Preservation Rightsizing Network

Legacy Cities + Historic Places

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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.

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.

Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities: A Review from Detroit

Cross-posted from the Preservation Leadership Forum blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation where this post first appeared on October 4, 2013.

To read the full report visit the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy.

To read the full report by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman visit the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

At the recent Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference in Philadelphia, Pa., I participated in a four-person panel discussion titled “Building on Historic Assets.” We spoke to the audience about building upon the strength of historic structures and places to help revitalize cities and communities. We advised preservationists in the room to form new partnerships with land banks, planners, and others, and to work alongside these partners on projects affecting land use. We encouraged them to educate decision makers on the importance of historic properties to regeneration plans and to take an active role in discussions around the controversial and hard-hitting realities of demolition.

A new policy focus report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman,Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, reinforces these recommendations and provides useful insights for preservationists taking an active role in discussions about vacant properties and rightsizing.

The authors look at the challenges of regenerating legacy cities–older industrial cities that have experienced sustained job and population loss over the past few decades. They identify the obstacles that stand in the way of fundamental change in the dynamics of these cities, and suggest directions by which cities can overcome those obstacles and embark on the path of regeneration. The authors look at 18 cities and track the health of each city using 15 separate indicators to measure population change, socioeconomic conditions, housing markets, and economic activity.

Here in Detroit, one of the 18 cities the authors identify, we ranked second to last in overall health and vitality, followed only by our neighbor, Flint.  But some of that is changing. Let’s look at some of their recommendations and how they can—and are—being applied to what is happening in Detroit.

Build on Existing Assets

State Savings Bank in Detroit, Mich. (1900, McKim Mead & White) | Credit: Shianne Nocerini

State Savings Bank in Detroit, Mich. (1900, McKim Mead & White) | Credit: Shianne Nocerini

Mallach and Brachman note that building upon and strengthening the assets that legacy cities already possess through strategic preservation and rehabilitation of their building stock is at the crux of revitalization. This approach helps to retain existing residents and attract new.  It is directly related to maintaining and growing a dense, walkable, and interesting city core, which the authors identify as the “low-hanging fruit of regeneration.” In Detroit, historic rehabs of key buildings continue to draw not only workers, but also new residents to our downtown. Earlier this summer, Detroit’s only McKim, Mead & White structure, the State Savings Bank (1900), was threatened with demolition by owners who wished to create a parking lot. The preservationists, residents, and urbanites that were successful in blocking the demolition understood that regeneration does not happen by building new parking structures.

Retain Existing Residents and Attract New

The authors note that while several legacy cities still contain a large number of jobs, many of those jobs are held by commuters. This is echoed in Detroit where 163,500 people work within but live outside the city as compared to only half that number who live and work in the city. In other municipalities, commuters are often priced out of city centers or wish to have more acreage and a larger living space than urban environments can provide. Detroit, however, has an abundance of neighborhoods ripe with housing stock that is centrally located and can offer these amenities. Recently, Quicken Loans and its affiliated companies purported to have brought as many as 9,000 to 10,000 jobs to Detroit. We want those people to not only work here but live here too–contributing to the tax base, voting, and helping to improve schools.

As Detroit’s workforce expands, it is critical to our success that we continue to “sustain viable neighborhoods,” a recommendation by the authors, by strengthening and building on the assets that are our historic neighborhoods. Doing so will offer good housing options for current citizens that wish to remain within the city as well as provide a range of viable options for incoming families, seniors, empty nesters, and young people alike.

Strategic Demolition

The authors address demolition in the report noting that it should be part of any repurposing strategy as long as it is undertaken strategically. In Detroit, the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) is tasked with spending $52 million on demolition using Hardest Hit Funds, a federal program meant to prevent foreseeable foreclosures. The DLBA has created a plan, which will be implemented over the next 18 months, that calls for a strategic approach to demolition that focuses this funding in six stable or transitional neighborhoods across the city with the aim to further stabilize those neighborhoods by reducing the number of “blighted” properties. Whether this focus on stable and transitional neighborhoods (rather than heavily distressed neighborhoods) is the best method, the DLBA’s plan is a strategic approach to demolition and offers a relatively transparent framework for how this money will be spent in Detroit.

Demolition is never an easy pill to swallow for those that care about and know the value buildings have in our communities, but Mallach and Brachman say that cities should not be afraid to demolish. They caution that “demolition has to be strategic, not piecemeal or driven by the ‘squeaky wheel’ principle.”

Legacy cities should develop rightsizing strategies based on their assets, needs and configuration. In Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, Mallach and Brachman provide recommendations for a strategic and incremental approach to revitalization. While Detroit still has a long way to go, movement along the lines of strategic and incremental revitalization is happening on multiple fronts here on the ground.

For more by Emilie Evans read her earlier blog post on the Preservation Leadership Forum blog, “Preservation and Rightsizing: Strategic Demolition in Detroit,”  which discusses the role of preservation in demolition discussions.

Commentary: What Does “Right Size” Mean for Historic Preservation?

Cross-posted from the Preservation Research Office blog where this post originally appeared on September 17, 2013.

Last week I participated in two gatherings held consecutively in St. Louis’ kindred city, Philadelphia: the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, hosted by the Center for Community Progress, and the Right Size, Right Place Forum hosted by the emergent Preservation Rightsizing Network. While I was a session moderator and presenter, respectively, I would have attended each of these events regardless. The preservationist impulse of my younger career has hit head-on the realization that historic district creation, demolition protest and the fabled building “mothballing” are transitory tools at best — not options that resolve vacancy and threats, but stabs at creating possibilities. The hard work lies within those possibilities.

