I’ve had Montvale on the brain, and I decided to put up a draft of a letter I’m planning on sending to City Councilors (list here) later this week. I’m not sure it will convince anyone, but it’s somewhat cathartic to write in a more rational manner than is my wont.
I am writing to urge the Council not to expand the Montvale Historic District to include the tennis court at One Montvale Road. I am not a resident of the district; nor am I a personal friend of Ms. Todd or Mr. Tibrewal. I write as a resident of Worcester who has grown increasingly frustrated at the need to involve city government in what is essentially an issue of taste.
The residents of the Montvale Historic District who support expanding the district to include the tennis court property have two arguments in favor of the expansion. The first is that the parcel of land has historic significance and that the property was mistakenly not included in the district when it was established in 1993. The second is that the district needs to be expanded in order to protect the historic district’s integrity and to preserve the feel of the neighborhood.
Regarding the first point: of course, parcels of land themselves can be considered historic. Take, for example, the Hill of Tara in Ireland, which is being threatened by the encroachment of the M3 highway, or the Wilderness Battlefield, a Civil War battlefield where a Wal-Mart is being proposed. Both of these are cases where the land itself holds historic significance, and where development on that land would cause permanent cultural damage.
The tennis court site at One Montvale Road holds no such historic significance. This parcel of land was not part of the original historic district plan because it was not part of that property at the time the house was built; there is no other historic event that occurred on this property that would warrant its inclusion in the district. Regarding the assertion that it had been mistakenly excluded, according to the minutes of the Historical Commission Meeting of 11 October 2007, Shantia Anderheggen , author of the Proposed Montvale Local Historic District Preliminary Report, had been contacted and indicated that the boundaries had been carefully examined; one can only conclude that this property was excluded on purpose. If the Montvale Historic District is expanded to include this property, the integrity of the district, far from being assured, is in fact compromised. The City of Worcester would be making a statement that the residents of an historic district are the ultimate arbiters of what does and does not belong in their district; actual historic significance would be secondary to the will of the neighborhood.
I am sympathetic to the concerns that the residents of the Montvale Historic District have about the potential for change in their neighborhood. Many Worcester residents, myself included, have seen significant changes to our own neighborhoods in the same time period that the Montvale Historic District has existed. On my own street, we have had houses shoehorned into any lot where a house can fit, with little discretion paid to anything but the profit of the developer. The Montvale residents have successfully prevented a new house would not be built in their neighborhood, made sure that their neighborhood does not get overrun with traffic during the rush hours, and negotiated with an important non-profit to ensure that the integrity of their neighborhood is upheld. The difference between most residents of Worcester and the Montvale residents is that we do not have the luxury of living in an historic district; many of us do not have the financial or political wherewithal to challenge changes that will affect our property values or neighborhood’s quality of life.
James Crowley made the statement (quoted in Dianne Williamson’s column of 20 December 2009) that his neighbors are “committed to Worcester even though they ‘could live in Westboro’ or a surrounding suburb.” Previously, in the Telegram article “Montvale proposal on hold; Councilors to visit historic district” from 25 March 2008, Crowley said that “People in the neighborhood are committed to the concept of a historic district. If the district is not protected, the people could lose their commitment to it. (The historic district) has been a good thing for our neighborhood and for the city.” It is good to see that his and his neighbors’ commitment to both his neighborhood and this city has grown in the past year and a half.
But the goal of this city and its government should not be merely to appease its more appealing residents in order to stave off an exodus to the eastern suburbs. If that were the case, Ms. Todd and Mr. Tibrewal are just as redeemable: they are young and hardworking and (perhaps best of all) have willingly chosen to live in Worcester, despite having no family ties to this area. Let’s leave likability and sympathy out of this.
The question at hand is whether an historic district needs to include buffers that hold no historic value; whether neighbors have the right to dictate to other neighbors which backyard accoutrements are acceptable; whether it’s acceptable to include a piece of property in an historic district only so that the Historical Commission, rather than the Zoning Board, can decide on what can be included there. Of course no one wants to see his neighborhood negatively impacted, but the appropriate place to address those concerns is with the ZBA, not by adding a property to the Historic District. We cannot and should not use those districts for purposes other than those for which they were created.