Preservation Rightsizing Network

Legacy Cities + Historic Places

Author: Cara Bertron

Statement from Progressive Historic Preservation Professionals on the Trump Election

The Preservation Rightsizing Network endorses this statement. It is a modified version of a statement authored by Max Page and Brad White on November 18, 2016.

The discussion around the progressive preservation movement continues. To learn more and get involved, visit the Progressive Preservation Network Facebook page or sign up for the email listserve by writing progressive-preservation-network@googlegroups.com.

We are preservationists because we believe that historic buildings and landscapes matter, that they anchor individual and communal connections to the past, they are the basis for telling the complete and often painful American story, they can be the building blocks of equitable economic development, they are central to any sustainable environmental future, and that they hold within them values that stand above and beyond the market.

We are pleased that our movement, which has long been accused – not without reason – of being elitist, the domain of the wealthy, little interested in the homes and neighborhoods of people of color, the disadvantaged, and the excluded, has begun a dramatic shift. Leading organizations have put their rhetoric and their resources toward expanding the movement to include preserving and interpreting sites central to the lives of racial, ethnic, religious, and LGBTQ communities, long victims of oppression in our society. We are proud that our movement has turned steadily in the direction of celebrating our diverse history, confronting our most violent pasts, and stands committed to building a more equitable and just society through the vehicle of old places.

If ever there was a moment to stand with our allies in the Latino community, the African-American community, the refugee and immigrant community, the disability community, the LGBTQ community – indeed, stand with the majority of Americans offended by the overt racism, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia of the Trump campaign and members of the new administration – that time is now.

Our call to preservationists is not based on Trump’s views on historic preservation narrowly construed.  We don’t care that he was involved in the restoration of the old Post Office in Washington, DC. We do not know what his specific preservation policies might be. What we do know is that the candidate, the campaign, and now his administration have deployed, in a calculated and relentless way, a hostility and intolerance toward the very groups our movement is hoping to include.

By making a statement condemning this hatred, we stand with the members of these communities and refuse to normalize Trump’s bigotry.  Despite his wishes, America is going to be a more gloriously diverse nation than it has ever been.  We want a preservation movement for that nation.

Our profession’s commitment to an equitable and inclusive preservation movement is receiving an important test.  We invite preservationists to choose this moment to stand, forcefully and openly, against the administration’s bigoted policies and for a truly inclusive preservation movement.

Recap: PRN in 2016

Recap: PRN in 2016

We’re pleased to present this quick recap of PRN’s activities last year. We’ve been busy! Many of you know this firsthand, from participating in our pilot project workshop in Detroit last fall, showing up to a PRN session at one of six national and statewide conferences, or attending the second national legacy city preservation conference in Detroit, which we supported.

Yet looking forward, we know that much remains to be done. PRN is committed to standing against hatred in all of its many forms, including xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and bigotry. We look forward to working with partner organizations and individuals to help revitalize legacy city neighborhoods to be more livable, equitable, and just. We will publish more soon on our stance on current events and developing federal policies.

In 2016, we began a campaign to seek funding to support paid staff. This remains one of our strongest ongoing efforts. We see becoming a staffed organization as a critical step for continuing our current momentum and activities in a way that’s sustainable, and we will continue to actively explore potential funding sources in 2017.

Year in review

January: At the start of 2016, we rested on our laurels – with an emphasis on rest – after our successful Action Agenda launch event in Newark, NJ, which drew more than 200 people to tour the Hahne & Co. Building and hear about the Action Agenda. Nearly 30 organizations participated in the launch as sponsors and supporters – a terrific beginning for the Action Agenda, which was developed through intensive collaboration and requires a highly collaborative approach to succeed.

FebruaryWe released the Legacy City Preservation video, in which national experts and local leaders talk about legacy city preservation and the Action Agenda. Haven’t watched it yet? Now’s your chance!

Later that month, Leadership Team members Emilie Evans, Nick Hamilton, and Cara Bertron, along with colleagues Aaron Bartley (with PUSH Buffalo) and Prashant Singh (then with LocalData), led a half-day workshop at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. Participants collected data in downtown Portland, OR, then discussed how to use similar data to inform community-based revitalization.

April: Emilie Evans, PRN volunteer Maggie Smith (also with Page & Turnbull), and Cara Bertron spoke at the California Preservation Forum on addressing vacant and abandoned buildings.

