Preservation Rightsizing Network

Legacy Cities + Historic Places

Recap: Preservation Advocacy Week 2017

Missed Preservation Advocacy Week this year? Catch up with this recap from Julianne Patterson, Development & Events Coordinator at the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation and a member of PRN’s Communications Committee. As she writes, our work is far from done.

You can get more background on Preservation Advocacy Week from Preservation Action and our March 13 blog post.

By Julianne Patterson

The official “week” of storming Capitol Hill to advocate for historic preservation-
related policies has ended for this year, but I think we all know that advocacy is a 365-days-a-year endeavor. Our priorities for Advocacy Week 2017 and moving forward are: (1) asking for adequate funding of the core programs of the Historic Preservation Fund; (2) asking for support of the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit; (3) and asking representatives to join the Historic Preservation Caucus. All remain relevant and urgent.

Historic Preservation Fund

Thanks to the NPS Centennial Act passed last December – which reauthorized the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) – we were able to get right to the appropriations request of $86M for FY18. We visited members of Congress on Capitol Hill the day before the president’s budget was released, so we ran into a lot of “…Let’s just see what things look like after tomorrow” responses. It was helpful to remind representatives that funding for the HPF comes from offshore oil leases, and that the request really isn’t that big in the grand scheme of things.

The $86M request includes $50M to State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs), $13M to Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs), $13M for Civil Rights Initiative Competitive Grants, $5M for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and $5M for new grants to fund GIS and data management systems to document historic resources.

The request for funding to support new data management systems is a noteworthy step toward improving surveying efficiency and information accessibility. This small request is something my group (advocating for the state of Washington) highlighted. Increasing digital resources would greatly improve the Section 106 planning and review process, ultimately lightening the load on already overly busy SHPOs. It’s an exciting opportunity: government agencies, private firms, and nonprofit organizations are developing new tools every day to advance the preservation and planning fields. (PRN has upcoming blog posts featuring a few of these digital innovations, so stay tuned!)  

We discussed the administration’s infrastructure priorities and pointed out that dramatically increasing the number of public infrastructure projects without increasing the funding for SHPO staff would create a major burden within those offices – and potentially slow down critical repairs to roads, bridges, and more. HPF funding that will allow our SHPOs to proactively plan and prepare for this big wave of projects by utilizing digital resources to streamline and speed up the review process. This point hit home and resonated with every office we met with.

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Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit

Advocating for the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit (also called the Historic Tax Credit, or HTC) was met with more “let’s just see how things go” comments. It was clear there is a lot of uncertainty around what tax reform will look like, if it happens at all. Preservation Action did a great job prepping everyone the day before our Hill meetings by outlining a strategy that acknowledges the HTC will likely go away in the first draft; early blueprints of tax reform show it eliminated. Thus, our focus was requesting support for the credit once the tax code is opened up for discussion, with emphasis on its economic development and community revitalization impacts.

We also requested that representatives support the HTC Improvement Act (S. 425, H.R 1158), which increases the credit to 30% for projects under $3.75M, thereby making the benefits more accessible to smaller communities where the economic and revitalization impacts are needed most. We made sure to mention projects in each district (or the potential projects that could happen if the Improvement Act becomes law).

In addition to using examples of successful completed projects to illustrate the impact of the HTC program, our Washington delegation brought two current projects from Seattle that are in limbo because their financing is dependent on combining the Low Income Housing Tax Credits with the HTC to pencil out. In a city with seemingly limitless development potential in the midst of a housing crisis, investors and syndication funds are reluctant to take a chance on a tax credit project without assurance that the payout will be there. This is the very real reality of the state of uncertainty surrounding the HTC program and tax reform in general.

Historic Preservation Caucus

Finally, we always ask our representatives to join the Historic Preservation Caucus to stay involved in relevant policy issues as they relate to preservation. I don’t know much about the day-to-day business of the HP Caucus, but I imagine it as a big fun party where everyone dresses up as their favorite president and aggressively fights to have the most National Monuments in their district. I know it’s only like that in my dreams, but the good news is that preservation has advocates on both sides of the aisle – sometimes it just takes a different approach to highlight the priorities each person and party aligns with.

