Do developers hate historic preservation?

Recently, I went on a site visit to check out a construction location where a health care facility will be built in the near future. The facility is needed because the nearby community doesn’t have a medical center within 40 minutes. The constriction parcel is, unfortunately, enveloped on three sides by a historical national heritage site that is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and several other NRHP-eligible prehistoric sites.

The construction project is bankrolled by foreign investors. These investors planned to take a site visit last month, so the land developer started submitting temporary access permit forms about 5 months in advance. He applied to the state transportation department for access via a nearby highway. Weeks rolled by and there was no response. Next, the developer appealed to the county government to get access to the site on nearby county roads. Again, no response for weeks.

With the investors packing their bags to come to the United States, the developer went “rouge.” He rented a backhoe and grader and cut a road to his property across public land and through an archaeology site.

He explained that he didn’t want the investors to have to walk through the grass to the property. Also, he didn’t know how the catering truck would be able to bring refreshments to them out there without a road.

First, I have to admit that I don’t think all developers are against historic preservation. Each incident where a developer or construction company knowingly destroys a historic property has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

For what it’s worth, this particular developer didn’t destroy much archaeology. He simply improved an existing two-track and followed the route of an existing sewer line that had already undergone the Section 106 process. The road was in a location where few artifacts had been identified and no features existed on the surface. Damage to the site was minimal.

I guess he did the best he could to save his investment with as little damage to the site as possible. He also knew that he’d be fined, but just figured the fine would be less costly than disappointing the investors.

But I’ve seen this happen more often than I’d like to admit:

–  Once, I inventoried the remainder of a residential neighborhood after a developer destroyed about 12 mid-twentieth century houses.

–  Another time, I watched a developer hire an architectural historian to say a mid-twentieth century chinoiserie restaurant wasn’t NRHP-eligible. Local activists drug the case through the courts only to see the ineligibility recommendation upheld. The restaurant was demolished that night and the lot sat undeveloped for about a year. Condos were built there a few years ago.

–  I also sifted back dirt for a month after a developer expanded his condos into a prehistoric site with known burials. His CRM consultant did testing and wrote a report that said the site was in the project boundaries. The project went ahead anyway and the developer simply paid a fine and for data recovery.

And, that’s just a few examples that I’ve personally worked on. Other archaeologists and architectural historians have told me about many other “accidents” much more egregious than the those I mentioned above.

Who is to blame?

Why does this type of thing happen so often in the U.S.? How come developers don’t seem to care about heritage conservation and historic preservation? Why do they destroy things and then pay later, when they could simply mitigate the damage before hand?

I know developers, mostly, follow the rule of law. OSHA, local building codes, and other environmental regulations are usually followed closely. However, those laws are more likely to be followed than historic preservation laws.

Why do developers tend follow those laws and not the historic preservation ones? Several reasons come to mind:

 –  Nobody dies- Human and rare plant/animal deaths are bad for a business’ image. Developers avoid this.

–  No one gets sick- If you poison a community, they sue you when they get cancer. That doesn’t happen if you bulldoze a site.

–  Only minorities/locals care- It’s rare that everyone in the country cares about the same historical site. Usually, only a small group of locals object to damaging places they think are of historical importance.

–  The fines are cheap- Damage assessments and CRM data recovery costs can easily be calculated, which helps a developer know how much it will cost to fix damage to a historical site.

–  Prosecution is rare- It is extremely rare for a developer to be prosecuted for destruction to a historical site. Nobody goes to jail or gets placed on probation, so they don’t worry about it.

What do you think?

Honestly, I don’t think developers are against historic preservation. I just think this affinity takes a back seat to keeping things on schedule. And, they know nothing is really going to happen if they destroy an archaeology site or historical building.

Unfortunately, historic preservation laws in the U.S. are seen as something that should be followed because its easier to go along with the law than it is to go against it. Good developers slso know historic preservation is good for the company’s public image. Bad developers know these laws can be circumvented with comparatively little repercussions in order to get a project done. It’s all a question of how much they’re willing to pay.

 What do you think? I would especially love to hear from a developer or construction manager.

I would really love to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.

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