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In Shrinking Cities, Preserving Existing Buildings Can Stem The Loss

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 20 2012

For Release Friday, July 20, 2012
Citiwire.net

Roberta Brandes GratzThe 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.


Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, 2010, Nation Books.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted July 20, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Kudos, Roberta! I would add that it is not just shrinking cities who should wake up to the economic power of preservation, but cities nationwide struggling with the need to regenerate their urban and neighborhood cores. We used to know how to design places. We should relearn those design details through their preservation and enhancement, then replicate that model to infill the holes and reconnect neighborhoods. I hope New Orleans ‘ officials are listening…

  2. Posted July 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant essay. I’ll pass this around to the places I know where spasms of demolitions are starting to occur. Large parts of some communities in the northeast look like Dresden 1946. Time to rethink this stuff–and turn it around.

  3. Posted July 21, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Roberta, If you’re old enough I’m sure you were inspired by the politics of Jack Kemp. Growing up in the North Central Mid-west we all felt the migration impact of job loss and abandonment. Michigan legislated property tax benefits in the 70s to preserve the core “fiber.” The Western coastline (Lake Michigan) was named the Sunset Coast in the late 80s as tourism was identified and funded by the then Executives in office. Jack stabilized public housing in Chicago and the downtown exploded with residential development. Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph Michigan (across the Lake) have become a model decision makers should study for smaller regions. The Matheiu-Gast Home Improvement Act of 1976 was enacted in a neighborhood we still call the Ghetto by the Beach. Silver Beach. Now we are sponsoring Senior PGA events at a World Class not for profit championship golf coarse.
    “It takes a long time to raise a village, especially when you gotta do it over.” All those people that have their own agendas…broke my heart when my boyhood church was torn down for a new City Hall building.

  4. Michael Maxwell
    Posted July 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Terrific commentary.
    As another comment noted, preservation has been a solid approach since the 1970′s.
    In Texas, during the 1970′s in Texas, I used preservation as the pivot point to stabilize Marfa and small gateway towns to the Big Bend National Park. The results peak for themselves, properties in Marfa are listed for sale in the New York Times and three once abandoned historic hotels and and degraded downtowns are popular and thriving.
    The idea for using preservation came from a number of us –then young – architects and planners working to save the state’s then rapidly eroding historic assets, espeically small towns. The result was that Seguin, Texas initiated Texas’ innovative Main Street Program that morphed into the National Trust’s nationwide efforts.

    That far back, Preservation is one of the only investments that, if done correctly, triggered tax credits up to 25% of a project’s adjusted basis and was financing windfall. That was coupled that with local and state incentives and then emerging property tax relief for historic properties.
    There is a long and proven track record for historic preservation as an engine for redevelopment. I agree with the article that it can and should be one of the primary tools in the public and private development arsenal.
    Taking that concept to next level of neighborhood conservation / stabilization, it seems logical that if cities can be enticed to use their powers to “capture” abandoned assets and assemble land to developers of all kinds they could retain and rebuild their cohesiveness.

  5. Posted July 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Rather than “preservation,” it might be easier to think of “maintaining” blighted, vacant, urban properties. My research on this topic showed that cities that take the approach of maintenance over demolition do better in terms of incidence of fires, crimes, and even public health risks. You can read the whole study here: http://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/handle/1813/13804

  6. Posted July 31, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Mallory is not pro preservation or anti teardown. Under his watch since 2005 over 650 pre 1900 homes were demoed. Our neighborhood had to file a federal complaint with HUD to force the city to do section 106 review and even that does n0t work because our urban conservator rubber stamps property as non historic to keep federal demo dollats rolling in. Mallory was quoted as being ‘all tingley’ about a MSD project that would demo an entire historic business/housing district in South Fairmount for a storm water seperation project. For Mallory to state he is against teardown borders on the ridiculous as the county land bank has a goal of 1000 teardowns in the next year! History is being destroyed in Cincinnati and Mallory does nothing.

  7. Gino Carlucci
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    While not appropriate for more than 1 or 2 cities, I suggest that a shrinking city promote preservation of a neighborhood or two as a historic village in the model of Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village. Detroit, in particular, could create a 1920′s era village ( representing an era of growth and prosperity for that city) that would include residences, businesses, schools and factories. Residences could become hotels allowing visitors to experience life in 1920′s Detroit while bars and restaurants would serve locals and visitors alike. The resulting economic activity could then help preserve and revitalize other nearby neighborhoods.