Resources for Action Now

As you can see, much is happening, with more work to be done (always!). Advocacy truly is an everyday, all-year project.

Here are three things you can do to follow up with the priority issues from Preservation Advocacy Week:

  1. Call your members of Congress (MOCs) in support of the HPF FY18 appropriation.
  2. Ask your MOCs to cosponsor the HTC Improvement Act (again, that’s S. 425, H.R 1158)
  3. Request that your MOCs join the HP Caucus, if they haven’t already.


Preservation Advocacy Week 2017: Get Involved

Welcome to Preservation Advocacy Week 2017! Even if you’re not reading this from Washington, DC, you can still make an impact. Here’s how:

  1. Pick up the phone. Call your Members of Congress to express your support for Historic Tax Credits and the Historic Tax Credit Improvement Act (HTCIA). If your Member is already cosponsoring the HTCIA, make sure to thank them; if not, ask if they will sign on as a cosponsor. Find your Representative here and your Senator here.

  2. Reach out. Use social media and local media to highlight HTC projects in your community and talk about their impacts on jobs, private investment, and neighborhood revitalization. The Novogradac Historic Tax Credit Mapping Tool is a terrific resource: it lists HTC projects by state and congressional district from 2001 to 2015.

  3. Talk to colleagues. Many people have a stake in the Historic Tax Credit: developers at all scales, affordable housing providers, community development organizations, and people who live or work in HTC-rehabbed buildings. Ask them to advocate for the HTC and HTC Improvement Act to counter the perception that it’s only wealthy developers who benefit.

  4. Show up. If your Member of Congress will be in your district April 10-21, see if you can schedule a meeting with him or her – and set up a visit to a HTC project, if possible!

A set of one-page briefs from Preservation Action can provide background to help with advocacy. PRN was pleased to partner with the Center for Community Progress and the Legacy Cities Partnership to produce three educational briefs for representatives from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. If you live in one of those states, please download and use the brief when speaking with your legislator!

The National Trust held a webinar last Thursday, March 9, which is archived here (free access, requires sign-in). Speakers discussed ways to effectively reach representatives, including some inspiring case studies, and offered an update on current legislation.

Hello from the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists!

We’re so pleased to post this excellent introduction to the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists! Read on for more about what the RBC is and what it does – and be sure to check out its website, Facebook, and Instagram for news about upcoming Rust Belt Takeovers.

By Mike Panzitta

Hi Everyone! We’re the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists (we usually call ourselves the RBC for short), and we’re what happens when a bunch of preservation-minded groups with very different organizational structures who happen to all live within an incredibly vaguely-defined geographic area all get together and try to pool our strength, knowledge, and experience to foster historic preservation throughout the Rust Belt.

At the RBC meetup in Cincinnati. Photo credit: Pearl-Jean Mabe

We formed after a few of us who knew each other mostly through social media decided to get together, meet in person, and try to figure out how we can help support each other’s preservation efforts (even if it’s just having a shoulder to cry on…which, unsurprisingly, is something RBC does phenomenally well) and foster new young preservationist groups throughout our region, as the Rust Belt has many special preservation challenges (and opportunities) that we’ve found pervade the entirety of the area.

Touring the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo. Photo credit: Mike Panzitta

This instinct to meet up in person, share our stories, and get to know each other both personally and professionally has resulted in our signature event, our Rust Belt Takeovers. After originally a few of us planned to converge in centrally-located Pittsburgh for a weekend, we decided to open the invite to all of our organizations’ mailing lists and see who was interested. We were shocked when over 70 people registered and we realized that getting to see a new city from a preservationist’s perspective is an experience that apparently there was a huge pent-up demand for!

Albright United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, threatened to be torn down for a drive-through Starbucks. Photo credit: Anna Lisa Keller

So we organized two days packed with neighborhood tours, preservation-specific exploration, and (of course) restaurants and bars, and because Pittsburgh preservationists were willing to host those who were visiting (and we got some amazing sponsors, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation) to give us some money), we were able to do it all for free!

