March 15, 2016

Eight Tips for Understanding the Complexities of Historic Districts

A picture of the Strand Historic District in Galveston, Texas.

photo by: Kent Kanouse/Flickr/CCBY-NC

Historic districts such as the Strand district in Galveston, Texas, attract people back to cities.

Any politician or community planner will tell you that zoning and districting is a complex concept, and though intentions are always good, it can be difficult to predict how one act will affect a neighborhood or city.

The same is true for establishing historic districts; unintended consequences are part of the reality. But by understanding the different ways in which historic districts can affect neighborhoods, we can help to ensure they result in an inclusive, accessible community, that both preserves the past and sets the stage for the future.

Take a look at the eight tips below for a better understanding of how historic districts can impact the way communities function.

A shot of the Appleton, Wisconsin, historic district.

photo by: Joe Parks/Flickr/CC BY-NC

Appleton, Wisconsin's historic district.

1. Historic districts help strengthen communities and attract people back to cities.

A growing number of people—led by the young, diverse, millennial generation—are choosing to live, work, and play in historic neighborhoods. According to the World Bank report The Economics of Uniqueness, “[heritage-related projects] contribute to urban livability, attracting talent, and provide an enabling environment for job creation.

2. Historic preservation districts help tell the story of our nation in all its complexity and diversity.

No one would argue that certain historic districts feature grand historic homes and affluent residents. But for every Georgetown or Beacon Hill, there are places like Eatonville, Florida or Detroit’s Corktown— modest communities that have been home to generations of working-class families. The history embedded in these communities is just as important, and just as worthy of our full preservation efforts.

3. Historic districting is about keeping buildings alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the people and the cities that surround them.

To best accomplish this, zoning and building regulations need to be flexible and responsive to change even as they try to preserve what is special about each building. When done correctly, this can elevate and accelerate cities’ efforts to remake themselves through their existing historic fabric.

4. Historic preservation districts provide benefits to people, whether or not they actually own a home in them.

For example, millions of people visit New York’s Lower East Side each year to experience a remarkably intact 19th-century tenement neighborhood. In Chicago, the annual Historic Pullman Community House Tour is among the most popular residential house tours in Illinois and provides a glimpse into the lives of workers in George Pullman’s planned community.

Demolition of the Ice Palace in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

photo by: StreetsofWashington/Flickr/CC BY-NC

Historic district regulations are meant to prevent demolitions and inappropriate alterations, but don't have to be burdensome to homeowners.

5. Historic preservation can be conducive to affordable housing, if it’s done correctly.

Older buildings are often very well equipped to provide affordable housing because they were designed to serve multiple families and uses. That is why, all across America right now, creative adaptive reuse projects are converting historic schools, warehouses, old homes, and other buildings to housing for those in need.

6. Historic districts can limit tall development—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it limits density.

As the urban planner Jeff Speck points out in Walkable City, “economists don’t seem to have fully processed one thing that designers know, which is how tremendously dense a city can become at moderate heights. Boston’s North End, in Jane Jacobs’ day, achieved 275 dwelling units per acre with hardly an elevator in sight.”

7. Historic districts can place certain restrictions on how homeowners can alter their property—but they don’t have to be burdensome.

Efforts intended to prevent adding historically inaccurate features can also limit homeowners options in other ways, but if regulations are approached with homeowners’ rights in mind, and with an eye to the future, they don’t have to place a limit on the autonomy of individuals.

8. Regulating historic districts can also protect a property owner’s investment.

Regulations are intended to prevent the demolition or inappropriate alteration of historic properties, and thus, the fabric of the historic district that gives properties their value. They offer predictability for residents and for those considering investing in the community. These rules can be particularly useful in times of economic crisis, natural disasters, or even just in the event that irresponsible private interests surface.

From Our President The Case for Historic Preservation Districts

National Trust President Stephanie K. Meeks shares on CityLab why historic districts matter.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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