Speech | Louisville, Kentucky | February 11, 2016

Not Your Father’s Preservation: Mapping an economically strong and sustainable future in Louisville

Speech to the Louisville Rotary Club

Remarks by David. J. Brown

Thank you very much. It is an honor to be here and to be joined by so many preservation leaders in Louisville.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to talk with the members of this club, who do so much every day to make this city a better place. You have been working with those who need a helping hand for more than 100 years, and I applaud you for those efforts.

When I was growing up in Tennessee, my grandmother – when she wanted me to do something – use to say “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental.” Make yourself useful could easily be added to the Rotary “4 Way Test.” The work you do in this club says a great deal about the community – the heart – of Louisville.

In a similar fashion, I believe the places we choose to preserve here in Louisville and around the country tell us a great deal about who we are as a people.

They tell us what we value and the stories we want to share together.

These places speak of the type of economy and jobs – the type of future – we want for our citizens.

Old places embody our identity – both our personal identity as well as our civic identity. Old places also create a sense of continuity and variety that helps people feel more balanced, stable, and healthy. Louisville’s Christy Brown has been a national leader in linking the preservation of older and historic buildings with healthy communities, and we are pleased to be working with Christy here in the city.

But it is no longer enough just to save a place we value. We also have to sustain them and weave them into the tapestry of the future of our communities.

The Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Communities project found that:

  1. Social offerings
  2. Openness – or how welcoming a place is to others
  3. And physical beauty perform key roles role in attracting people to a place. In fact those things don’t just attract people to a community; they help them form an attachment to that place.

And it turns out that attachment to community is an important indicator of how economically successful a community will be.

Let me repeat that: attachment to community by the residents is an important indicator of how economically successful a community will be.

Just as actively engaged employees are more productive and committed to the success of their businesses and organizations, highly attached residents are more likely to actively contribute to a community’s growth.

I want to focus on why older and historic buildings can play an especially meaningful role in helping form those attachments which are so important to Louisville’s economic vitality and sustainability.

Economic vitality is directly linked to progress. But wait – you may be saying – aren’t preservationists those people who are against progress? Who don’t want change?

Contrary to popular perception, change is constant and important to our work as preservationists. Buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods all change. Progress is key to our work, because “Successful preservation makes time a continuum.”

Preservationists are not here to stop change or keep things as they are, but we work as part of a community to manage change, to envision a future as opposed to accepting what we are given if we simply leave things alone. The fact is that preservation is at the heart of much of the renewal of American communities over the past 30 years.

Which brings me to Louisville.

The National Trust has embarked on a long-term project to utilize Louisville as an urban laboratory for the integration of preservation, development, and sustainability. We call this work our Heart of Louisville National Treasure campaign.

The Trust has a strong track record to bring to this work.

  • First, through Main Street America we have 35 years of experience in preservation-based grassroots economic revitalization supported by a national network of more than 2000 communities as well as tools that have been tested across the nation.
  • We bring capital and investment experience through our 15 year-old National Trust Community Investment Corporation, where the Trust subsidiary has leveraged $3.7 billion in total rehabilitation development costs on more than 120 projects nationwide.
  • And finally, for the past seven years our Preservation Green Lab has provided expertise in research and application of new tools in sustainability and preservation policy, working in large and mid-size cities – in hot and cold markets – all across the nation.

Here in Louisville, the Trust team works with local partners from the preservation and development communities, the real estate sector, academia and Metro Louisville. Together we want to recast and expand the definition of preservation in Louisville, so we see that preservation is not an end unto itself, but a powerful and effective tool for communities to reach an economically stronger, diverse, and sustainable future.

When thinking of preservation, many see a narrow set of interests focused on architecture. But as Herbert Muschamp, former architecture critic for the New York Times, has said,

“A building does not have to be an important work of architecture to become a first-rate landmark. Landmarks are not created by architects. They are fashioned by those who encounter them after they are built. The essential feature of a landmark is not its design, but the place it holds in a city’s memory.”