From our city steps tour in Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Emily Pumm

It was such a success that we have held three more of these big events: Two more Takeovers in Buffalo and Cincinnati, and a one-day meetup (we called it a “Rust Belt Pop-up”) in Wheeling. And there’s more planned for 2017! (More on that later.)

Silo City in Buffalo. Photo Credit: Andrea Kern

In addition to learning firsthand about preservation successes, failures, and works in progress through our #RustBeltTakover (shameless Instagram plug there), we’ve been working to show the larger preservation community that young people have the capacity to organize, mobilize, and really make a difference in our cities and our neighborhoods without having to invest a fortune or have fancy-sounding credentials.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge. From our Rust Belt Pop-up in Wheeling, WV. Photo credit: Mike Panzitta

We have been working on region-wide projects to tell everyone that we preservationists are out there, we care about our history, and we’re willing to work to preserve it. The latest one was our region-wide heart bombing initiative.

A heart bomb masterpiece in Columbus. Photo credit: Young Ohio Preservationists

On February 11, we coordinated our heart bomb events (which, incidentally, were invented in the Rust Belt city of Buffalo) to make a huge mark on the National Trust’s #IHeartSavingPlaces campaign.

Heart bombing in Cincinnati. Photo credit: Cincinnati Preservation Collective

Heart bomb 2017 in Indiana. Photo credit: Preserve Greater Indy

This year we are also doing a region-wide sale of this year’s hottest preservation-related product, the Tiny Jane Jacobs doll. After her introduction at the NTHP Conference in Houston, we found that a lot of people were interested in showing their love for Jane, so we plan to very soon roll out #TinyJaneJacobs (again, Instagram plug) dolls for purchase, with the proceeds going to help preservationists afford the costs of traveling to potentially expensive conferences.

Heart bombs aplenty in Rochester, NY. Photo credit: Young Urban Preservationists

So that’s just a quick overview, but there’s so much more to talk about! If you’re interested in learning more about what we’re up to check us out on Facebook, go to our website, or email us at And come to one of our upcoming events! We’ll be doing Rust Belt Takeovers in St. Louis, Rochester, and Detroit this year, and all are welcome!

Highlight: Policy Statement on Historic Preservation and Community Revitalization

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is an independent federal agency that advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy. The ACHP’s most recent policy statement tackles historic preservation and community revitalization in distressed communities, from rural areas to legacy cities. The Preservation Rightsizing Network participated in the development of this policy statement, along with other organizations and federal agencies, and is pleased to present this summary introduction.

By Charlene Dwin Vaughn

After years of research and study into the needs of communities across the U.S. that are struggling to revive their economies and historic assets, the ACHP issued a policy statement in November 2016. It is aimed at helping urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities provide ideas and principles for successful community revitalization.

To incorporate historic preservation into revitalization efforts, and in light of current discussions about tax reform and infrastructure needs throughout the country, stakeholders are reminded that:

• tax credits and tax incentives can be used to promote historic preservation projects that preserve local assets;
• historic preservation should be incorporated in local planning efforts that focus on sustainability and smart growth;
• effective citizen engagement that reflects the diversity of the community can assist in identifying historic properties and cultural resources that should be considered for preservation and reuse; and
• flexibility in the treatment of some historic buildings in Section 106 reviews can help achieve broader neighborhood preservation goals.

The ACHP urges federal and local officials to use the principles in the policy statement to help communities going through significant neighborhood and commercial redevelopment. Also, the policy statement provides a framework for developing local partnerships to preserve the history and heritage of communities that are rapidly undergoing changes to accommodate 21st century modifications in technology, workforce development, global economies, and land use.

While these changes are all critical to developing sustainable communities, they should include historic properties that help provide a historical context in neighborhoods. Furthermore, they should acknowledge that historic preservation values are important to most communities, as they ensure cultural resources and assets are considered when preparing redevelopment plans for the future.

Read the full policy statement.