Later that month, Cara Bertron spoke about PRN and legacy city preservation at the RevitalizeWA conference in Chelan, WA.

May: PRN co-organized a Livable Cities Research Forum with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC. The forum convened 25 policy and thought leaders from across the country to discuss research priorities around the role of older buildings in shaping successful cities. This effort relates to the Action Agenda’s third action item: Use data to support and improve good practices.

The same month, the Action Agenda was featured in a national webinar in partnership with the National Trust’s Preservation Leadership Forum.

June: Nick Hamilton and Cristina Garmendia (then with Isles, Inc.) spoke about implementing the Action Agenda at the New Jersey History & Historic Preservation Conference.

September: We played a substantial role in supporting the Neighborhoods in America’s Legacy Cities Conference in Detroit, which brought together 250 people to share ideas and discuss pressing issues.

The same week, we kicked off our first Action Agenda pilot project with the Live6 Alliance. The pilot, Putting Stories to Work, looks at how community stories can catalyze equitable neighborhood reinvestment and speaks to the Action Agenda’s second action item: Engage and listen to local communities. Our first major activity was a workshop that brought together Detroiters – including a large cohort of Northwest Detroit residents – and national experts to tour the Live6 neighborhood and talk about how to collect and use local stories for real community impacts.

November: We presented a power session on the Action Agenda at the PastForward conference in Houston.

The same month, the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation released its Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization. PRN served as part of an informal working group on the policy statement throughout the year.

*

In the past year, Melissa Jest stepped down from our Leadership Team and Anne Englot came on board. We are grateful to Melissa for her wisdom and commitment to legacy cities and community-building. We are also excited to have Anne on our team! A professor at Rutgers University-Newark, Anne brings deep experience in university-community initiatives, including the just-opened Express Newark arts incubator. Meet all our Leadership Team members here.

Cara Bertron is the Director of the Preservation Rightsizing Network.

Dispatch from Seattle

By Julianne Patterson

The Bobs Quality MeatsAction Agenda is a new approach to preservation in ALL cities. Although I live Seattle, currently one of the fastest growing cities, the Action Agenda articulates what many preservationists already believe but have a hard time reconciling with: historic preservation is more than old buildings and architectural history. Recognizing preservation is just a piece of something bigger is critical for success.

When I first read through the Action Agenda I found myself literally giddy with excitement over the call for strategic demolitions (gasp!), more data, more cross-disciplinary collaboration, and more creative funding solutions – in just 30 pages. These ideas need to reach a larger audience and start planting seeds so I was thrilled that PRN Chair Cara Bertron was able to present at the Washington State Preservation and Main Street Conference this April.

Application to Main Street Washington: Although Washington does not have legacy cities in the traditional sense, we have 32 Main Street Communities that struggle with many of the same challenges on a smaller scale. So many rural communities in our state were once settled and dependent on a single industry (agriculture, mining, etc) that either no longer exists, or exists in a drastically different way. These small towns want to protect their unique heritage after populations have dwindled but often don’t have the resources to encourage investment. The Action Agenda can provide insight on how to change traditional approaches to preservation in these towns.

Application to rapidly growing cities like Seattle: Each community hasKing St Station_12 unique challenges, and a booming city like Seattle is no different. How do you best promote and honor a local landmark ordinance in a city where the land is often more valuable without the existing building? Too often buildings are deemed significant in self-defense, motivated by the fear of rapid, uncontrolled growth. How do preservationists engage stakeholders in the larger conversation before the eleventh hour to reach an authentic solution? Multidisciplinary collaboration will be key to the future success of cities and preservationists need a seat at the table.

The Action Agenda doesn’t have all the answers to these questions. Instead, it encourages everyone that identifies as a preservationist to question what that really means and what their role is in the bigger picture, and at the local level.

Julianne Patterson is the Development and Events Coordinator at the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

We need strong statements on preservation and revitalization to support legacy cities—our response to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

On February 26, 2016, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) published a new draft policy statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization seeking comments from the public. We appreciate the ACHP’s recognition of the important connections between preservation and community revitalization. We share the goal of empowering federal, state, and local governments to achieve revitalization goals while promoting the reuse and rehabilitation of historic properties.

However, the policy statement needs to go further in clearly describing the issues involved and charting a clear path forward for federal, state, and local government agencies and partners in this essential work. We urge the ACHP to revise the policy statement so it can play a stronger role in addressing the major challenges facing historic buildings and neighborhoods in America’s legacy cities. We invite any preservationists and legacy city allies with an interest in this topic to consider our response and share your own comments with the ACHP by this Monday, April 4, 2016.

