The smart growth/urbanist group Strong Towns has published what they call “The Case Against Historic Districts.” By regular contributor Andrew Price the article argues that declaring historic districts and regulating the buildings “does more harm than good,” because it discourages new urban development downtown.
“If all of the urban cores you have every known in your life are just a bunch of old buildings that happen to have not been bulldozed yet because some people labeled them ‘historic’ – you might get the impression that urbanism is a thing of the past.”
Functional cities need a mixture of old and new, side by side, he says. That mix reflects a rational approach to development – incremental and organic. For there to be vibrant new buildings in a downtown there have to be demolitions of some old buildings, he notes.
Markets in real estate will tend to see to it that the most valuable historic buildings are preserved, Price says. And they will cause the least valuable to be demolished to make way for higher value new development.
“As a business, it makes very little sense to replace an asset of high value with an asset of low value…We know the free-market system works for the most part because our modern cities are full of well preserved historical and modern buildings.
“The best way to preserve our historical buildings is to encourage investment and development, and not by outlawing them with silly regulations. By encouraging investment and development, we keep property values high and attract wealth, and that will make our historical buildings valuable. By being valuable and worth something, we prevent them from falling into disrepair and becoming obsolete…
“The worst thing we can do to preserve our history is by making it obsolete.“
COMMENT: First a correction to Price. Historic district rules and guidelines never ban demolitions. They allow demolition of ‘non-contributing resources’ – buildings or parts that are deemed not to contribute historic, architectural or archeological value.
Of course that classification process by the regulators of historic districts is highly subjective and leads to very different results in different jurisdictions.
Otherwise historic regulators only allow demolition when the building in question has become a hazard and is incapable of being salvaged. The most common form of demolition in historic districts is known as demolition-by-neglect, the owner neglects maintenance and let’s nature take it’s course.
Or there’s a sudden “tragic” fire.
There are laws against arson.
And there are “state of good repair” provisions in City laws that make neglect of the building an offense that can generate orders for maintenance and repairs, penalties, even in the extreme case, city seizure of the property.
But in reality a property owner with a strong economic incentive to remove a ‘historic’ building can usually find ways to do this, even if the city historic district commission can delay it and add expense. Alternatively the City ends up owning the property, and then taxpayers carry the burden of historic preservation.
But Andrew Price is correct that the best historic preservation incorporates analysis of the costs and returns of alternative courses of action which is precisely what spontaneous property markets and their trades between property owners/investors do best, day in, day out.
Historic preservation commissions at their best usefully provide some professional advice on preservation and a forum for neighbor comment on preservation proposals. But with no capital to contribute or funds for maintenance they’re unable to participate in real preservation. All they can do is complicate and slow down real preservationists.
The real preservationists are always the dispersed unorganized property owners, the people who take ownership of old buildings and responsibility, and who pay to design and repair and rebuild.
With no financial skin in the game historic preservation regulators easily become detached from the reality of the city’s economy and people’s lives. Run according to extremist ideology and the urgings of historic activists they become serious waste-mongers and job killers, and a drag on productive business, and an obstacle to real preservation.