GONE FOREVER // WHERE DO PRESERVATIONISTS GO FROM HERE?
By Anne R. Gibbons

I was appointed to the Tuscaloosa Historic Preservation Commission for a three-year term in April 2011. I had been approached a couple of years before about my willingness to serve on the HPC. And I was willing, even eager, to serve. I believe in the intrinsic value of historic preservation and was instrumental in persuading my neighborhood to request (and receive) historic district status.
Following the tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, the number of people applying for a certificate of appropriateness for repairs or rebuilding in historic districts was monumental. The HPC increased the number of meetings to expedite the huge increase in applications, and for several months we met semimonthly instead of only once a month.
The first year I served on the HPC was both painful and rewarding. Painful because at each meeting we saw horrific pictures of the devastation wrought by the EF4 tornado. From images of debris-filled lots where homes once stood to uprooted trees and shattered buildings, the color slides shown at each meeting were grim reminders of the storm that changed so many lives–and altered the landscape of Tuscaloosa forever.
The experience was rewarding because almost without exception the commission is made up of people who are advocates for historic preservation in general and the historic preservation of Tuscaloosa in particular. In the months after the tornado, commission members worked diligently to balance the demands of historic preservation with the very urgent need for people to return to their homes. Gradually, the town and its residents began to regain their equilibrium. As the number of petitions for certificates of appropriateness slacked off, the HPC returned to monthly meetings.
Over the next two years I became more and more disillusioned with historic preservation efforts in Tuscaloosa. Most HPC members recognize the economic and cultural value of preservation and are committed to helping Tuscaloosa retain its historic character. Apparently, city officials do not share that commitment.
In 2010 the city appointed 48 people to serve on the Greater Downtown Advisory Committee. That committee was composed of elected and appointed officials; members of cultural arts groups and the downtown business community; individuals interested in historic preservation; home builders and Realtors; and people with an interest in transit and educational issues. Members of the advisory committee brought diverse points of view to the table. Through give and take, compromise and consensus, discussion and debate, those differing views were melded into a thoughtful, comprehensive, workable plan for developing and preserving downtown Tuscaloosa. The Greater Downtown Plan lays out in clear detail the steps necessary to create “a vibrant, progressive, and sustainable greater downtown Tuscaloosa.”
But the Greater Downtown Plan is far more than a list of dos and don’ts. It offers us—the people who live, work, worship, play, and shop in Tuscaloosa—a blueprint for success. It is our town’s equivalent of Coach Saban’s “process”: “The process is what you have to do day in and day out to be successful. We try to define the standard that we want everybody to work toward, adhere to, and do on a consistent basis.”
One of the key components of the downtown plan is the importance of preserving our town’s architectural and cultural history. “Historic preservation is increasingly being recognized as an essential component of a city’s economic development strategy. Studies indicate that the rehabilitation of existing buildings stimulates a greater economic return per dollar spent than do highway construction, new construction, and the expansion of industry. Historic preservation has additional economic benefits in terms of tourism, the enhancement of property values, and the promotion of community sustainability. The importance of historic preservation to community revitalization has been demonstrated in thousands of towns all across America and the lessons they provide are relevant to Greater Downtown Tuscaloosa.”
Donovan Rypkema, a nationally recognized expert on the economic benefits of historic preservation, notes, “I cannot identify a single example of a sustained success story in downtown revitalization where historic preservation wasn’t a key component of that strategy. Not one. Conversely the examples of very expensive failures in downtown revitalization have nearly all had the destruction of historic buildings as a major element.”
Sadly, before the Greater Downtown Plan had been implemented, the 4/27 tornado struck our town. Not surprisingly, city officials and residents alike turned their attention toward rebuilding and recovery. Before long a plan for renewal and rebirth had been developed. The Tuscaloosa Forward Plan promised mixed-use development, walking and biking paths, parks, and neighborhood stores along the tornado’s path. Tuscaloosa had the opportunity to reinvent itself as a greener, more inclusive, cleaner, safer, altogether superior community.
Was it a perfect plan? No. Would it create a utopia? Certainly not. Was it put together through compromise, give-and-take, and negotiation? Yes.
Not everyone likes Tuscaloosa Forward. And surely no one likes it in every particular. But whether you love it, hate it, or are supremely indifferent to it, the plan represents the ideas and aspirations of ordinary citizens. No PACs contributed time or money to creating Tuscaloosa Forward. No special interest group exerted undue influence on the plan. Together, the community created a vision for our town. Together, we were ready to move forward.
Mayor Walt Maddox was the indisputable local leader in the days, weeks, and months after the EF4 tornado destroyed one-eighth of Tuscaloosa. His caring concern for his constituents was palpable. He and other city employees worked tirelessly coordinating efforts to clean up the city and begin the rebuilding process. The mayor and city council used a tragic event as a catalyst for positive change.
But something happened on the way to implementing the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan. The plan, which represents the cumulative effort of hundreds of volunteers who collectively spent thousands of hours reading, thinking, debating, negotiating, arguing, compiling, and writing, is being systematically dismantled. Through facile zoning variances, ready forgiveness for planning and zoning infractions, and political double-speak, commissions, agencies, and elected officials are emasculating the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan. A zoning variance here, a slackening of the rules there, a shrug of the shoulders at noncompliance are whittling away our community vision. That same disregard for the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan is reflected in the city’s historic preservation efforts—or rather the lack thereof.
“Comprehensive Planning will be essential to preserving our neighborhoods, promoting economic development and ensuring a high quality of life.” That’s not a quote from some local preservationist or pie-in-the-sky national consultant. That is point 3 on the city of Tuscaloosa’s website under Core Beliefs of the Maddox Administration. See for yourself at tuscaloosa.com/Government/Mayor/core-beliefs. Unfortunately, that core belief is being consistently ignored by our elected and appointed officials.
In the past year, we, the residents of Tuscaloosa, have destroyed the Kilgore home on the University of Alabama campus, the Searcy house on Greensboro, and the cluster of homes in the 2600 block of University Boulevard, as well as smaller, less-imposing but no less culturally important homes and businesses. We may not have swung a wrecking ball, torn out planking, or dismantled a staircase. Nonetheless we have been complicit in the destruction of those historic buildings and we continue to allow our heritage to be destroyed. City officials may talk about the importance of historic preservation but they have done almost nothing to protect these significant and irreplaceable structures.
So… Where do we go from here? How can we help preserve what’s left of our town? How can we see that comprehensive planning is more than just a bulleted item on the city of Tuscaloosa’s website? How can we ensure that the Greater Downtown and Tuscaloosa Forward plans are fully implemented? How do we begin fulfilling the promises laid out in those two visionary documents?
In the past twelve months some exceptional buildings in our community have been lost—in large part because the city failed to enforce its own zoning laws. We need elected officials who are committed to protecting the cultural and architectural history of Tuscaloosa. We need planners whose vision includes preserving and repurposing older buildings rather than demolishing them. We need to make our voices heard in letters to the editor and in emails and phone calls to elected officials. We need to question candidates about their commitment to historic preservation and make our wishes known at the ballot box. And we need to monitor the actions of city council members to be certain that they are doing more than mouthing empty phrases while allowing developers to destroy our heritage.
The April 27 tornado demolished 12.5 percent of our town. That’s more than enough destruction to last a lifetime.
Anne R. Gibbons is a member of Preserve Tuscaloosa, a grass-roots organization devoted to local preservation. A native Tuscaloosan, she lives in the Hillcrest historic district.

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