerted effort to create an active social and economic focal point, to ensure the success of the overall project. Mixing appropriate land uses in close proximity to one another and in greater development densities is also critical to mitigating the type of traffic congestion that occurs in low density development corridors.
The heart of Fredericksburg is its citizens, though, and downtown Fredericksburg has traditionally been their political, social, entertainment, and economic center. Changing transportation patterns since the Second World War have altered this focus, but the downtown area still contains the Central Business District, City Hall, the Circuit and General District Courts, the railroad station, the U.S. Post Office, many churches, and the community's oldest neighborhoods. Clearly, the City's economic vitality is inexorably linked to its historic and traditional character. The challenge is to ensure that both factors complement one another.
In 1969-70, a University of Virginia graduate student named Richard Kearns developed an historic preservation plan for the City's downtown area. This project provided an initial step to articulate how the City could adapt its past to the present, in order to help meet the needs of the future. His study resulted in four specific recommendations.
Kearns' first recommendation was based on his observation that downtown Fredericksburg is primarily of local importance. As a consequence, any substantial preservation would also have to be local. On the other hand, he also noted that the City was one of only a few surviving southern cityscapes and its preservation thus took on national importance. At that time, much attention was focused on Williamsburg and many local residents believed Fredericksburg could be similarly redeveloped to compete with this elaborate tourist destination. Kearns realized this goal was unrealistic, but that the City's property owners would still be able to benefit from federal programs, such as historic preservation tax credits.
Kearns' next recommendation acknowledged the range of architectural styles and periods represented in Fredericksburg. While the lack of concentration removed any impetus to preserve everything, the community's authenticity and diversity were certainly worthy of maintenance. Kearns cited several threats to the City, including demolition of entire structures, incompatible improvements, phony antique storefronts, misuse of old building forms, and new construction in previous styles. The Williamsburg example had evidently motivated many investors and businesses to try to provide downtown Fredericksburg with more of a Colonial look than was justified by the number of buildings that survived from that era. Kearns decried this trend while observing that the City's true strength was to be found in its integrity.
The third recommendation to come out of Kearns' study was that preservation should include rehabilitation of structures as well as elimination of those which are deemed undesirable. In both instances, clear standards and guidelines are necessary to differentiate between important and contributing structures and those that are neither. Historic houses, for example, are not necessarily old. Old houses are also not necessarily historic. While removal of nonsignificant, unstable buildings may be advisable, however, this issue reveals the fundamental problem inherent to historic preservation - who decides what is significant. The challenge for a municipality is to develop a mechanism to ensure that the community itself passes judgement on its development and redevelopment.
Kearns' final recommendation recognized that commercial and residential rehabilitation are desirable for two reasons. First, preservation of historic structures and streetscapes maximizes the City's tourism potential. Second, such activity helps to maintain downtown Fredericksburg as a local resource that will continue to function as a shopping district, a cultural and entertainment center, and a vital part of the City's economy and tax base.
In summary, historic preservation provides a reference point for change rather than a re-creation of the past. A community's built environment provides a tangible link to its past, bridging past and future to perpetuate social and cultural values. Although a city's history is evident in its architecture, this history cannot be frozen in time without destroying its contemporary function as a living environment. Yet, while everything cannot be preserved as is, it becomes critically important to maintain the historic context, the architectural integrity, and the traditional urban design of the community, as the City continues to function and grow.
The Old and Historic Fredericksburg District
The 1972 ordinance which ultimately created the Old and Historic Fredericksburg District (HFD) recognized this close relationship between citizens and their community and deliberately related preservation of historic buildings to the broader focus of maintaining the viability of downtown Fredericksburg. Historic preservation became a means to maintain the City's dignity and vitality.
How the Historic District has been Maintained
The long-term beneficial impacts of Historic District designation have been directly related to clearly focused public policy goals. In Fredericksburg, designation addressed a legitimate government concern to revitalize the community's social, cultural, political, and economic core. The City then established the legal means to achieve this defined end, through careful zoning regulation and architectural preservation that enhanced community stability and cultural continuity. Although there has been disagreement and debate over individual preservation issues, overall historic designation has reflected the powerful consensus of the need to maintain the City's identity.
