Many people are working on the ground in legacy cities to preserve historic resources and revitalize older neighborhoods. But the preservation field has lacked a concerted approach to being involved in long-range planning or rightsizing, and—at a very basic level—a way to share success stories, challenges, and good practices.

The Preservation Rightsizing Network was formed to connect preservationists, planners, land bank officials, community development practitioners, community advocates and others who are working on preservation issues in legacy cities. The Right Size, Right Place Forum was the network’s inaugural meeting on September 11, 2013. The half-day event convened roughly 35 people in Philadelphia to participate in roundtable and large-group discussions.

This document provides a very condensed summary of the roundtable discussions, which ranged from planning to demolition to effective communication. This summary does not necessarily reflect the views of any individual or participating organization/agency, including sponsoring organizations Baltimore Heritage and PlaceEconomics.

Meaningful engagement in planning

Participants talked about a range of ways to be more involved in planning processes, from regulation to data-gathering to storytelling. The regulatory process was discussed as an opportunity to make building reuse more viable. Historic resource surveys are critical to identifying resources and understanding their context and significance; this knowledge of locally valued resources should inform local plans—perhaps through digital mapping. One participant made the point that if preservationists are losing a battle over a building, they might be fighting in the wrong place. An effective alternative might be to offer technical assistance on acquiring and rehabbing older buildings to homeowners or prospective property owners, rather than focusing on individual buildings.

New ways for thinking about vacant and abandoned buildings

Vacant and abandoned buildings are a central issue for preservation advocates and their allies. Participants offered several ways to mitigate the challenges that come with vacancy. People had mixed opinions on mothballing: some felt that mothballed buildings attract vandals and crime; others (often the same people) felt that buildings will come back if given time. Both groups said that mothballing needs to be more affordable; should involve exterior activation through art projects/murals and window displays, when possible; and should be done selectively, with attention to which buildings are most important to the community. Preventative stripping—removing the ornaments, wiring, and plumbing without harming the building to prevent scrappers from doing more serious damage—was also mentioned as an option.

Participants felt that holding property owners accountable for their vacant buildings was important. Some suggestions for doing included bad publicity through signs, blogs, other websites and taxing vacant buildings at a higher rate.

Discussion also covered creative building reuse. Participants advocated for attracting artists, other creative professionals, and homesteaders, perhaps with low-cost/sweat equity housing and DIY support. Big companies and entrepreneurs were both seen as potential drivers for occupying commercial buildings; they would need to be attracted back to cities. Crowdsourcing was proposed as a way to fund rehabilitation projects and create community pride; people also suggested partnering with the AIA, APA, or local organizations to host multidisciplinary competitions for building reuse, perhaps with university funding. Participants pointed out that historic rehabilitation can be paired with energy efficiency upgrades to make older buildings more sustainable and perhaps bring more incentives to the table.

A flexible, balanced approach to demolition

Participants discussed the need to be proactive around demolition. This should include listening to resident concerns, particularly in historically disenfranchised communities, and making sure all stakeholders are part of the decision-making process. Preservationists should offer viable alternatives to demolition. Relationships must be built with decision-makers early, before demolition is the only option left.

When making the case for preserving buildings, a strong constituency that includes residents adds credibility. Any argument for preservation should include ways to address major problems, an economic analysis, and a realistic long-range view of a building’s potential. It may be worth compromising on rehabilitation quality now to protect the building in the long term, as long as the rehab does not remove or destroy historic fabric.

Most participants agreed that demolition can be necessary. They took the pragmatic view that flexibility gains preservationists a seat at the table in the long run; taking a rigid stance against demolition may lead to exclusion from future decisions. This is especially true when the building may not hold future value, or when losing a few buildings to preserve a block may be worth it. If a building is significant, creative, meaningful mitigation should be considered.

Participants also considered that not adopting a strong anti-demolition stance could alienate traditional preservationists. They emphasized the importance of providing preservation advocates and other stakeholders with hard numbers, so that the scope of the problem and feasible responses are both clear and decisions can be based on more than just emotions. People wondered if it was necessary and appropriate to support demolition, or whether not opposing it was sufficient; and whether accepting demolition in some cases would open the door for larger-scale demolition.