The ACHP is an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress, and federal agencies on national historic preservation policy. The foundation for the current policy statement was laid in March 2013 with the ACHP’s report Managing Change: Preservation and Rightsizing in America (PDF). To build on this publication, the agency organized a working group in December 2014 whose comments over the past year have helped to inform the proposed policy statement.

What is our response to the policy statement?

The policy statement consists of ten principles presented as “sound guidance to assist communities in their efforts to incorporate historic preservation into project planning”:

  1. Historic preservation values should be considered in the revitalization of both rural and urban communities.
  2. Historic preservation should be incorporated in local planning for sustainability, smart growth, and community resilience.
  3. Historic property surveys, including those in historic districts, are tools that should be used by communities to provide for federal, state, and local planning and revitalization projects.
  4. Effective citizen engagement allows community residents to identify resources they care about and share their views on local history and cultural significance.
  5. Indian tribes may have an interest in urban and rural community revitalization projects that may affect sites of historic, religious, and cultural significance to them.
  6. Private resources can contribute to local revitalization efforts and leverage public funds.
  7. Tax credits can be used to promote historic preservation projects that preserve local assets.
  8. Early consideration of alternatives to avoid or minimize adverse effects to historic properties is essential to ensure proper integration of historic properties in revitalization plans.
  9. Development of flexible and programmatic solutions can help expedite historic preservation reviews as well as more effectively and proactively address situations involving recurring loss of historic properties.
  10. Creative mitigation can facilitate future preservation in communities.

While there is little to disagree with in the ten principles, they each must be stronger and more focused to be useful to their intended audience. We have three major concerns:

  • The policy statement does not clearly explain the relationships between historic preservation and community revitalization. Without clear definitions of these terms and their meaning from the ACHP, the statement and its principles are difficult for government agencies or local preservation advocates to leverage into action.
  • The policy statement does not explore the feasibility of these principles  through examples. We know that innovative work is going on around the country at these intersections between preservation and revitalization. This statement is an opportunity to highlight those examples for leaders in public service and explore how federal, state, and local agencies can play a more active role.
  • The policy statement does not consider the present context for preservation and revitalization. For example, recommending surveys and inventories does not help the many states and local governments that have seen major decreases in funding over the past decade. CLG staff are cited as a resource, but many communities—particularly those struggling with long-term population loss—lack the funding to hire specialized staff; indeed, some communities have a one-person planning department. And recommending tax credits does little for properties located in disinvested urban neighborhoods with limited access to private lending. We agree that preservation can and does play a significant role in community revitalization, but the policy statement will be most compelling and useful if the structural challenges facing legacy cities and other distressed communities are fully acknowledged.
Buffalo, 2011. Photograph by Cara Bertron.

Buffalo, 2011. Photograph by Cara Bertron.

What else could the ACHP be doing?

What is the alternative for the ACHP? We ask this policy statement to:

  • Acknowledge the immense scale of challenges surrounding vacant and distressed historic buildings in communities across the United States, from Baltimore to Detroit to Chicago to St. Paul.
  • Provide clear direction and informational resources for the overburdened and under-resourced staff dealing with these issues in state and local government, along with the many nonprofits and private developers who are affected by preservation policy.
  • Identify the legislative and rule-making hurdles presented by federal and state policies for historic preservation and other areas, including 1) the diminished “integrity” of many historically disinvested neighborhoods and 2) the increased measures and costs required to meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards on rehabilitation projects.

How can you share your comments?

If you share our concerns or have other questions of your own, we encourage you to submit your own comments on the ACHP Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization by email to Rightsizing@achp.gov by April 4, 2016. For questions about the statement, you can contact Charlene Dwin Vaughn, Assistant Director, Office of Federal Agency Programs, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation at 202–517–0207.

Signed,

Cara Bertron
Chair, Preservation Rightsizing Network

Emilie Evans
​Secretary, Preservation Rightsizing Network
​Director, Rightsizing Cities Initiative, PlaceEconomics

Eli Pousson
Leadership Team Member, Preservation Rightsizing Network
Director of Preservation & Outreach, Baltimore Heritage

Melissa Jest
Leadership Team Member, Preservation Rightsizing Network
Manager, Historic Properties Redevelopment Program, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Nicholas Hamilton
Leadership Team Member, Preservation Rightsizing Network
Director of Urban Policy, The American Assembly
Director, Legacy Cities Partnership

Legacy City Preservation

The Legacy City Preservation event celebrated the release of the Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities. It took place on December 8, 2015, in Newark.


