Yearning for the past shouldn’t hamper the future

Tampa’s quaint bungalows and brick factories are in some ways more of a curse than a blessing.

Earlier this week, Tampa City Council members, in addition to property owners and preservationists, debated Tampa’s historic preservation ordinance. As explained by Ellen Gedalius of the Tampa Tribune, contention arose when the parties discussed whether to designate several cigar factories as “historic.”

Under Tampa’s system, property owners do not have a choice in whether their property is considered historic. This is particularly odd, considering historic designation requires property owners in Tampa Heights, Ybor City, Seminole Heights and Hyde Park to comply with strict design guidelines. Such guidelines are enforced, in turn, by an architectural committee specific to each area.

As detailed in chapter 17.5 of Tampa’s Code of Ordinances, the committee’s guidelines, however draconian or arcane, have “the force and effect of law.”

So it is quite fitting that attendees of this meeting were embroiled in debate, as the decision will reflect the city council’s notion of property rights either in a positive or negative manner – whether Tampa residents can do what they wish with their own property, regardless of sanction.

Some attendees were proponents of adopting attorney David Smith’s consensual historic designation plan, under which historical designation would be more akin to Hillsborough County’s preservation system. Voluntary compliance with guidelines would be reciprocated with tax incentives.

Smith’s plan is quite reasonable. He accurately highlights that forced historical designation puts some property owners in a fiscally prickly position.

A counter to Smith’s argument is that strict guidelines have not been an economic detriment to development as of yet, judging by Centro Ybor’s recent boom. Moreover, symbolic capital – such as cultural heritage, which can be used to attract tourist dollars – is in many ways lucrative. However, the fact remains that some property owners do feel economic pressure from these regulations – hence their complaints in the first place.

Even if it were the case that these property owners represented a minority sentiment, it does not mean their concerns shouldn’t be addressed. Inhibitions toward development involve all property owners – be they big businesses, homesteaders or elderly snowbirds – and are rightfully disconcerting.

One of the deterrents proffered by historical preservation councils includes requiring the use of expensive building materials. And, of course, there’s the issue of ubiquitous red tape.

Despite the validity of these concerns, other attendees favor a more authoritarian approach toward historic designation. Fran Constantino of the East Ybor Historic and Civic Community Association represents a strict preservationist perspective – a perspective absolutely antithetical to property rights. He told the Tampa Tribune, “We are pleading with you today to … save our legacy … owner consent should not be an option.”

Why does Constantino think the vague, seemingly ethereal notion of legacy should supersede the needs and concerns of present citizens? To exalt the past to the degree at which the present and future suffer suggests the present is in some way deficient or inferior to the past.

What Constantino’s sentiments represent is dogged adherence to the “good ol’ days” attitude that neglects that these very “good ol’ days” were, in many ways, bad.

Like it or not, those charming Southern bungalows are icons of a Florida rife with racism and brutality. Similarly, the streets of Ybor are emblematic of urban decline – a once-productive industrial area succumbing to “gangsterism” and debauchery in the middle of the century.

Since the “good ol’ days” defense is seemingly incongruous, it is questionable why remnants of these eras should be touted and preserved at all costs.

That’s not to say that the past does not hold value and should not be voluntarily preserved by concerned persons. What it does mean is that people should learn from sites prepared in a voluntary manner rather than blindly embrace the past at the cost of property rights.

Development will go on. if people such as Constantino do not reconsider the ramifications of reverence for everything old, It may go on in areas other than those in Tampa that are most in need of it Perhaps the commissioners should study history a bit more before they choose to live it or, more properly, live in it. That does not mean what has been done historically is necessarily good, but merely that the past can at times provide a good, sensible lesson.

If anything, the past suggests that municipal grandeur often comes with drastic ecological and developmental changes. The beautiful metropolis of St. Petersburg, Russia, was at one time a malarial bog. And that city of lights, Paris, you may ask? Well, Napoleon III’s changes were made possible only through district-wide demolition.

Victoria Bekiempis is a sophomore majoring in history and French.