Historic preservation is great, except when it isn’t
I love architecture, and therefore historical preservation. Designs that span different eras in U.S. history are one of the main qualities that differentiate our cities from one another.
So I understand why cities would want to keep their distinctive architectural features. It reinforces a city’s identity – think Brooklyn’s brownstones or Boston’s three stories – and in small towns, it can be the main economic driver. If Savannah, Georgia hadn’t preserved its historic core, for example, it would likely just be another stagnant southern city. Across rural America, cities are often built or destroyed on their ability to rehabilitate their old Main Street buildings.
But historic preservation, if over-imposed, can hamper good town planning. I will explain some of the negative impacts of preservation and how they can be reduced through sound reforms.
One of the problems with historic preservation arises, ironically, from one of its advantages: it improves the quality of a neighborhood by increasing the value of its home. A Realtor.com study of 2,885 historic homes found that they were 5.6% more expensive than similar sized homes in the same zip code. And while homes aren’t historic, they enjoy a 1.4% faster increase in property values ââjust because they’re inside a historic neighborhood. But by raising house prices, preservation defeats the more important goal of housing affordability. This might not be a big deal in small towns like Savannah, but it is in big cities which have various economic functions.
Take Manhattan, for example. According to 2014 data from New York University’s Furman Center, it placed 27 percent of its land in historic neighborhoods (compared to less than 1 percent in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island). It’s harder to repair buildings when they’re in these neighborhoods, let alone demolish them for new structures. This caused these neighborhoods to produce far less housing in the 1980s and 1990s than non-historic neighborhoods, according to a 2010 study by economist Ed Glaeser. And some neighborhoods even lost homes over those decades due to unit consolidation.
Render of the first Church of Christ Scientist in Manhattan into a children’s museum, a project that took 16 years due to historic conservation restrictions. (Photo courtesy of FXCollaborative)
Historic preservation also hinders economic development. While a tasteful and well-preserved neighborhood increases home values ââfor individual homeowners, it can remove Earth values ââby limiting the plots of their optimal use. This reduces a city’s potential tax base and stifles new creative endeavors that might have gone where an obsolete building now sits.
Manhattan’s magnificent First Church of Christ Scientist, for example, has been empty since 2004 because the Landmarks Preservation Commission did not authorize its conversion. This forced the church to sell the building, and the buyer lobbied for 16 years to make it a children’s museum. Although the LPC finally approved these plans in June, the prolonged underuse caused the church to fall into disrepair. Had it been active all this time for commercial, residential, or civic use, it almost certainly would have been better maintained.
But perhaps the main argument against historic districts is aesthetics. Rather than letting neighborhoods develop a nice mix of old and new buildings, it keeps them going. This may be desirable for those who see cities as museums, but it equates to a bit of romance for those who think cities should be dynamic and evolving places. âAs if it’s not enough that great historic neighborhoods are associated with reduced housing supply, higher prices and increasingly elitist residents,â Glaeser wrote, âthere is also an aesthetic reason to be skeptical about them: they protect an abundance of uninteresting buildings that are less attractive and exciting than new structures that might replace them. “
Glaeser’s quote talks about what should be a rule of thumb for preservation policy: apply it to specific buildings, not entire neighborhoods. There are policies that allow cities to do this based on the market, providing incentives rather than forcing developers to preserve buildings.
Cities, for example, can give property tax breaks to homeowners who restore historic properties, as California municipalities do under the state’s Mills Act. Cities can allow transfers of development rights, as Seattle does, allowing owners to build elsewhere (or sell building rights elsewhere to developers) in exchange for maintaining their historic properties. And the historic federal and state tax credit programs help developers fund repairs and conversions. Cities should make liberal use of these policies, especially if they have an interesting architectural history and many developers specializing in preservation work.
The flip side, however, is to let the buildings that surround these historic buildings, and which are not distinctive, be redeveloped for modern uses. This not only advances the goals of housing affordability, economic development and aesthetic diversity, but also assists the historic properties themselves by increasing commercial foot traffic.
Atlanta is a city that has done this well: it used the Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market, two former brick warehouses that have been converted into mixed-use malls, to anchor the surrounding new mid-rise development. This, along with the city’s popular 22-mile BeltLine Railway, has helped foster a contiguous urban area along the city’s east side.
In contrast, the idea of ââassigning historic status to entire neighborhoods, regardless of the merits of individual buildings, is straight out of the top-down planning manual. This leads to exclusive, static and not even interesting neighborhoods.
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