Read more about the event! 

A call for hope and action

By Jeff Johnson

As a member of Cleveland City Council, I have been challenged to respond to some difficult issues within the urban neighborhoods of the city. One of those issues is how to preserve Cleveland’s cultural heritage, including the structures and sites that are historic and important to the city, while it goes through very difficult economic and social change. Of course I know what I am facing in Cleveland are the same challenges that other leaders in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo, and many other cities are also seeing each day.

Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood (Photo: Stu Spivack)

Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood (Photo: Stu Spivack)

It was these significant challenges that led me earlier this year to work with the Cleveland Restoration Society and Cleveland State University to plan and organize the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in June. I was delighted and inspired by what I learned during the three days at the conference.

I was particularly energized by the workshop on the last day of the conference, as a room full of participants with diverse talents and experiences talked about the previous two days and the priority issues for historic preservation in our legacy cities. That discussion included:

  • A belief I shared that to preserve our legacy cities, we have to organize within the historic preservation community to develop effective advocacy and education strategies around the changes we need within our cities. Also, the ability of individuals and organizations to share, support, and sustain preservation efforts within legacy cities is critical to strengthening those cities.
  • Acknowledgment that the loss of population from the core of our legacy cities, along with increased poverty, has created socially and economically weaker neighborhoods with many abandoned structures, increased foreclosures, and decreased investment. We know that these social and economic shifts have raised doubt concerning the continued value and usefulness of historic preservation in the struggle to save our neighborhoods.
  • Overviews of successful projects within legacy cities that have strengthened neighborhood commercial districts and proved that economic development and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive.
  • The need to strike a more rational balance of the use of demolition, mothballing, and rehabilitation in the fight against abandonment and blight, so that they do not lose historically significant neighborhood and downtown structures.
  • The commitment to not surrender to the cynical beliefs of some key influential and powerful voices in our cities who say that historic preservation is a luxury we cannot afford during these difficult times.

    The Doan Classroom Apartments in Cleveland offer affordable senior housing in a formerly foreclosed building (Photo: Ohio Preservation Compact)

    The Doan Classroom Apartments in Cleveland offer affordable senior housing in a formerly foreclosed building (Photo: Ohio Preservation Compact)

Growing up in the historic Cleveland neighborhoods of Collinwood and Glenville, I recognized and appreciated the importance of legacy and cultural heritage. I continue to believe that fighting for our historic community links, as reflected in our historically significant physical structures and sites, is essential in the effort to solve our most difficult social and economic problems.

The Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference provided for me confirmation that this is the right fight. I left with the understanding that the identification, insight, and analysis of the challenges of our legacy cities undoubtedly requires historic preservation to ensure that we actually solve our problems and not lose what is uniquely ours.

Jeff Johnson is Councilman of Ward 10 in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

Legacy cities: A community of advocates

By Nick Hamilton

This is an abbreviated story of the thinking and planning that created two conferences: one that led to something new and big, and a second whose effects are still unfolding. The first was the 110th American Assembly in Detroit in 2011, where the term legacy cities was coined in recognition of the distinct challenges and opportunities this group of cities faces.

The Legacy Cities Partnership was founded as a result of this meeting, as a joint project of the American Assembly at Columbia University, the Center for Community Progress, and the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City. Its goal: to strengthen legacy cities’ capacities for policy change and governance reform, develop a superior understanding of urban stabilization and regeneration, and connect an array of related federal, regional, state, and local initiatives.

A few months ago, the Assembly was pleased to co-sponsor a closely related effort: the second conference, the Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities convening in Cleveland. In my capacity at the American Assembly, Ihelped organize the closing policy workshop, an event intended to produce actionable recommendations for the community of preservation practitioners and leaders. The forthcoming workshop report will develop these recommendations into a public format.

