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