Preservation Hurts Cities? Not So Fast…

Published in Preservation Notes.

From the desk of Brent Runyon, Executive Director of the Providence Preservation Society

Over the last week, more than a dozen people forwarded me an opinion piece in the New York Times with the provocative headline “When Historic Preservation Hurts Cities.” Questions flooded in about how the Providence Preservation Society would respond and whether the author’s points were valid. As you can imagine, I do have some thoughts. 

In this opinion piece, Binyamin Appelbaum follows the experience of a property owner in one of Washington D.C.’s local historic districts who applied for a variance to put solar panels on a portion of the roof of his row house that would be visible from the street.  The homeowner’s petition was denied. Citing this decision as an example of how historic preservation prescriptions too often trump practical considerations, the author pivots to a larger argument against preservation as a practice that places “large chunks of our cities under glass” to our own detriment. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially here in Providence where historic preservation is an agent of thoughtful change.

The author presents his position as an opinion and does not play at objective reporting. And admittedly, he does strike upon some truths, such as the fact that preservation as a field is not sufficiently reacting to climate change with new tools.  But the article lacks nuance and ignores some important facts, including that hundreds of historic districts already allow solar panels, including those in Providence.

So what else did Appelbaum get wrong?

Every community is different. While many cities use similar standards and guidelines, the interpretation and enforcement of those guidelines vary widely from place to place. The author states that historic preservation “obstructs change for the better.”

Can that be argued in Providence? Historic District Commission and staff have demonstrated their willingness to work with building owners to advance thoughtful progress. 90% of applications are approved at the staff level, and less than 1% are denied overall. While allowing change for the better, historic districts experienced the least number of foreclosures during the Great Recession and held their values the most, compared to comparable neighborhoods without historic district overlay. That’s good for homeowners at all income levels.

21st Century preservation works differently. The author also argues that “There are buildings that should be preserved because of their historic, cultural, or aesthetic significance. But there aren’t many.” Spoken like a preservationist from a half-century ago. What most people don’t understand is that today’s preservation practice is as much about preserving the character of entire neighborhoods as it is about protecting landmark buildings. And the cultural heritage field has just begun the long-overdue work of investigating the multiple histories – often hidden or obscured – that existing buildings represent. To argue that there are only a few buildings worth saving dismisses the stories our historic buildings have yet to tell and is just plain wrong.

And what’s the alternative? To tear down “insignificant” buildings (And again, we’d ask, insignificant by whose measure?) in favor of wholly new development? That carries with it great loss, as demonstrated in historian and author Taylor Polites Pond Street Rhode Tour. It’s been said that preservationists are in the business of managing change, and humans greatly prefer moderate, thoughtful, and incremental changes to their environments. 

Preservation is for everyone. The author also says that “Historic preservation, in practice, is not about preserving history. It is about preserving the lifestyle of an affluent urban elite.” At our annual meeting, speaker Marisa Brown urged preservationists to think about the history of preservation, how it is rooted in segregationist land-use policies, and how we can do better to support communities that want to protect their cultural assets.

Here in Providence, we have several historic districts that attract homeowners at all income levels for two reasons: neighborhood character and property stability. In fact, Providence’s community development corporations, including S.W.A.P. (Stop Wasting Abandoned Properties) and the Providence Revolving Fund, have created many units of affordable housing within historic districts. Yes, it’s true that the affluent use all tools at their disposal to protect their property values. But so do all homeowners. It’s human nature to protect such a large asset, no matter your income level.

We’ve got bigger problems, and preservation tools can be part of the solution. Another portion of the article that lacks substance is the author’s statement that, “Those limits on renovation and construction are directly connected to the fact that other people live in tents under the highway at the edge of my neighborhood.” This is ludicrous, at least in most cities, which have a surfeit of buildable land that is currently occupied by parking lots.

On my daily commute between the West End and the East Side, I see numerous opportunities that exist for dense housing close to transit, jobs and other amenities. Single-family residential zones are, by and large, located in areas that are more suburban in character. Those are the last places more housing should be built, in my opinion. They lack the amenities mentioned above and would almost certainly require a homeowner to need a car. Which means they’ll need a parking place near their job. Which means less buildable land in desirable locations.

Solar panels are one small step. The writer states that “As you may have heard, Earth is getting hotter because we’re burning too much carbon, and one small way people can reduce their use of carbon is to tap the sun for electricity.” He’s right; that is a small way. As law professor Sara Bronin writes in her own opinion piece written shortly after the DC issue came up, “Preservationists certainly need to recognize that in the face of these unprecedented threats, not every significant feature of every historic site can be preserved. Nor should they be, if doing so means preventing adaptation to and mitigation of the effects of climate change.”

We agree with that. But installing solar panels isn’t the first answer to a home’s energy needs. Reducing the consumption of energy is where everyone should start. Adjust the thermostat. Mitigate drafts. Upgrade to efficient HVAC systems. Address vampire appliances and electronics that draw energy even when turned off. Install insulation, where possible. Those are just a few other things that should be done before investing in solar panels.

Sustainable development is necessary. Of course, the writer does get some things right when he says that, “The necessary corrective is not to demolish existing buildings, but to allow most existing buildings to be changed over time, and to allow new buildings to grow up alongside.” Ms. Bronin agrees, writing that “…preservation is an exercise in sustainability. Older buildings are often energy-efficient, made with renewable materials such as wood or brick, and longer-lasting. Moreover, maintaining an existing structure avoids the environmental costs of new construction. The National Trust for Historic Preservation takes the position that most buildings, even energy-efficient ones, take 20 years to 30 years to overcome the climate change impacts created by [their] construction.”

Historic preservation is a philosophy that favors moderated, thoughtful change, even where solar panels are involved. We have certain tools of the trade that are time-tested and proven, and those tools need to evolve as we are faced with new challenges, such as the crisis of climate change. If nothing else, Appelbaum’s column has stimulated discussion about these issues.

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees and blame preservation for all of our city’s ills. Providence currently has about 6.5% of all land covered by historic district overlay, meaning 93.5% of all land isn’t. Cities and the people who live in them may hurt for a variety of reasons, but historic preservation isn’t one.

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