This focus on the historic community as a source of identity is the HFD's real strength. Too often, historic districts draw investors intent on renovating distressed buildings, but at the expense of displaced local residents. In Fredericksburg, though, there is a growing appreciation that the HFD encompasses ethnic and community history, over and above the traditional emphasis on Revolutionary heroes. This City has been comprised of artisans, immigrants, slaves, free Blacks and factory workers, as well as the more prominent citizenry. The impetus to celebrate the community's diversity and working class heritage is illustrated by the recent expansion of the HFD to include mill sites, canals, and industrial buildings as well as the ongoing community redevelopment programs in parts of the City once targeted for razing and urban renewal.
Historic District Integrity
The integrity of a historic district inevitably endures a tenuous existence. If a district does not provide a locality with some sort of economic return, it risks dismemberment through inappropriate development and redevelopment. If too successful, on the other hand, the growing numbers of investors and visitors threaten the authenticity of the community's character that initially attracted them. As a consequence, a historic district must continuously accommodate a host of conflicting interests such as private property rights, freedom of expression and legal aesthetics, local history and its resulting values, and economic development.
Property Rights - There is often a perceived conflict between individual property rights and the administration of a historic district. Many believe that historic designation somehow curtails Constitutional rights. Property rights are not all-encompassing, though, even without historic designation. Government can purchase private property, whether or not an owner desires to sell it, for such things as highway rights-of-way. Government also imposes very specific and detailed building requirements through Building Codes. Government also regulates the use of an individual's land through zoning, effectively precluding certain uses.
The basic factors in the property rights debate are the property owner's investment-backed expectations and the public welfare. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a property owner is entitled to an economically viable use of his/her property. The Court has maintained, however, that there is no inherent guarantee of a highest and best use of land. "Highest and best use" is a real estate appraisal term to estimate land value based on legally permitted uses. Federal courts have consistently held, since 1926, that government action that provides for the public welfare - such as local zoning- requires no compensation to property owners, even if their property values are thereby diminished. Democracy and capitalism are not synonymous terms. A property owner does not have an inherent right to destroy or even compromise a community - by placing a slaughterhouse in a residential neighborhood, for example.
The key phrase to justify government regulation, though, is the public welfare. There must always be a clear public benefit to be derived by government regulation or action. Property condemned to provide a right-of-way is supposed to benefit the public through provision of transportation facilities. Building codes are primarily concerned with public health and safety. Zoning regulations, which can include historic preservation regulations, have as their basis the maintenance and development of a livable and economically viable community.
Probably the most persistent misconception is that government regulation inevitably diminishes property values. In reality, government action usually enhances private property values. Publicly funded utilities, schools, transportation systems, fire protection and other services, for example, encourage development and subsequently impart a greater economic benefit to the property owner than if this indirect public subsidy had not been provided.
A sound historic preservation ordinance that provides for a carefully regulated historic district has also been shown to have an extremely beneficial impact on the market value of private property. A study by the Government Finance Research Center (The Economic Benefits of Preserving Community Character, 1991) found that between 1971 and 1990, residential properties in Fredericksburg's historic district increased in value by an average of 674 percent while comparable residential properties located elsewhere in the City increased in value by an average of 410 percent. While these higher rates cannot be ascribed solely to historic district designation, such designation - imposed by City Council to maintain and enhance the community's character for the public good - has certainly enhanced rather than diminished private property values.
Freedom of Expression and Legal Aesthetics - Other potential conflicts within a historic district are found between historic preservation goals and a citizen's First Amendment rights. The dynamics of a vibrant city involve continuous development and redevelopment. A historic preservation ordinance should not be enacted to avoid these inevitable changes within a community. Rather than freezing development, historic preservation should make visible the process of change even as it maintains the architectural integrity and cultural continuity of the community's built environment.