Charlene Dwin Vaughn works for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation as the Assistant Director, Office of Federal Agency Programs.

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

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 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.


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! 

Is the National Register of Historic Places Helping or Hindering Legacy City Preservation?

By Michael R. Allen

Today, as historic preservationists delve into the realities of older American cities that have faced population and building loss, we find ourselves reaching—and transcending—our field’s own limits. Nowhere is this more evident than in our engagement with the methodology of “rightsizing,” which has found preservation advocates making the case for embracing some demolition. The converse of this bold new look at urban preservation means developing serious conservation strategies for vernacular building stock that might not come in the tidiest, architectural history textbook–friendly form. If we embrace demolition to save cities, we can’t neglect the preservation work needed for what remains.

This building in St. Louis' St. Louis Place neighborhood is not eligible for National Register of Historic Places listings, along with thousands of other historic buildings in cities across the country. As a result, there are almost no resources for its preservation and it almost certainly will be demolished.

This building in St. Louis’ St. Louis Place neighborhood is not eligible for National Register of Historic Places listings, along with thousands of other historic buildings in cities across the country. As a result, there are almost no resources for its preservation and it almost certainly will be demolished.

That’s where our left hand smacks into our right. The National Register of Historic Places, the backbone of American preservation practice for nearly 50 years, looks more like an impediment than a helpmate for the new era of legacy city preservation. In some cases, it actually makes preservation of places important to people more difficult.

The major problem for legacy cities is that National Register listing is predicated on a building or district’s “integrity,” a status based on having a majority of seven aspects based on historic appearance. For a city like Boston or Savannah, finding districts that look as they did in an earlier time is a lot easier than finding the same in East St. Louis or Detroit. Fractured neighborhoods don’t stand a chance of becoming historic districts, no matter how hard communities push. The National Register privileges appearance over community will, public commemoration and economic value.

The result is that parts of neighborhoods can become National Register historic districts, but areas with scattered remaining buildings—people’s homes and businesses, often where deep neighborhood legacies reside—cannot. This would not be a problem if preservationists regarded the National Register and its enshrined criteria as simply a federal preservation planning tool, which is its true intention. Instead, we have written other preservation laws from local demolition review to state historic tax credit programs to enshrine National Register status and standards. There are social justice implications to all of these laws.

Preservation practice rooted in the National Register can become arbiter of people’s abilities to even have a neighborhood. In St. Louis, I have worked for years in both advocacy and practitioner capacity urging preservation of the city’s near north side, where 19th-century walking neighborhoods were torn apart by federal urban renewal programs. Today, the city has designated 1,500 acres of north St. Louis as a privatized urban renewal project called Northside Regeneration. While there are several districts in the area, and I co-authored the National register nominations for two new ones in the last four years, most of the area consists of scattered historic buildings whose groupings are not eligible for the National Register due to lost “integrity.”

The streets of the St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou neighborhoods may look depleted to the eye of the preservation official, but to residents’ eyes the streets are ripe with history. The history that these streets embody to many people is not the origination era when the rowhouses and flats were built, but the recent years when African-American residents inscribed their cultural life here. Small businesses hold stories. Remaining houses in JeffVanderLou show us the heroic effort of the Jeff-Vander-Lou Corporation, which broke the urban renewal script by renovating over 800 units of existing housing in the 1960s and 1970s while the bulldozers mowed down adjacent areas. The explanation of why the area can’t get listed in the National Register puzzles residents.

Still, Northside Regeneration’s preservation plan calls for retaining only buildings eligible for the federal and Missouri historic tax credits. The other areas are marked for wholesale clearance for new construction. The developer, the city and many preservation advocates have consigned these areas to the wrecking ball because they are ineligible for the National Register. That is discordant with the desires of many residents not simply to stay in their homes but to see the areas around them remain recognizable as their neighborhoods. Preservation seems to be too willing to denigrate community will, in favor of bureaucratic consistency.

