Explaining the Benefits of Historic Preservation

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that asked if developers hated historic presentation. I don’t believe they do, but there are many signs that historic preservation isn’t important to many construction companies and developers. This topic was also picked up in a recent episode of the CRM Archaeology Podcast and the other experienced CRMers agreed that preservation was a distant concern for most developers.

This is interesting considering the significant amount of media coverage dedicated to extolling the virtues and economic benefit of historic preservation. Increasingly, city planners and historic preservation departments are clamoring to prove that their departments a aren’t irrelevant and that historic preservation can be a source of public pride and financial gain.

If preservationists continue explaining the benefits of historic preservation, I wonder what’s keeping the idea from gaining more traction?

Tax credits are one way governments have decided to promote historic preservation. In Ohio, over 270 million dollars in tax credits were issued last year. And, these rebates for preservation generated significant return on the original investment (http://rustwire.com/2013/03/11/historic-preservation-programs-in-ohio-worth-preserving/). In Cincinnati, an estimated $7.80 was returned for every $1.00 of tax credit.

While the economic benefit has been proven in many communities across the United States, historic preservation, like development, has a bad image in many communities. In Washington DC, David Alpert explains how this bad image has hurt the execution and funding of preservation-related activities (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/17989/perception-is-not-preservations-primary-problem/). Some of these perceptions are the fault of preservationists, who, like archaeologist, have oftentimes done a poor job of communicating with the general public and young people. In the case of DC, the city’s plans are focused on using preservation for growth, but has been stonewalled by the community that is misinformed and apprehensive of historic preservation because they do not always see the benefit.

Derek King attempts to rectify this public misconception of how preservation improves local economies. After receiving primarily negative feedback on an article about historic preservation in Buffalo, NY, King wrote a rebuttal that explains “Preservation=Jobs” (http://www.buffalorising.com/2013/03/just-the-facts-the-economic-benefits-of-historic-preservation.html). Among the things CRMers and historic preservationists already know, King states that preservation creates a greater number of jobs (thank you Section 106), is more environmentally friendly, raises revenue, and maintains or raises property values.

Teaching young people is one of the most efficient ways to improve the public’s perception of historic preservation. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation is combating anti-preservation sentiments through their summer youth program (http://www.dahp.wa.gov/blog/2013/03/washington-trust-for-historic-preservation-hosts-new-summer-youth-heritage-program/). This summer’s program will be conducted on beautiful Whidbey Island and will involve presentations from various stakeholders on what their heritage means to them and the local community.

Most preservation work focuses on maintaining communities, saving/making money by keeping neighborhoods intact, and extolling the sustainability of keeping the buildings we already have instead of demolishing them. However, we can be victims of our own success. Can historic preservation be too successful? Can a place become so trendy and popular that it becomes a playground for the wealthy? Can preservation laws become so stringent that the wealthy literally dig dens deep into the earth in an attempt to remodel their dwellings?

In a recent piece in Vanity Fair, Nicholas Shaxson describes how One Hyde Park is a garish contrast to the surrounding historic Victorian neighborhood in London. The building is a luxury tax haven that is almost entirely inhabited by billionaire absentee land owners and corporations that have created one of the most expensive residences in the world (http://www.vanityfair.com/society/2013/04/mysterious-residents-one-hyde-park-london). He also describes how building extensive subterranean lairs is the new chic in London. Good for surrounding property values. Bad for Britain’s tax revenues because the über-luxury dwelling owners aren’t paying their taxes.

I think rather than worrying about the “One Hyde Park-effect”, preservationists are more worried about the “Walmart-effect” where neighborhoods are torn down and they are replaced with bland strip malls and supercenters. We’re also worried about the lack of community support. Without the backing of the local community, developers will be emboldened to build wherever they want, regardless of the missed economic opportunities and lost character.

If we want developers to care about preservation, we have to inform the public on what they get out of the deal. A motivated community is much more powerful than a cultural resource management archaeologist or architectural historian’s recommendations.

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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