Carole Owens: Finding preservation/growth balance

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STOCKBRIDGE — For decades there was an expressed wish to make the Berkshires a year-round destination. We finally succeeded; we have more tourists more often. As a direct result we have proposals for museums in the north, resorts in the south, and motels in between. By their coming, developers can change the very things they came for. So now we know — be careful what you wish for. We have what we wanted; now how do we deal with it?

What makes one place uniquely and distinctly that place? How do we preserve that? One mistake we make is talking about preserving the past. Truth is, as we consider the many development proposals, we are engaged in preserving our future. What Berkshire County will be in 20 years is based on what we decide to build or tear down, allow or disallow, now. What are the possibilities and choices available? Most important, what is sacrosanct?

Progress and preservation, land use and conservation are simultaneously cross--supportive and at odds. If we accept that change is inevitable and at the same time acknowledge that preservation and conservation are parts of sound planning, we do not have a solution; we have merely defined the problem.

The problems are oxymoronic. For example: those things that maximize profits can destroy the things we wished to purchase with the gain; the things that attract second home owners are changed by their coming, and in an effort to accommodate tourists, we build the things here that they traveled to escape.

Inherent contractions

Last summer, a tourist corralled a woman on the street and asked where to park. It was July; it was a good question. When dissatisfied with the answer, the tourist launched, "I would think you people would have ample parking, a free parking lot on Main Street, public toilets, fast food restaurants, and big signs directing people. It's just good sense to provide for them, if you want the tourists to come."

The beleaguered local hesitated only fractionally before saying, "But we don't."

Here is the problem. For decades Berkshire residents opposed fast food and lodging chains, obtrusive signs, the destruction of historic buildings to make way for parking and public rest rooms, and at the same time made their livings from the tourist industry. It seems contradictory, and it is just that: one example of inherent contradiction, and there are more.

Some of us support land conservation and affordable housing without realizing that protecting land makes the remaining land too expensive to develop at an affordable price.

Some are proponents of affordable housing, and at the same time opposed to cluster housing, the demolition of old buildings, and buildings higher than four-stories without realizing that this confluence of factors make housing unaffordable to all but the privileged few. The contradiction is not in the minds of the people but in the complex and interdependent aspects of the problem. And the problem is not new.

At the turn of the century, Stephen Field, who invented and constructed the first electric trolley car, led the fight against having one run on Main Street, Stockbridge. Inventor Field wanted Main Street preserved — even from him and his invention.

Today, preservationists, merchants, environmentalists, developers, full-time residents, and second home owners may think they represent six opposing sides and find they have bedfellows as strange as Mr. Field.For example, if Stockbridge "enters the 21t century" and puts up neon signs, parking lots, motels, and a Taco Bell on Red Lion corner for the tourists, there won't be any tourists. Why come here when they have that there? If we strictly preserve our bucolic hills without reference to modern invention, we lose our children to job markets elsewhere. There is no winning; no absolute right.

The complexity and internal contradictions inherent in planning — in modernizing, preserving, and conserving — call for sober contemplation. Something this way comes; in fact they are here. Whether their plans are good or bad, successful or not, they will change us by their coming. We cannot know whether they will make us richer or leave us with empty buildings, deserted malls, and parking lots.

Quiet discussion and cool heads must decide. Beware of those who claim to have all the answers; the wisest have all the right questions.

A Berkshire writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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