Shared Principles and Realities

E 4th_Cleveland_SSung

East 4th Street in Cleveland (Photo: Stephanie Sung)

The Cleveland convening was based on a central principle of both the Assembly and the Legacy Cities Partnership: that a framework for positive change must include a vision for the future that is built on a rigorous analysis of cities’ assets and liabilities. An important and underappreciated asset for most legacy cities like Cleveland is a rich historic fabric. The vernacular and formal civic, residential, and commercial built environment gives these cities an authenticity and vitality that makes them attractive and meaningful to current and potential residents. Identifying creative ways to reuse, activate, and unlock these assets will be critical to the success of legacy city revitalization efforts.

The convening also addressed a significant challenge that is especially common in legacy cities: the limited organized civic and financial capacity to advocate for and implement change. Successful revitalization is more likely when civic groups are working together and conversations are happening across professional silos. Speakers at the conference spanned multiple disciplines and repeatedly stressed the need to deploy limited preservation dollars according to a strategy, while workshop participants recognized the urgent need for meaningful collaboration.

As anyone working on the ground in legacy cities knows, resources are scarce. Demolition begins at $10,000 per house, while renovation frequently costs upwards of $100,000. Mothballing everything in a city that is unlikely to see a population rebound over the next few decades is unsustainable. Strategic responses must be balanced between demolition and preservation to be viable and successful.

Moving Forward

One of the conference panels showcased new ideas about how to develop strategic preservation responses by using new layers of information to help allocate limited dollars. In one example, Emilie Evans, Matt Hampel, and others showed how a pared-down city- or community-led survey of historic buildings can enable cities to map their assets—and help prioritize demolition funding for other buildings—without breaking the budget. Mandy Metcalf also demonstrated a promising new spatial analysis technique that shows where neighborhood-scale commercial nodes (intersections, commercial corridors) are happening in clusters rather than in isolation. This points to where historic preservation as a form of economic development might be strategically employed with limited dollars. The Preservation Rightsizing Network continues to be a locus for creative thought in how the community should move forward.

Several things stood out to me at the close of the conference and workshop:

  1. None of these preservation tactics should be used in isolation: all need to be paired with long-term revitalization visioning on the scale of Detroit Future City.
  2. Preservation must be informed by a meaningful civic engagement process that gathers information from individuals on the ground about local assets.
  3. Preservation is a valuable component in the toolkit for revitalization because of its intensely local nature. It can be an effective mode of local organizing with spillover effects of capacity-building.
  4. Interdisciplinary perspectives are often missing from the preservation conversation. However, by gathering diverse interests that include a spectrum of interests we can move closer to a revitalization framework that has a chance for success.

Learn more about the Legacy Cities Partnership and the American Assembly at www.legacycities.americanassembly.org.

Nick Hamilton leads the urban policy work of the American Assembly, including the Legacy Cities Partnership. Founded by Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University in 1950, the American Assembly develops practical and nonpartisan recommendations on how to improve public policy through research and the convening of academic, business and civic leaders.

Flexibility and neighborhood preservation in legacy cities

By Nancy E. Boone

The Legacy Cities conference held in Cleveland in June had preservationists from across the nation thinking about what more we can do to contribute to the rejuvenation of struggling, high-vacancy neighborhoods in older industrial cities. A lot of the talk centered around flexibility: focusing on preservation of neighborhoods over individual buildings.

One tool for doing just that already exists for projects that are assisted with federal funds and therefore require Section 106 review. First issued in 1995 and updated and revised in 2006, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Policy Statement on Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation lays out ten principles for balancing the national public goals of creating affordable housing and preserving historic buildings.* The principles provide sound guidance not only for Section 106, but several also relate more broadly to rightsizing issues in legacy cities.

Take, for example, principles III (“Review of effects in historic districts should focus on exterior features”) and IV (“Plans and specifications should adhere to the Secretary’s Standards when possible and practical” [emphasis added]). These are flexible principles that help counter the widespread perception that it’s hard to rehabilitate old buildings, especially if they are designated “historic.” As preservationists, we need to focus on realistic neighborhood-scale improvement. Some buildings will be lost, others will be reborn, and new buildings will be built, potentially energizing neighborhood revitalization through good new design.

Vacant house slated for rehabilitation in Cleveland's Slavic Village (Photo: Slavic Village Recovery Project)

Vacant house slated for rehabilitation in Cleveland’s Slavic Village (Photo: Slavic Village Recovery Project)

In many legacy cities, there is a huge pool of vacant houses and a severe shortage of decent affordable housing. How can we do more to bring the two together, to rehabilitate abandoned buildings into homes for residents of limited means? To what extent can we promote homeownership opportunities?