Good practices

  • Baltimore uses market typologies to try to retain density where growth and investment are likely
  • Cincinnati uses a matrix to evaluate the worth of buildings targeted for blight remediation

Valuable tools for revitalization

Preservation brings creative, proven tools and incentives for revitalizing neighborhoods and reusing buildings. Some can be applied at the city or neighborhood levels, such as emphasizing historic character in a marketing strategy. Zoning and preservation ordinances should be used in concert, with design guidelines embedded in zoning for non-designated neighborhoods. Adaptive reuse ordinances can remove red tape barriers to reusing older buildings. Similarly, allowing use flexibility in zoning to allow non-traditional uses may facilitate building reuse.

Other tools and incentives exist at the individual building level. Receivership is an important early-intervention tool that allows communities to gain control of abandoned property. On the financial side, state and federal historic tax credits offer significant financial benefits and can make the difference in project feasibility. The 10% tax credit encourages reinvestment in older commercial buildings and enables development that otherwise would not pencil out. Locally, tax freezes can encourage homeowners to rehabilitate by assessing the property at pre-rehabilitation levels for a defined period of time.

Participants also identified opportunities for grassroots DIY interventions. Workshops on home rehabilitation for individual property owners can encourage better maintenance. Inviting people to tell preservation and sustainability success stories shows what is possible and helps build community and generate enthusiasm for projects.

Still other tools are not explicitly based in historic preservation, but encourage residents to make visible investments in and commitments to their neighborhoods. Ideas include public art projects, community clean-ups, and neighborhood- or block-level competitions for things like the greenest block, most colorful yard, etc. Working with existing residents to improve their neighborhoods can entice new residents to move in—or former residents to return. Meanwhile, supporting small businesses encourages locally-based, people-centered economic development.

Good practices + new ideas

  • Come Home Baltimore, founded by Navy SEALS, engages residents in multi-pronged neighborhood improvement projects with the goal of bringing back former residents
  • Los Angeles passed an adaptive reuse ordinance that makes building reuse faster and less expensive
  • For distressed buildings, façade rehabilitation is less relevant than roof repairs or interior stabilization

Engaging nontraditional allies

To make projects successful in the short- and long-term, preservationists need to have partners across sectors. These allies bring support and lend additional credibility to projects via alignment of common interests. Forming partnerships is also about creating stewards and ambassadors of preservation ethics moving forward.

Land banks in particular were discussed, with the attitude that land bank-preservation collaboration can lead to great things. Preservation organizations can position themselves to be the go-to for consultations, advice, receivership, and other opportunities for intervention with historic properties in the land bank’s possession. Suggestions from the group included: 1) rolling proceeds from building sales into a preservation fund (like a TIF) and 2) that land banks adopt preservation guidelines.

Other potential allies include:

  • Neighborhood groups
  • Urban planners
  • Code enforcement officials
  • City and elected officials
  • Arts organizations
  • Pop-up events and uses
  • Economic dev’t groups
  • CDCs
  • Banks
  • Community foundations
  • DIY rehabbers
  • Youth
  • Non-traditional developers

Good practices

  • The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation involves youth in preservation education and advocacy

Effective communication

Participants felt that preservationists “win” when the community realizes why buildings matter and why it has a stake in preserving them. While it’s important to tell a good story about why buildings matter, preservationists need to be market-driven too: too much “dreaminess” and “storytelling” can do preservation a disservice. It’s critical to speak the language of the people who are being addressed, and to ask what their issues are and how preservation can help.

In terms of messaging, people spoke strongly against repeating the damage of urban renewal and wholesale demolition. They also pointed out that demolition eliminates most options for a property, whereas rehabilitating or mothballing it leave more options.

Participants also underscored the need to communicate why preservation matters. Historic buildings are part of the fabric, history and collective memory, and future success of the neighborhood. Older buildings provide places to live and run small businesses, and preservation supports stable property values. And more!

Next steps

  • Research rehabilitation’s impacts on tax base, property value, and population stability
  • Protect and improve tax credit opportunities
  • Develop a toolkit for preservation advocates, community development organizations, land banks, and local governments working to revitalize distressed neighborhoods and legacy cities