Architecture represents local values and identity. The preservation of this cultural context, including its historic land use patterns, maintains the ties that bind people to places. The social consequences of expression, therefore, are very much in the public interest. The law, however, cannot create beauty nor guarantee that others will do so. Rather than infringing on a citizen's freedom of expression, a historic district ordinance should clearly define the distinct features and characteristics of the community that are important to its citizens. Property owners should then be allowed the greatest latitude of expression, consistent with the criteria identified as necessary to maintain the community's integrity.
Local History and Values - There are four basic characteristics that have been identified as imparting historic significance to a building or site. A place can be considered historic if any one of these characteristics is applicable. First, is a building archtecturally significant? Second and third, is the location associated with notable events or persons? And fourth, is the building or site important to the area's historic context?
Such cultural resources are a community's touchstones - vital links to its past where earlier residents fought for an ideal, struggled for equality, or otherwise defined their community. Images of the past are constantly changing, though, because they are viewed through contemporary experiences. As a consequence, historic preservation which seeks to encapsulate an image will eventually and inevitably become irrelevant. Instead, preservation should be a maintenance of those physical features of the past that reflect citizen values.
Historic preservation should thus maintain a community rather than displace it. An understanding of this standard is important in order to preclude development of a false history. A late nineteenth century Victorian building, for example, should not be embellished with the architectural details of an earlier era to make it look like a mid- eighteenth century structure. A community such as Fredericksburg is more readily characterized by the confident innovation that is apparent in old buildings adapted to modern usage as well as new buildings incorporated into the fabric of traditional streetscapes. Renovation and new construction that tries to recreate an earlier period only serves to raise false expectations and is inherently stagnant.
Economic Development - Early recognition of downtown Fredericksburg's economic significance was critical to the success of the City's preservation effort. Downtown areas are places where transportation, people, and economics intersect to generate an ongoing process of encounter and exchange. This interaction is as much social as monetary, however, so preserving old buildings without maintaining the community is only part of the answer to providing fundamental economic vitality.
The Historic District ordinance provided the legal framework to preserve the City's architectural history, but maintained provisions to ensure continued economic activity. This issue was hotly debated and entailed several compromises, but in the end, historic preservation served to enhance both neighborhoods and the Central Business District. As a consequence, the Central Business District remains the democratic heart of the City. It encompasses the powerful dynamics of human creativity and economic growth. It is multicultural and serves as a small business incubator. This traditional function of a central city is increasingly in competition, though, with the sanitized environment of subdivisions, superstores, and shopping malls.
Competition is a basic component of the market economy but the disparity between the downtown business district and outlying malls and superstores is striking. Downtown, for example, consists primarily of local merchants whose business profits get recirculated in the community. Malls and superstores are dominated by national retailers whose profits are mostly diverted to corporate headquarters. Downtown is a diverse, accessible, multi-purpose area which serves as a community focal point for social, government, retail, and entertainment activities. Although there are some entertainment functions in malls, they are primarily single purpose (retail oriented) places which can only be reached by persons who own and operate motor vehicles. Community-based businesses help support local activities, and independent owners often serve on local boards and commissions. Malls and superstores make a minimal investment in the community (building shells and paved lots) and generate the byproduct of traffic congestion which comes from an exclusive reliance on automobile access.
In this type of competition, national retail chains often cause local small businesses to resort to catering to tourists rather than continuing to meet the community's needs. Under these circumstances, downtown business growth can be limited by the overall number of tourists. Instead of relying on visitor/tourist volume, it becomes increasingly critical for the City to maintain and enhance the component parts of its Central Business District to ensure a vibrant economy which remains competitive with the malls and superstores proliferating in the surrounding areas.
Zoning and the Architectural Review Board
LAND USE. American society is based on a strong belief in private property and individual mobility. Private decision making, however, can have impacts far beyond an individual's property line. Essentially, there are four legal viewpoints to be addressed by public policy as it relates to private land use. First, the property owner must be allowed legitimate use of his or her land. Second, the owner's neighbors must be protected from a nuisance, although government should not preclude legitimate owner interests. Third, the municipality must protect the public interest. The fourth viewpoint is regional, representing the area outside the municipality that may be affected by local decisions.