Americans care about the loss of places they love – the places that provide them with emotional resonance and a sense of continuity. Here in Louisville, we can choose to focus preservation on people.

Fred Kent, the founder of the Project for Public Spaces, has said that “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

Preservationists have intuitively understood the important role that older buildings, landscapes, and development patterns play not only in building continuity, but in supporting community vitality, social diversity and small business development. Jane Jacobs said this in 1961, when she noted that “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.

Through the research of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab, we are now able to empirically show just how right Jacobs was.

Using a trove of newly available data, spatial statistical analysis, layered citywide maps, and in-depth neighborhood case studies, our work has found strong statistical connections between the unique architectural character of older urban blocks and economically vibrant and socially diverse neighborhoods.

A 2014 National Trust study – entitled Older, Smaller, Better – begins to make this case by highlighting preservation’s key role in economic vitality and the intensity of human activity. We found that neighborhoods made up of a diverse mix of older and newer buildings support the local economy, with a high percentage of new businesses as well as women and minority-owned businesses.

Neighborhoods with a mix of older and newer buildings are not only more diverse in age, race, and income, but they also have "hidden density" – more people and businesses per square foot than areas with just new buildings. They are far more walkable, meaning healthier residents and a more sustainable environment.

They are, in a word, communities. Historic buildings help to forge desirable, viable neighborhoods that attract diverse residents, young professionals, entrepreneurs and visitors who contribute to the city's health and vitality.

Let me drill down on that last point. Our research shows that young people love old buildings. America’s cities are magnets for young people, and these individuals are voting with their feet to live, work, and play in older and historic neighborhoods. The National Trust recently examined data from five major cities in the U.S. and found that up to 90 percent of the hip bars and restaurants in those communities were located in older buildings. We found that night life is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building age. How do we know this? Well, on Fridays at 10:00 pm, there is significantly greater cell phone activity in neighborhoods with mixed-vintage buildings than neighborhoods with new buildings alone.

We are bringing this data analysis to Louisville, by first developing a baseline of regional land use patterns, demographic trends and economic opportunities, to assist local decision-making and enable future measurement of community performance over time. The Green Lab’s mapping and analysis in Louisville is already showing us the importance of the urban core to the city’s future.

Early indications suggest Louisville’s best restaurants, bars, yoga studios, and shops are also located in areas with a diverse mix of old and new buildings.

As we gather this data, we will collaborate with our public and private stakeholders to identify local barriers to reuse and we’ll recommend solutions to support greater levels of building reuse and improved community performance.

It is important that the citizens of Louisville be a part of this process, supporting preservation’s role in creating a vibrant, sustainable city. To engage them, we will highlight opportunities for sustainable, creative building reuse citywide.

Thankfully, Louisville has a strong and growing group of developers, citizen activists, organizations and visionary leaders who are playing a crucial role in “transforming Louisville from just another hollow, suburban-focused city to a city with an accelerating downtown renaissance” – to use the language of one local media outlet.

People like Bill Weyland and the CITY Properties Group. Using a formula our Preservation Green Lab highlights in the Older, Smaller, Better report, Weyland and his team are making this renewal possible by “creatively reusing historic buildings, and building new ones to fill the gaps left by the destructive dogma of 1950s and 1960s ‘urban renewal.’”

They are doing it with projects such as the rehabilitation of the 1885 Guthrie Coke building – with its 11­foot ceilings, light wells and windows designed for optimal cross ventilation – amenities that attract a wide range of tenants.

And new capital and new development is also helping revitalize the urban core and areas such as NuLu. Steve Michael’s Hudson Holdings team is investing in landmarks such as the Starks Building and the Republic Building. The National Trust – through its America Saves! program and a partnership with the NuLu Sustainability District – is helping owners in NuLu find a way to adapt old buildings for local entrepreneurs, small businesses, and restaurants while lowering energy costs.

