Why Historic Preservation Needs a New Approach
One of the great surprises of the digital age is that quality of place remains such a key factor in where people choose to live and businesses choose to open their doors. Only 10 or 20 years ago, futurists and technologists promised us that place would become irrelevant: We would all live and work and connect with the world via the internet, free to roam anywhere we chose. But millions of years of evolution are tough to shake; we remain social creatures and continue to seek connection, delight, and fulfillment in real, physical space.
The growing importance of quality places has been a boon for many older commercial districts in U.S. cities, many of which have suffered from a legacy of disinvestment. At the National Main Street Center, an independent subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation where I serve as president and CEO, we’ve seen a surge in interest in revitalizing historic downtowns, thanks to the market’s new enthusiasm for flexible and character-rich space, as well as social and demographic forces that favor these types of districts. Younger Americans prefer urban living and have been migrating downtown in pursuit of walkable neighborhoods and city amenities, including older and historic buildings. On paper, these new young urbanites should be fans of historic preservation. Indeed, research from the National Trust for Historic Preservation shows that over 90 percent of Millennials express support for preservation.
Despite this overwhelming appreciation of older buildings, the actual practice and process of preservation in the U.S. faces enormous challenges. In hot real estate markets, we lose too many buildings because rapid investment creates conditions that lead to demolition, often as a result of the false claim that it’s the only way to add needed density. As just one example, a forthcoming analysis of Miami’s fast-growing Little Havana neighborhood by the National Trust’s Research and Policy Lab finds the district could easily accommodate 10,000 new residential units and accommodate 550 new businesses by building out vacant lots and utilizing vacant buildings to a height and scale compatible with existing structures.
Cold markets have the opposite problem: Valuable historic resources lie fallow because demand for space is low and the economics of rehabilitation can be extraordinarily challenging. See places like Cairo, Illinois, a historic river town facing enormous depopulation. (Painfully, Cairo now finds itself an object of fascination for road trippers in search of “ruin porn.”)
The preservation movement is also struggling to tell the full American story. Only eight percent of National Register sites and three percent of our National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community.
Both the positive dynamics and the emerging challenges point to the significant ways in which the preservation landscape has changed in the last 50 years. Yet our toolbox has not evolved to keep pace. In our work supporting preservation-based revitalization in more than 1,100 communities across the United States, we at the National Main Street Center see that we’re falling short in two specific ways: Firstly, our core preservation tools do not serve all kinds of preservation well—and in fact can undermine our broader efforts to save buildings and support the people and enterprises that enliven those buildings. Secondly, our financing mechanisms for building rehabilitation are inadequate to the task.
The reputational issue undermines broader work to save places by alienating those who might share common cause with the preservation movement.
These challenges in the preservation world aren’t just a distraction from the other pressing social, environmental, and economic issues American cities face: Everyone who cares about quality of place and values our collective story as Americans has a stake in this conversation. So too do those who want to address the declining economic health of rural America and the lack of economic opportunity in so many of our urban neighborhoods. Decisions about what to keep, and how, echo for generations. Those choices shape and reflect our understanding of ourselves as a people, and profoundly impact opportunities to bring life and economic prosperity back to struggling communities.
We Need to Update the Preservationist’s Toolkit
If you work in the preservation field today, you’re operating with a set of tools developed in the late 1970s, and has changed little since. Historic preservation work in the United States is guided by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, drafted in 1977. Four sets of standards guide four distinct treatments: preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. In the years since, there have only been modest advancements.
A lot has changed since 1977: We’ve experienced rapid urbanization, the corresponding decline of rural areas, vast changes (for good and ill) in real estate financing, the beginning of catastrophic impacts from climate change, and a long-overdue awakening to the importance of honoring, telling, and preserving all facets of the American story.
But preservation practice has evolved such that buildings are still categorized in a binary way: Either they are historically significant, or they are not. That’s an increasingly limited way of seeing our many kinds of historic resources—some more significant than others, and some requiring more careful conservation than others.
Let’s consider three very different examples: a pre-Civil War home, a pioneering office building of the 1930s, and a typical early 20th century commercial structure in just about any American town or city.
In the first category there is Lincoln’s Cottage in northwest Washington, D.C., a home originally constructed in 1842 for banker George W. Riggs. During the Civil War, it served as President Abraham Lincoln’s refuge, where he penned the Emancipation Proclamation.
Preservation of fabric is a primary concern in a building so vital in helping tell the American story, so the National Park Service’s Standards and Guidelines for Preservation prioritize that care be given to “applying measures necessary to sustain the existing, form, integrity and materials” of the subject property. Because of the thoughtful guidance offered by the Standards, we now have thousands of extraordinary buildings that have been carefully conserved for generations of future visitors.
Most preservation projects, however, make use of the Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitation, which are designed to guide the revitalization of historic buildings in preparation for their reuse. These offer developers guidance on how to approach repairs and alterations while preserving portions of the building which are vital to its historic, cultural, or architectural value.
Take, for example, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) building in Philadelphia, built in 1932. Designed by architects William Lescaze and George Howe and the first International Style skyscraper in the U.S., the building was a radical departure in design that ushered in an era that would forever change the American urban landscape. The Rehabilitation Standards helped ensure the conservation of key features like the original exterior limestone and aluminum-framed windows, beautiful marble features in the lobby, and the openness of its magnificent banking hall, even as the building was repositioned for a significantly different use as a hotel
Over time, the Standards and the Guidelines for Rehabilitation have become the default guidance for regulatory review of a wide range of projects involving historic buildings. While not required to do so, local preservation officials tend to use Standards for Rehabilitation to guide their own programs, making them the de facto preservation policy governing preservation nationwide.
