Why Historic Preservation is Smart Growth
By Donovan Rykema
- Public Infrastructure. Almost without exception, historic buildings are where public infrastructure already exists. No new water line, sewer lines, streets, curbs or gutters are required.
- Municipalities need financial resources if they are going to grow smart. Vacant, unused and underused historic buildings brought back to life are also brought back as tax-generating assets for a community.
- New activities - residential, retail, office and manufacturing - in historic buildings inherently reinforces the viability of public transportation.
- If we are to expect citizens to use their cars less, and use their feet more, than the physical environment within which they live, work, shop and play needs to have a pedestrian rather than a vehicular orientation.
- Another element in the drive to encourage human movement by means other than the automobile is the interconnection of uses. Based on the foolishness of post-World War II planning and development patterns, uses have been sharply separated. Historic neighborhoods were built from the beginning with a mix of uses in close proximity. Cities with foresight to readjust their zoning to encourage integration of uses are seeing that interconnectivity reemerging in historic areas.
- As a strong proponent of economic development, I am certainly glad the phrase is "Smart Growth," as opposed to no growth. Smart Growth suggests that growth has positive benefits, and I would agree that is true. At the same time we cannot say we are having smart growth - regardless of how well it is physically planned - if at the same time we are abandoning existing assets. The encouraged reinvestment in historic areas in and of itself revitalizes and revalues the nearby existing investment of both the public and private sector.
- We see periodic headlines about some real or imagined "Back to the City" movement. Certainly, people moving back to the core of a town or city of any size has a positive impact on a whole range of environmental goals. Well, across America and in many places in my home state of New York, people are indeed moving "back to the city." But almost nowhere is it "back to the city" in general. In nearly every instance it is back to the historic neighborhoods and buildings within the city. We do need to pay attention to market patterns, and if it is back to historic neighborhoods to which people are moving, we need to keep those neighborhoods viable for that to happen.
- Smart Growth ought to imply not just physical growth but economic growth. And economic growth means new jobs. But who is creating the net of new jobs in America? Not General Motors, or IBM, or Kodak. Eighty-five percent of all new jobs in America are created by small businesses. And for most small businesses there are few costs that are controllable, but there is one - occupancy. Barring massive public subsidies, you cannot build new and rent cheap. Older and historic buildings often provide the affordable rent that allows small business needs to get started.
- Business districts are sustainably successful when there is a diversity of businesses. And that diverse mix requires a diverse range of rental rates. Only in downtowns and older commercial neighborhoods is there such a diversity. Try finding any rental rate diversity in the regional shopping center or the so-called office park. There isn't any. Older business districts with their diverse rents are Smart Growth.
- Smart growth ought to be about jobs. Let me distinguish new construction from rehabilitation in terms of creating jobs. As a general rule, new construction is 50 percent labor and 50 percent materials. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, is 60 to 70 percent labor. While we put in an HVAC system from Ohio, sheet-rock from Texas and timber from Oregon, we buy the services of the carpenter and plumber, painter and electrician from across the street. They subsequently spend that paycheck for a haircut, membership in the local Y and a new car, resulting in a significantly greater local economic impact dollar than new construction. The rehabilitation of older structures is Smart Growth.
- Solid waste landfill is increasingly expensive in both dollars and environmental quality. Twenty-four percent of most landfill sites is made up of construction debris. And much of that waste comes from the razing of existing structures. Preserving instead of demolishing out inventory of historic buildings reduces that construction waste.
- Its critics have pointed out that the so-called New Urbanism is neither new nor urban. But I don't think anyone here would dispute that in most instances, at least, New Urbanist development is fully compatible with the goals of Smart Growth. I would argue that New Urbanism reflects good urban design principles. But those principles have already been at work for a century or more in our historic neighborhoods.
- Smart Growth advocates a density of use. Historic residential and commercial neighborhoods are built to be dense.
- Historic buildings themselves are not liabilities as often seen by public and private-sector demolition advocates, but are assets not yet returned to productive use.
- The rehabilitation of older and historic neighborhoods is putting jobs where the workers already are.
- Around the country historic preservation is the one form of economic development that is simultaneously community development.
- Reinvigorating historic neighborhoods reinforces existing schools and allows them to recapture their important educational, social, and cultural role on a neighborhood level.
- No new land is consumed when rehabilitating a historic building.
- The diversity of housing sites, qualities, styles and characteristics of historic neighborhoods stands in sharp contrast to the monolithic character of current subdivisions. The diversity of housing opinions means a diversity of human beings who can live in historic neighborhoods.
- Historic preservation constitutes a demand-side approach to Smart Growth. I'm not at all opposed to acquiring greenbelts around cities or development rights on agricultural properties. Those are certainly important and valuable tools in a comprehensive Smart Growth strategy. But they only reduce the supply of land to be developed - they do not address the demand for the use of that land. The conversion of a historic warehouse into 40 residential units reduces the demand for ten acres of farmland. The economic revitalization of Main Street reduces the demand for another strip center. The restoration of empty 1920s skyscrapers reduces the demand for another glass-and-chrome building at the office park. Again, I don't mean to be remotely critical of supply-side strategies, but without demand-side responses their successes will be limited at best.
Donovan Rykema is a nationally known consultant on historic preservation economics. This article is reprinted from Wisconsin Preservation News, the newsletter of the Historic Preservation Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society.