This morning, I had the chance to tour the new “old” headquarters of Genscape, with Annie Edwards. If you aren’t familiar with Genscape, it is a Louisville company that monitors energy and commodity markets all over the world. CEO Matthew Burkley has been quoted as saying that, “As a company, we believe in rebuilding and restoring historic structures.” The smart, young talent that Genscape seeks appreciates the character, craftsmanship, and neighborhood feel that places such as the Dairy in Old Louisville and the housing in neighborhoods such as Germantown provides.

The historic structures of these distinctive neighborhoods are not just a reflection of Louisville's past – they are assets that can be leveraged to strengthen the city's economic future.

Time and again in our preservation work, we have seen that America's most healthy and dynamic cities are those that maximize the power and potential of historic buildings to generate economic growth and foster a higher quality of life. And as a mid-size city with a rich legacy of historic buildings – including the largest collection of Victorian-era homes in the country – Louisville is poised to become a national leader in smart preservation-based development.

Preservation-based development comes in many varieties and yet it invariably supports local economies in ways where non-sustainable development falls short. The public sector has recognized this fact over the past 35 years by providing federal and state tax incentives for the rehabilitation of older and historic buildings.

In the past 35 years, independent studies have shown that the federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits have been used nationwide to preserve more than 40,000 buildings, brought a private sector investment that exceeds $117 billion, and generates $1.27 in tax revenue for every $1 spent by the federal government.

In the last 13 years here in Kentucky, we’ve seen 265 buildings rehabilitated at an investment of $356 million from the private sector.

Historic Tax Credits are often used on buildings that bring new “partners on the ground” – such as restaurateurs and entrepreneurs — because of the attraction of historic spaces. And while the credits are sometimes faulted as too costly to implement, thousands of developers have found them to be a useful source of capital to help make difficult projects possible.

Since 2005, the state of Kentucky has also invested in its historic buildings and I am excited that there’s currently an effort underway that would expand the state historic tax credit and make more capital available to put under-utilized or vacant buildings back into productive use.

Wherever capital comes from — be it a national source such as the National Trust Community Investment Corporation or a local source — we need to encourage more capital with a vision for the future that goes beyond suburban sprawl and non-sustainable development.

We need capital that includes a long-term approach to wealth creation.

We need local capital that understand the needs of the community and isn’t just in it for the quick buck.

In other words, we need preservation-based development that understands how rich and vital older and historic buildings catalyze a more vibrant future for our communities.

With the rise in suburban and auto-centric development from the 1950s, we have now raised an entire generation of citizens who have no idea what a wonderful and enriching place a city or town can be. During that time period, we were not building “communities” that connect our past and future, and as a result many citizens no longer feel they have a “home.”

And yet, young people – who lived in these disconnected places – are leading the way back to places that work. Places that have a history and a future.

Environmental psychologists are helping us understand that old places provide people with a sense of being part of a continuum that is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy – a “continuous city” if you will. Environmental psychologist Colin Ellard shared a recent study…

…where he characterized the mood of people outside a new blank-walled megastore in Manhattan as “bored and unhappy.” He noted an immediate transformation in behavior, however, when the same subjects moved less than a block away to an older strip of restaurants and “stores with lots of open doors and windows.” They “felt lively and engaged.” They didn’t want to leave.

Urban planner Justin Hollander suggests that this helps “explain why we can effortlessly have a good time in many older European cities, without speaking the native language. These places feed our brain what it loves to see when we walk: rich detail, complex patterns, symmetrical ornament, and lots of faces.”

Smart development that includes saving historic places has helped fuel growth all across the country for the past 30 years. Let’s keep it in the forefront of our work here to ensure a vital, sustainable Louisville for the future.

We have the opportunity to make preservation relevant in shaping the future of Louisville. By embracing preservation, progress, and people, we may find ourselves here in Louisville in the same situation as those who follow Mark Twain’s advice about always telling the truth: “It will amaze your friends and confound your enemies.”

Here’s to Louisville’s amazing future.

Thank you.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

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