But as the Standards have come to be applied to such a diverse array of structures—such as the thousands of small commercial buildings constructed across the country before 1960—their utility has been called into question. These buildings may feature beautiful craftsmanship and quality materials and reflect regional variations on the Main Street commercial building archetype, but they’re not typically considered exceptional individual examples of architecture. Nor are they deemed to be of exceptional cultural significance.
A typical example would be the Heart of Texas Grill in San Augustine, Texas (population 1,800). Like most of the town’s older downtown buildings, it dates to the early 20th century and retains some of its original characteristics, such as interesting brickwork and some of its original fenestration pattern. But plenty of similar two-story brick storefronts can be found in small towns nationwide; put simply, it is not a uniquely significant resource. In this instance, much of this building’s value to the community is tied instead to its use as a popular eatery and its role as a vibrant social hub in a small town that’s been challenged by disinvestment.
Further, the building has been altered to suit the evolving needs of the businesses that have occupied it over time, including significant changes to the entrance area and upper-story windows. To rehab it in a historically “correct” way—that is, through the stringent application Standards for Rehabilitation—would be extraordinarily challenging in a town where building valuations are low, traditional financing options are scarce, and historic preservation tax credits are not a likely source of financing.
In such instances, the primary goal of preservationists should be to support people and communities in retaining the places they feel passionately about, and doing so in a way that supports their evolving needs (and reflects their financial realities). That may—and should—allow for flexibility on preservation tenets sometimes held sacrosanct, such as the conservation of windows or the preservation of interior circulation patterns.
How might we re-cast preservation standards to recognize and support a much wider range of places? The English system of grading buildings offers inspiration. Under this heritage conservation system, buildings are provided with one of three grades based on differing levels of significance. Since 1947, historic buildings fall into three categories:
Grade II buildings are of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve them.
Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest.
Grade I buildings—the highest grade—are of exceptional interest.
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Just 2.5 percent of buildings are listed as Grade I, while 6 percent are listed as Grade II*; the remainder—over 90 percent—are listed as Grade II. Local planning authorities use this system to help guide decision-making about proposed alterations in a way that balances the site’s significance with other issues, including use and economic viability.
Such an approach would be useful in the U.S., as it would offer a system of gradation that acknowledges that our historic resources are not monolithic: Different kinds of interventions can be expected for different kinds of places. This could be transformative for preservation, helping planning and preservation professionals address the reality that not all buildings enjoy the same level of significance. In some instances, compromise is appropriate in order to accommodate other important social goods and economic realities.
And We Need New Ways to Pay for Preservation
The Federal Historic Tax Credit program is one of the crowning achievements of the preservation movement, offering a significant federal incentive to rehabilitate historic buildings. In 2018, a coalition led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust Community Investment Corporation successfully defended the credit from proposed elimination in the House version of the 2017 Budget, in which nearly all tax credits were eliminated. The significant outpouring of support from communities throughout the country that had benefitted from the HTC or that recognized the future potential for the credits to revitalize their downtowns, resulted in Congress modifying but retaining this tax incentive as a permanent part of the tax code.
But many of the most-needed rehabilitation projects on Main Street are too small to be good candidates for Federal Historic Tax Credits, because the transactional costs are too high. (As a general rule of thumb, projects below $5 million have a very difficult time using the credit.) Conventional financing for these projects is equally challenging, given the decline in lending for smaller projects and the unfavorable economics of rehabilitation in distressed markets.
Fortunately, the last decade has given rise to new tools that could ease financing of smaller projects. Several paths offer promise, including the creation of preservation-focused social impact funds and recent changes in securities law that permit crowdfunded real estate projects.
The latter financing mechanism is already gaining traction. For example, Pittsburgh Developer Eve Picker founded a company, Small Change, through which anybody can invest in neighborhood real estate projects that have a strong social purpose. Her work is a powerful example of how evolutions in securities laws can offer new financing mechanisms for real estate.
A new federal program, Opportunity Zones, also offers promise for preservationists. This program incentivizes investors to invest capital into distressed neighborhoods, many of which feature an abundance of older and historic buildings. Authorized by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Opportunity Zones may also create challenges for historic resource conservation, as the program does not have specific provisions to incentivize historic preservation or discourage demolition of historic properties.
What’s the Path Ahead?
Being an effective preservationist means understanding that our efforts to save buildings are woven into a complex tapestry of other important social needs, including—but not limited to—affordable housing, economic and social equity, economic development, and climate change. Insisting on an uncompromising approach to heritage conservation—particularly in instances in which the building in question is not a resource of singular historic value—makes it very easy to cast preservationists as unreasonable and out of touch.
That reputational issue undermines broader work to save places by alienating those who might share common cause with the preservation movement. Some local preservation commissions, for example, have prohibited the use of solar panels or required that they be placed on a building in a way that minimizes their visibility, even at the cost of reducing the efficiency of the panels. In other instances, Federal Historic Tax Credit projects have been required to make accommodations to conserve interior features that negatively impact the quality and utility of space for low- and moderate-income residents.
Similarly, in Main Street projects, we can easily appear tone deaf when we insist on a purist approach to preservation that neither recognizes the way Main Street-style resources can differ from other historic resources, nor acknowledges exceptionally challenging economic circumstances. In these instances, we easily lose allies who might otherwise support preservation.
What then is the path forward? As people who care about the built environment—and more importantly the people in it—let’s resolve in 2019 to launch a multi-disciplinary dialogue on the future of older buildings. This conversation must extend beyond traditional preservationists and include those in finance, affordable housing, community development, sustainability, and other fields. Let’s consider new opportunities for impact, confront uncomfortable truths about where we may be falling short, and be vigilant in our efforts to find and embrace creative new tools for preservation. The future of historic places may well depend upon it.