Can we look into our own history and remember and adapt some of the urban homesteading tools that preservationists used in the 70s and 80s? Can we identify and lessen or remove barriers to rehabilitation of affordable housing in urban neighborhoods? Flexibility is clearly part of the answer, and the ACHP’s Policy Statement on Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation is there to help.

HUD’s popular Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and HOME Investment Partnerships program also offer significant assistance. Grantees decide how and where they want to use these funds. It can be for rehabilitation, demolition, new construction, and more. You can find out your community’s vision for CDBG and HOME funds in the Consolidated Plans posted on HUD’s website. Development of the Plans is a public process. Make your ideas known.

* The Policy does not apply to Historic Tax Credit projects.

Nancy E. Boone is the Federal Preservation Officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Preservation as Change of Mind

By Margo Warminski

I grew up in 48205. (Google it.) I lived in a place where the American dream went into reverse, and kept going backward. Eventually I moved to a calmer zip code but kept the Rust Belt DNA. Which is why I couldn’t wait to spend three days at the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in Cleveland.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Throw so many bright, engaged, outspoken urbanists in a (big) room and you can’t help but be inspired, and challenged by tough truths. (Looking for happy talk? Keep looking.) Like:

  • For years, much of preservation was oriented toward controlling growth: a manifest destiny of new restoration districts, better ordinances and more wood windows. But what happens when the wheels come off and, in some neighborhoods, you can’t even give houses away? Preservationists, not just in rusty cities, need a change of mind: learning to live within limits. As we heard over and over, the overriding goals should be to keep buildings standing, and keep people in them—even if we have to compromise on guidelines and expectations.
  • You can’t demolish away the problem of vacated neighborhoods. (A ringing truth.) For years, cities have been whacking away at buildings in a kind of slow-motion urban renewal, yet vacancy continues to spread. As Allan Mallach ably stated, low demand, not vacancy, is the issue.
  • You can’t separate race, class, poverty, crime, unemployment, and extreme isolation.
  • You can’t save everything. We know this better than anyone.
  • And: Time, resources, political will—never enough.

IMG_0343Most exciting was the four-hour closing workshop where we hammered together an action agenda, more or less in harmony. Our rough-draft wish-list included more funding (saved, expanded tax credit; new products for low-value properties); more balance (money for stabilization, not just demolition); and more, better data.

And we left with work orders:

  • Pitch the plans. Take meaningful, incremental steps.
  • Go top-down, bottom-up. Cities need both DIY urbanism and activist government.
  • Reach across the room. Realize that first priorities of people in hard-hit neighborhoods probably aren’t restoring Italianate cornices. You can’t impose on people with different priorities.
  • Find common threads in tangled history. Newer residents of old neighborhoods may not cherish them for the original residents, but they may share values and aspirations with the founders.

Now, back to 48205. As a kid, I wanted to live on a street in a nearby neighborhood called Robinwood East. Just a bungalow block, but the name sounded glamorous. (Google-map it to see what’s left of it today.) For Robinwood East and Delhi Avenue and Flint and Youngstown and struggling historic places in lonely corners of America, that’s why this matters. Let’s go.

Margo Warminski is the Preservation Director at the Cincinnati Preservation Association. Images accompanying this blog post were taken by Nicholas Emenhiser.

Urgent Work in Good Company: The Preservation Rightsizing Network Takes Off

This post was originally published on December 10th, 2013 on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Idora Neighborhood in Youngstown, OH | Credit: Cara Bertron

Idora neighborhood in Youngstown, Ohio | Credit: Cara Bertron

For many preservation advocates, planners, and others living and working in older industrial cities, a recent New York Times article on bulldozer-driven planning missed the point.

Preservation can be an effective tool for reshaping and revitalizing legacy cities and distressed areas, preservationists argue, but is largely overlooked by planners and others responsible for neighborhood stabilization. The Preservation Rightsizing Network (PRN) is a growing movement to not only amplify this argument, but to develop and share practical, on-the-ground tools for proving it.

The group brings together traditional preservation allies, as well as new voices invested in the present and future of older industrial cities: preservation professionals and engaged community members, but also planners, community developers, land bank officials, federal agency employees, sustainability advocates, academics, and diverse practitioners. Members envision the PRN as a collaborative network that facilitates sharing ideas, challenges, and good practices between towns, cities, and regions facing similar challenges.