Right-sizing could mean surveying fragile resources in neighborhoods like The Ville in St. Louis. These buildings on Aldine Avenue were included in a 2009-10 survey that concluded there was no National Register historic district possible that would include them.

The first challenge remains framing the term “rightsizing.” Our panel took aim at the prevalent and oversimplified connotation that “rightsizing” means demolition of supposed liability properties. Perhaps we erred in our offensive, as we received very intelligent critique reminding the panel that “right size” need not be restricted to subtractive activities. Indeed, “right-sizing” can also refer to infill projects that add density to stable neighborhoods, renovation of historic buildings that add new residents or businesses, interim or permanent uses for vacant lots, and the creation of historic districts to guide policy-making. The “right size” of every American city is not necessarily smaller. However, much of the discussion on “rightsizing” (or “managed decline,” or “shrinking cities”) nearly obsesses over population loss and resource scarcity, without being more accurate about the complexity of planning in what are more accurately called changing rather than shrinking cities.

The 2006 restoration of the Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit's depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

The 2006 restoration of the Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit’s depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

Thus, the realm of Reclaiming Vacant Properties might seem to be foreign soil for the preservationist, and there were but a handful of us practitioners amid the critical mass of landbank professionals, planners and community development folks. Yet the opening plenary showed a wider recognition that existing buildings are assets than some might expect. A panel of mayors from South Bend, Gary, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Allenton — company St. Louis should embrace, not shun — turned up some interesting comments by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Mallory admitted that he personally joins a city staffer on drives to look at each building on the city’s demolition lists. The mayor then makes his recommendations for demolition to the city. Mallory explained that he doesn’t want demolition to create holes in viable blocks, lowering property values and removing potential city revenue and population.

Still, a questioner at the end of the plenary posed the oft-stated opinion that rehabilitation of historic buildings is usually more expensive than new construction, a false dichotomy. The dichotomy that is more likely in cities with significant vacancy is the gap between a renovated historic building and a long-term vacant lot. The question underscored that the language of historic preservation has yet to reach many people working in community development. Yet the panel that I moderated, “Building on Historic Assets,’ attracted over 60 people even put up against the Detroit Future City panel. There is an intersection of interest when preservation practitioners show up in unlikely places.

Renovating 27 historic buildings and removing a failed pedestrian mall in St. Louis’ Old North is also right-sizing.

Our challenge in the right-sizing world is posing historic preservation as practice, specialized knowledge about place that is as essentially to good planning as the knowledge brought by tax foreclosure experts, architects and urban planners. Yet our key values should not be diluted in the process. As Advisory Council on Historic Preservation member Brad White stated on our panel at Reclaiming Vacant Cities, the message is not even that historic buildings have value, it’s that buildings have value. Period. Buildings have economic value, social value, artistic value and ecological value. All of these are traits that planners tout with new green space projects, affordable housing developments, downtown retail, and other endeavors based on new construction. How do we remind people that existing buildings offer every bit of the value of new buildings, with the added values of energy conserved by already being built, and material quality that this country will never see again?

Two preservation professionals who are working on strategies for asset-based “right size” planning are Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron at PlaceEconomics. The PlaceEconomics Rightsizing Cities Initiative promotes “planning decisions and regenerative opportunities that are deeply rooted in local landscapes and character.” So far, PlaceEconomics has worked on a pilot ReLocal program in Muncie, Indiana. Although the project delves into decisions about demolition, the goal is to get planning agencies to consider the economic benefits of preservation and the costs of demolition — to look beyond policies that encourage demolition as the only blight remedy. As Rypkema often says in his frequent lectures, demolishing a building removes one option for a property — and why would cities want to narrow their options?

Two houses sit alone on Garfield Avenue in the Greater Ville in St. Louis. The vacant houses are assessed at a higher property tax rate than any of the numerous vacant lots around them. Preservation is not just about saving buildings, it is about working to retain value when possible.

Government officials are not our only needed allies — we must reach people who live in places whose revitalization we can foresee and assist. The people who live in neighborhoods affected by right-size initiatives, or just large housing or redevelopment projects, are predominantly poor and in many cases largely African-American. The historic preservation movement has never done well at reaching out to these groups, in some cases because we aren’t listening. I work with urban preservation groups in St. Louis and other cities, and none have more than a few African-Americans on their boards or staffs. Poor people aren’t represented at all. If we are going to help right-size cities, we have to realize that cities are collections of people before they are collections of buildings — and we are going to have to treat urban neighborhoods as something other than the frontiers we seek to intellectually colonize.

Building real alliances in distressed neighborhoods will entail listening, building more inclusive leadership structures on preservation campaigns and within preservation organizations. We need to shed some of our old skin. Many preservation battles don’t involve demolition — they involve keeping homeowners and renters in their homes, so buildings don’t go vacant. Foreclosure mediation, home repair, eminent domain resistance, mediation with code compliance are all aspects of preservation work that historic preservationists need to get better at. Communities typically welcome practitioners who offer resources for them. We have to develop capacity to provide those resources, and then remember that they are in service to the real ground-level leaders.

Preservation practitioners have the chance to help define “rightsizing,” and through that process redefine urban preservation so that it is more responsive to 21st century needs and possibilities. Historic preservationists should have been talking to urban planners and residents of poor neighborhoods more often for decades. What happened in Philadelphia is just part of a larger and long-term dialogue that will place historic preservation more centrally in urban development and right-sizing — alongside disciplines that are not questioned when they claim seats at the table. We should not be shy about taking a seat, but we should make sure we are ready to collaborate, listen, and develop new methods.

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