Monday, June 15, 2009

It's Our Turn

Last week a couple articles appeared in the press about the possible purchase of the Coyle Dodge property for use as City/County headquarters.

At the last regular City Council meeting, (which seems about seven meetings back) a resolution was passed unanimously, favoring the concept of Smart Growth and admonishing the City to hew to that organization's principles in planning. It further suggested that the City's Comprehensive Plan be updated in accordance with Smart Growth principles.

The potential acquisition of the Coyle property is a golden, if sudden, opportunity to put the City's resolve into practice. Smart Growth might not necessarily result in moving City Hall onto the Coyle property. But smart growth, lower case intended, would dictate that the existing Coyle building be used if that property is acquired.

For those not too familiar with the layout of the property, there are three main components of the complex: A) is the main building the old New Albany Motors showroom, B) is the garage between the showroom and Elm Street, C) is the site of the old Frisch's restaurant which, to my perception, is now masquerading as a
fun dome, to me it looks inflatable.

Responsible re-use of the property dictates that the main showroom building be used and preserved as a critical feature of Spring Street. That building has commanding street presence which would translate into an attractive, functional, City Hall. Its size is sufficient to satisfy the City's office needs; it has ample parking. On a cold Sunday morning in February or March, I, and several other Council members, toured the entire property. Also along for the tour was an architect who was able to answer questions about possible alterations to fit governmental purposes. Geothermal heat has been explored to some extent as a possible feature of the renewed building. If I am not mistaken, the second floor is poured concrete, indicating an exceptionally sturdy construction. Someone raised doubts about the Mayor or other offices conducting business behind the massive plate glass windows of the showroom. While sunlight may be the best protection of democracy, it is not always the best ingredient for effective meetings and comfortable working conditions, therefore, in all likelihood the large windows would be replaced with an appropriate window scheme in keeping with the rest of the building's facade. Any architect with even a grain of creativity,unable to clear that hurdle should turn in his/her credentials.

The garage, adjacent to the showroom toward Elm, to my untrained eye, appears to be a vast improvement over the digs the street department and the vehicle maintenance crew now inhabits. It has lifts for the servicing of cars, and since Coyle did a fair amount of truck business, I presume they are adequate for trucks as well. The only proviso on the use of the Coyle garage would be that the eventual acquirer of the old Street Department office be made to preserve that structure. The Street Department building is part of a truly significant block which, architecturally, comprises Downtown's northern border.

The building on the old Frisch's site was ill-considered. It must go.

What would be left would be a laudable example of adaptive re-use. The new City Hall could be a boon to the City by: strengthening the downtown area, allowing the justice system to occupy the entire current City/County Building, bringing better service and efficiency to the Street Department and vehicle maintenance, providing City offices the ability to physically expand, and to bring better governmental services.

All those are fine outcomes. But the real gifts this re-use can bring to the future citizens of New Albany are not so easily quantifiable. Those benefits must be weighed and realized by those people-today's high-schoolers,grade-schoolers and those yet to join the parade. This is our opportunity, in a sadly much smaller way, to undo the damage those short-sighted, temporally-challenged members of the past, who thought tearing down the old Post Office for parking was a good idea, did to our city for all time. This is our chance to make a statement that we do, in fact, get it. We recognize, as Wendell Berry often calls it, "the power of place". We see what defines this city.

Atavist? Nostalgist? Perhaps. But we must take the steps now to do what those who preceded us did not do often enough. I believe that the single exploitable, noteworthy, significant, asset we have been given by our forebears is our store of historic buildings. That is not to suggest in any way that only those things which are old have value. But when one travels from town to town, exurb to exurb, those features which define us and offer interest to those who pass this way, are our larder of architectural gems. If those who held the reins before us had done their jobs responsibly, or had been given the gift of foresight, perhaps the Coyle building would be just another mundane structure failing to rise to the level of what they, in their wisdom, had preserved. But that is not the case.

The stakes are high because we need to preserve those pieces which frame our built-environment. We need to preserve them, not because they are pleasant to look at, or simply because they represent Berry's "place", but because they serve as the tacks which hold to the frame the canvas on which adherents of Smart Growth hope to paint a livable community.

We in government can serve the greater needs of the City, which means we can serve us, and those who follow us, and those who follow them. Or, we can bend to the will of the vocal nay-sayers who believe their lives are enriched by holding on to fleeting snatches of prosperity, the players in a zero-sum game who only want others not to enjoy what has been given to them.

It is now up to us to plan for the future. Do we bequeath to those who follow, a cookie-cutter hell scape of suburban/exurban sameness defined by Butler Buildings and strip centers with ample parking? Or, do we draw a line which says, no more? You have taken enough. This city has lost enough. Now we must hold what we have, so that those who follow have a place. A piece of continuity.

The reason I have not mentioned the County element of the City/County structure is that, I believe, this property is not large enough to accommodate both entities. A proposed west-end development indicates space needs of 40,000 for County government, 20,000 for City and 20,000 for State. Under that plan two city blocks of space were required. Much of the land was set aside for parking. The Coyle property is also roughly two city blocks (with additional acquisitions ).

I am no fan of City-County merger. I do recognize that this trend is extant and may some day result in such a combination. It is not our duty to build a combined structure which anticipates such a polity. Our duty is to serve the needs of the City as it is now constituted. If circumstances bring another entity into existence which renders the City Hall obsolete, so be it. Future generations can deal with that eventuality.

Finally, some have suggested that the Coyle building, even at its superior size to the existing City/County Building, is too small to allow for assembly space. That possible shortcoming can be obviated by the Baptist Tabernacle which sits just a short walk away from the Coyle complex. I believe the Tabernacle can be resuscitated, with outside funds, if the structure served double-duty as both a City assembly room and a community theater/event hall.

The articles in the papers suggested that the property would be exorcised of its current buildings and presented as a clean site for the construction of a governmental complex. If the county can join the City on the Coyle property while keeping the main building intact, so be it. If not, let it look elsewhere.

If the property were not to be shared with the County, the parcel facing Sixth Street would present an excellent opportunity for some creative, quality-minded developer to work cooperatively with the City to build townhouses or row houses.

Such a development would square with Smart Growth. An adaptive re-use of the Coyle building would be a significant example of Smart Growth with numerous benefits for downtown revitalization efforts. This post is too long to explore most of the positive environmental benefits of Smart Growth. Aside from future generations winning by our efforts at archtectural preservation, the main benefit in saving the structure is the application in the present of resources expended in the past for today and the future.