News: Endangered Green

Economic concerns pose a threat to Greenhills

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Greenhills Historical Society

Greenhills was one of three "Planned Greenbelt" built in the 1930s, but today its planned design is considered "endangered" by Preservation Ohio.

Endangered species receive extra attention and scrutiny when they go on a list. That's what some residents of Greenhills hope will happen to their community now that it's on Ohio's 2008 List of Most Endangered Historic Places.

Thomas Palmer, executive director of Preservation Ohio, the nonprofit historical organization that maintains the list, says the application from the Greenhills Historical Society included an impressive list of supporters. Among those challenging the demolition of historic structures in the suburb are the Ohio Historic Preservation Office; Patrick Snadon, an associate professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Cincinnati; and the National New Deal Preservation Association in Santa Fe, N.M.

Being placed on the List of Most Endangered Historic Places hasn't pleased Greenhills officials.

"The village administrator called me a week or so after it was put on and was less than thrilled," Palmer says. "But I don't know anybody that says what the village is doing when they're demolishing (buildings) is consistent with any long-term vision that's preservation-sensitive."

The "most endangered" declaration points to recent redevelopment in the Greenhills Historic District.

"To date, officials have purchased 135 dwellings, 20 percent of the historic district's original 676 residential units," the declaration says. "Of the unique building types found only in the targeted neighborhoods, 52 units have been razed and lost forever. Insensitive infill, renditions of 1900s Bungalow and American Foursquares, replaces the forward-thinking International and Moderne Styles of the 1938 originals.

"Preservation Ohio has placed the Greenhills Historic District on the 2008 List ... as it represents an irreplaceable piece of Ohio and American history that clearly deserves a better fate."

The situation is a little disturbing to preservationists because Greenhills actively promotes itself as one of only three Planned Greenbelt towns built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. Greenhills officials brag that their greenspace hasn't been overdeveloped, unlike the other two.

Yet the village's effort to improve housing stock isn't focused on preservation but rather on replacement, albeit utilizing green construction techniques. Oscar Hoffman, Mayor of Greenhills, acknowledged the concerns of residents when discussing the DeWitt Landing project but was more interested in promoting the new development (see "Greening Greenhills," issue of April 9).

Jennifer Ruffner, president of the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum in Maryland, a sister city to Greenhills, says the preservation of historic homes is a challenge her community also faces.

"Here in Greenbelt, if you walk around town, you're not going to see a town that's identical to what was here when the builders originally built it," she says. "People have added on to their structure, the exteriors have been modified — that, to varying degrees, is good and bad. But the town itself has grown, but we have retained the original structures.

"From a historic preservation standpoint, you want to keep the feel of that historic district. ... These green towns used the Modern International Movement (style of architecture), clean lines, and to some they look more stark, but that was a very forward-thinking style of the period."

Promoting the value of this unusual architecture is one of the greatest challenges Greenhills faces, according to Patrick Kerin, president of the Greenhills Historical Society. The village administration is talking about developing a marketing plan and a strategic plan for the community, which Kerin supports.

"We feel the historic housing is an economic benefit," he says. "It might mean bringing a different demographic into the village. It might not be bringing in families with three or four children. ... There has to be some deep, original, creative thinking. Trying to West Chester it, trying to make it look like someplace else, just isn't going to work in the long run."

Kerin says he understands the village is facing a lot of debt, but short-term solutions can result in long-term pain.

"We're not trying to say it has to be just like it was in the '30s," Kerin says. "That's not what we're about. If something does need to be taken down, there really needs to be clear proof of that, and it needs to be presented to the community. One concern is that most of this stuff has gone on in the village municipal building and it hasn't been as open as it needs to be." ©

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