Where is the movement that emerged to fight the federal bulldozer? Historic preservation sprouted up as a major cause in the age when entire neighborhoods were being wrecked in the 1950s and 1960s, including those in north St. Louis that are once more in the crosshairs of progress. What a shame it would be if the movement now became complicit with the postmodern equivalent of Great Society–era urban renewal clearance. Not only does the city lose buildings, but preservation itself loses the chance to embrace a constituency of urban residents who love historic neighborhoods. We can’t simply tell them that their neighborhoods aren’t good enough for us, can we?

The St. Louis Cultural Resources Office, under the direction of Betsy Bradley, points to a more inclusive politics of preservation. Last year, in the city’s JeffVanderLou neighborhood, a corner store known as Tillie’s Corner was headed to a National Register listing for Ethnic Heritage. “Miss Tillie” has operated an institution that was a gathering place from the 1940s through the 1980s as JeffvanderLou became an African-American neighborhood. Her granddaughter Carla Pearson spearheaded a grassroots preservation campaign that sadly ended when the buildings collapsed before National Register listing was complete. The Cultural Resources Office pushed to make the site, now a community garden and residence, a City Landmark despite the building loss—because the site was a tremendous cultural site from the recent past.

There are more City Landmarks all over the north side of St. Louis, with or without remaining buildings, and the Cultural Resources Office’s willingness to recognize ascribed cultural value instead of relying upon the influence of the National Register integrity standard is commendable. However, none of these City Landmarks can receive state or federal historic tax credits without National Register status. Tillie’s Corner doesn’t need incentives to preserve what is lost, but other lone buildings of neighborhood value and historic significance need financial gaps closed to ensure survival. As long as historic tax credit laws privilege National Register status, which precludes listing of many urban buildings, we’ll lose countless buildings of great cultural value.

The new South Carolina tax credit for rehabilitation of abandoned buildings is a great step for preservation of cultural sites, because it divorces preservation incentives from the National Register. State and local laws need to respond to public will to preserve—not the National Register’s standards created for federal management purposes. Preservationists in turn need to champion alternative forms of commemoration instead of pointing people to a single tool in what should be a larger toolkit. The federal 10 percent tax credit is also a useful mechanism, but it is not sufficient to bridge financial gaps in many distressed urban areas, and there are no state-level equivalents.

Reforming the National Register itself is still needed, and urgent. Last year in Indianapolis at the National Preservation Conference, both Raymond Rast and Vincent L. Michael eloquently laid out reforms that would help cultural properties currently deficient in both “integrity” and even “significance” (the National Register castigates ordinary buildings, even though they form the bulk of shared American experience). Ned Kaufman has urged preservationists to utilize the National Register definition of “traditional cultural property,” largely applied to Native American properties, to make the case for listing the urban vernacular associated with ethnic heritage. Reforming the National Register, however, won’t happen without a preservation movement that recognizes that some places need different frameworks for evaluation, commemoration and conservation. The fates of our legacy cities are too important to not develop these new tools.

Nearly 20 years ago, historian Dolores Hayden published her renowned book The Power of Place, in which she argued that preservationists were neglecting sites and buildings associated with women and minority history, social unrest and the lives of the working class. Hayden expressly called for historic preservationists to take seriously “ordinary buildings”—worker’s houses, factories, warehouses and other buildings whose significance is probably not architectural. As long as preservationists take the National Register as a veritable gospel, we are blinding ourselves to all aspects of historic places. Places that matter to people don’t always matter because of the way they look—they matter because of what they mean.

Preservation practice is going to change based on engagement with the reality of rightsizing older cities. While embracing demolition is the seemingly most radical aspect of that change, confronting—and in some cases overthrowing—the National Register may be more fundamental. Rightsizing is about more than assenting to demolition. Fundamentally, urban rightsizing demands that preservationists recognize that solutions are contextual, collaborative and multi-faceted. If the National Register isn’t helping us do our work, we need to find—or invent—the mechanism that does.


Michael R. Allen is the founder and director of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His writing on historic preservation, architectural history and public art has appeared in Next City, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Temporary Art Review, PreservationNation, nextSTL and other outlets.

Allen first published this article as a guest post for the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.

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