PRN members are already doing impressive work in their own communities. In the network’s two meetings to date, there has only been enough time to share a fraction of local success stories and good practices. These come from a spread of geographic areas and sectors: formal relationships between preservation advocates at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the Detroit Land Bank Authority; the Cincinnati Preservation Society’s working partnerships with city code enforcement officials; efforts in St. Louis to spark tax credit projects through creative National Register historic district designations; the Cleveland Restoration Society’s Heritage Home Loan Program; and many more.

Yet these successes can feel dwarfed by the pressing reality of widespread vacancy and abandonment, continuing population loss, and policymakers who are focused on highly visible, immediately gratifying  demolitions. Even engaged preservationists with a long history of accomplishments may not be invited to the table when large-scale planning efforts—and small-scale demolition decisions—are happening. Furthermore, there is no forum for communicating local successes—and instructive failures—to others who are grappling with similar challenges in other communities.

Right Size, Right Place Forum

Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia | Credit: Cara Bertron

Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia | Credit: Cara Bertron

Participants at the first PRN forum, held in Philadelphia in September, faced some difficult questions head-on in roundtable discussions: Is demolition ever acceptable? When is mothballing appropriate? What are new ways to use vacant buildings? How can preservationists meaningfully engage in planning processes? What preservation tools can help drive neighborhood revitalization?

These questions were fresh for many participants who were coming from the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference organized for the Center for Community Progress earlier in the week. That conference included one panel on preservation that was well attended, but most sessions focused on vacancy and abandonment, root causes like tax delinquency, and responses such as increased code enforcement, land banking, and greening vacant land.

Although it was not a preservation conference, cities’ built assets were a part of the conversation, from Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory’s vocal support of preservation during the opening plenary panel to a session on targeted community development (including rowhouse rehabilitation) in Baltimore. And the professional diversity represented by the conference attendees who continued to the PRN forum spoke to a broad willingness to recognize older and historic buildings and neighborhoods as one component of making communities both smaller and stronger.

To those of us who organized the forum, it also underscored the vital importance of engaging new participants: people who care deeply about older cities but who may not identify themselves as preservationists. Of the roughly 45 people at the meeting, just half worked for organizations, agencies, or private firms in the preservation field. The rest hailed from municipal planning departments, environmental organizations and agencies, planning and design firms, communications companies, community development corporations, and land banks. The final group discussion emphasized the importance of continuing to engage non-preservationists in the conversation for maximum impact.

Ideas from Indy

School in Muncie, IN converted to Senior Housing | Credit: Cara Bertron

School in Muncie, Ind., converted to senior housing | Credit: Cara Bertron

The second meeting of the PRN, held at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis, attracted a more traditional preservation crowd. Nearly 50 people gathered for a packed hour to hear about the network, discuss local challenges and successes, and refine the network’s goals, principles, and direction.

The group recognized that rightsizing is a marathon endeavor that requires full commitment and some compromises. The emerging PRN principles depart from traditional preservation ground by acknowledging that rightsizing includes both additive and subtractive elements—demolition and new infill as well as rehabilitation, relocation as well as mothballing. The principles also assert that historic preservation tools and older neighborhoods are essential to successful rightsizing and revitalization efforts, and commit PRN members to proactively engaging in and shaping planning and policy. (A full version of the network’s principles and goals is available online.

Moving Forward

Durant Hotel in Flint, MI | Credit: Cara Bertron

Durant Hotel in Flint, Mich. | Credit: Cara Bertron

The PRN aims to distill triumphs into preservation good practices—and to provide a forum for sharing ideas around persistent hurdles. Recent headlines highlight the pressing need for both. Even as a newly formed land bank in Syracuse  considers taking title to several prominent vacant commercial buildings as a way to spur rehabilitation, Michigan is receiving $100 million in Hardest Hit Fundsfrom the federal government for demolition of “blighted” buildings—teardowns that appear unlikely to go through Section 106 review—with more federal funding on the way. The demolition-as-planning article in The New York Times ran just a few days after two articles featuring preservation-inspired revitalization in Newburgh and Buffalo appeared on the same pages. PRN members were cheering, but with an eye to a long race.

The next PRN gathering will be held as part of Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities, an interdisciplinary convening in Cleveland in June 2014. Join us there if you can! In the meantime, you can stay up to date with the PRN on Facebook and its website.

Cara Bertron is the director of the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics and a co-founder of the Preservation Rightsizing Network.

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