The concept of historic preservation has finally penetrated the national conversation over so-called “shrinking cities.” Sort of.
At last month’s Reclaiming Vacant Properties” conference in New Orleans, sponsored by the Center for Community Progress, a few stellar examples of conserving abandoned but quality structures were presented. But the real trumpeting of the strategy of preservation instead of demolition came from an unexpected voice.
Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory told the opening plenary panel: “I’m not a big tear-down fan.” He prefers working with community-based groups that renovate empty properties and put people back in homes, he said. “When you keep clearing land, it makes it difficult to get new investment and kill the chance to repopulate.”
After the session, Mallory noted that he lives in the same house he grew up in, an 1870s beer baron’s mansion on Cincinnati’s Millionaire’s Row. “I know the value of quality,” he said, adding, “I still think we tear down too much.”
Asked why so many mayors seem to prefer demolition, he said: “It’s easier for city leadership to decide to get $50,000 for demolition than use the same money and figure out how to incentivize developers to renovate in a concentrated way.”
“What I want to do is take the money from the foreclosure program and bundle a bunch of reclaimable homes to turn over to a developer to renovate,” he said. Community organizations could handle the small clusters of vacant properties that can’t be easily packaged.
Mallory is onto something. But the real support for his strategy came from two people who were at the conference but not on the program: Don Rypkema and Cara Bertron of Place Economics have been studying this issue, traveling the country and talking to local officials and residents. Their findings are in a report, “Historic Preservation and Rightsizing,” commissioned by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
In the cities losing population which they studied, they found the least shrinkage in places where preservation is made a priority over demolition; sometimes renewed population growth occurred. They compared the rate of population change between 2000 and 2010 in the 20 cities with the highest proportional population loss. By overlaying historic district maps on census tracts, they found that historic districts either “lost less or grew more when the larger city lost population,” Rypkema said.
The aggregate loss of the 20 cities was 11.8 percent, but only 6.6 percent in historic districts.
Yet, Rypkema noted, “Out of the 25 federal programs that could be used for reclaiming vacant properties, only five seem to be used for right-sizing and mostly for demolition. Federal programs and city needs don’t match.”
The two-day conference agenda focused on useful subjects like code enforcement, blight removal, foreclosure and vacancy ordinances, local engagement and, of course, land-banking — the organization’s primary focus for several years. Yet the predominant understanding in most of the conversations was that “reclaiming” really means “demolishing,” and land-banking is a useful tool to assemble vacant land for new purposes, such as agriculture or acquisition by developers.
Unfortunately, preservation is rarely presented as a viable strategy to retain not just housing stock but population.
Many vacant properties have been left to deteriorate beyond repair, although not beyond deconstruction to salvage quality materials. And few would advocate preserving some of the poor quality homes built with inferior materials since the 1960s. Yet one might expect to hear more strategies about land-banking and conserving pre-World War II housing stock, whose quality will never be matched again and, of course, whose green building qualities exist from the start.
Again, Mark Mallory’s words trump all: “You have to keep your fiber. The fiber holds your fabric together. Older, often historic homes are our fiber.”
Preservation is one of the most potent tools for city revitalization. That message should not get lost amid worries about city shrinkage.