Within this context, zoning law has been developed to resolve land use disputes. When based on publicly adopted plans and administered with a procedural due process that is fair, zoning helps to create a community that is economically viable as well as attractive and livable. Land use zoning is in place throughout the City and the provisions of the Zoning Ordinance are applicable on all property whether or not it is located in the Historic District. The boundaries of the Old and Historic Fredericksburg District are simply superimposed over this existing land use regulation. The Architectural Review Board (ARB) is appointed by City Council to administer the provisions of the City Zoning Ordinance as it relates to buildings in the Historic District. These regulations are intended to protect, restore, and preserve the architectural integrity of the City's existing historic structures. As the ARB fulfills this basic function in the area of the City under its purview, it is also tasked with creating an atmosphere for compatible growth, with preventing the intrusion of environmental influences adverse to such purposes, and with ensuring that new structures and uses are in keeping with the Historic District character.
The Board does not fulfill its mandate by regulating the use of property. As explained above, that function is accomplished through the existing Zoning Ordinance - adopted by City Council and administered by City staff. The ARB's design review does not equate to zoning restrictions, although citizens often have this impression. Many projects have inherently difficult design issues that require close coordination between the applicant and the Board, but a clear delineation should be made between design issues and land use. Land use is prescribed by zoning. The ARB's responsibility is to help integrate the new development into the community.
The fundamental quality of a city or a town is determined by its building patterns. This urban design is a combination of factors related to the physical nature of a community, whether it be a large-lot residential subdivision, downtown storefronts, or variations in between. The strength of these neighborhoods is directly attributable to maintenance of what have come to be called patterns of place. Four basic principles can be evaluated in this context, to determine the applicability of public policy to maintain and enhance City neighborhoods.
Continuity of Scale - Patterns of scale are clearly evident in
downtown Fredericksburg. The overall collection of buildings is often extremely
diverse in terms of individual design and historic style, but there is
a cohesiveness in their scale. When a building is out of scale, such as
occurred when the six-story 601 Caroline Street was built, the impact is
jarring and apparent to all.
Balance of Two Sided Streets - Effective and successful streets are invariably two-sided, whether the street is commercial or residential. Shopping mall developers are well aware that people are comfortable in such surroundings, and they build their retail centers with a basic two-sided layout. Buildings, as well as street trees, sidewalks, and street furniture such as street lights, on both sides of the street, are a powerful combination of elements that result in an extremely attractive neighborhood.
Continuity of Fabric - The many buildings in Fredericksburg are individually different, yet exhibit distinctive patterns of construction, whether bricks, decorative woodwork, gable ends, columned front porches, and so on. The buildings do not replicate, but are responsive to and compliment, one another.
Historic designation allows the full implementation of the above urban
design factors. Zoning regulations ensure
HISTORIC DISTRICT OVERLAY. The ARB review process is one of several areas where the construction permitting process overlaps the City's zoning ordinance. As mentioned above, the Historic District is overlayed onto the existing land use zoning. Other overlay areas where additional permits are required include the Floodplain Overlay District and Chesapeake Bay Protection Areas.
The ARB examines any proposed work from the viewpoint of the property owner, but with the added focus of maintaining the integrity of any historic structure. There is a range of accepted practices to adapt older buildings to modern usages and the Board serves to ensure these are known and followed. The ARB does not design projects. This task is left to the property owner. The Board simply reviews projects to ensure compatibility with standard preservation practices.
The Board also looks beyond the individual property to the broader community.
An individual project - whether it is a building addition, a sign, demolition
of a structure, or even new construction -- has an impact on its neighborhood
and streetscape. In addition to maintaining the integrity of individual
structures, the Board ensures the integrity of their
The Board thus addresses development in the Historic District from the perspective of the first three viewpoints inherent to zoning. These are the property owner, the neighbors, and the overall community. The regional perspective is clearly beyond the Board's purview, although Fredericksburg's historic core helps to characterize the region. Developers and commercial interests constantly use downtown Fredericksburg in their marketing and advertising to draw customers and investors to the region.
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