November 10, 2000 - From the November, 2000 issue

National Trust For Historic Preservation Meets In Los Angeles To Advance Its Agenda

As Los Angeles clears the path for its future, it must not forget the historical significance of its past. Aiding in this balancing act is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which held its annual conference in L.A. for the first time in its 51-year history. TPR was pleased to speak with the Trust's senior VP of programs Peter H. Brink, who noted that while expectations of the City may have started out low, many attendees left their hearts--this time--in Los Angeles.


Peter H. Brink

Peter, The National Trust for Historic Preservation just had its annual meeting in L.A. Share with our readers the goals and mission of the Trust? What came out of this meeting in Los Angeles?

The Annual Conference-which drew 2,200 attendees this year-is the premier educational gathering of preservationists in the U.S.

To complement this year's overall theme of "Saving America's Treasures in the 21st Century," we had Stewart Brand, the futurist, give our keynote speech illuminating the key role preservation plays in framing a long-term agenda. And Lorraine Johnson-Coleman-an NPR commentator and author-offered the counterpoint to Brand's speech at our closing event, where she described the important roles of individuals and story-telling as grounding forces in society's progression through ever larger shifts in continuity.

The Conference was simply outstanding. We were blessed with an incredible partner in the L.A. Conservancy. And sponsors like the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the National Parks Service, the General Service Administration, and the U.S. Army each brought valuable material that enriched the event.

The leadership of the Trust, the 2,000+ attendees, and yourself must have come away with some sense of what's going on in Los Angeles re: the programs and concerns of the Trust. Can you give our readers a sense of what you and others took away from this four-day experience in Los Angeles?

The impression I received from our attendees was that they ended up actually liking L.A. Many people, especially from the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest, see L.A. as "Sprawl City." But when they saw the diversity, the energy, the creativity and the sheer number and quality of hidden historical and architectural treasurers, they found they had a real liking for the City. I think that was one of the L.A. Conservancy's major goals-to show the "other side" of Los Angeles. And they certainly did accomplish that.

Describe the palette of programs and initiatives that the Trust is working on around the country.

A major thrust of the Trust is community revitalization. One specific announcement made at the conference was the initiation of a $25-million investment fund between Bank of America and the Trust, aimed at providing equity in smaller size certified historic rehabs. Our hope is that this will become a prototype for banks in other markets to partner with us in creating similar funds.

Another continuing initiative is the Historic Homeownership Assistance Act, which seeks to provide a 20% tax credit to owners of historic homes for substantial rehabilitation. It had a wonderful feature that allows owners or buyers who didn't pay enough income tax to qualify for the full $20,000 credit to use the remainder as a down-payment or to buy-down the interest rate at their bank. The Act actually made it to the Senate markup, but thanks to Bill Archer--who hates tax credits--we didn't get it included in the final bill, which didn't get approved anyway.

However, we have a majority of members in the House as cosponsors, and we're close to that in the Senate. So regardless of what happens in the Presidential election, we're in a strong position.

Another priority is our Historic Neighborhood Schools Initiative. We've fielded calls from across the country from preservationists who feel that we need to modernize older schools-many of which are well built and can easily be updated with technology-rather than go out to the cornfields and build new. So we started collecting success stories and published a community guide to saving older schools. And we're working with the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International to modify current guidelines for urban schools.

We're also in the midst of an ongoing dialogue with major drugstore chains-Walgreens, CVS, RiteAid, etc.-that are coming back into historic neighborhoods. While we welcome that investment and activity, they tend to target key intersections and tear down historic structures. We're now implementing an early warning system, and if a property is listed on the national register, they've promised not to demolish it.

Most recently, we've expanded our work with the National Park Service to protect historic properties in national parks. The major battle right now is in Yosemite where the Park Service wants to tear down three historic bridges to create a more natural setting. We don't think that's the answer. The Park Service needs to look at parks holistically and realize that certain man-made structures may actually enrich particular areas of the park.

And, as always, we are continuing to work hard to preserve our most endangered sites, which range from Valley Forge-where a lack of funding is causing the roof to leak and may ultimately cause structural damage-to the Santa Anita Racetrack-where the owners want to create a new facade and destroy the historic Art Deco architecture.

Let's move this one degree to the left--or right, depending on your point of view. Give us a sense of what you expect from the new Congress and President with respect to the agenda you've just described. Will it advance your cause?

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Each of the candidates will advance a portion of our agenda. We've had good luck with Republicans on the Homeowners Tax Credit, but I think that will be positioned well in Congress regardless of who becomes President.

It's harder to say when it comes to things like continuing increases in funding. This year, the State Historic Officers received an additional $15 million, and the Save America's Treasures Program received $35 million. I suppose the only question in regard to the Presidential candidates is, who might propose extensive tax cuts lessening the Congress' flexibility to continue building on these programs?

Paul Grogan, author of Comeback Cities, states, "The good news, though palpable, is still subtle. And to be sure, in most cases, it has not produced anything like the urban sentimentalists' dream: primly restored historic dwellings above savory shops decked out in Parisian awnings. Even the fastest-recovering inner cities are still hardscrabble places occupied largely by poor families and struggling businesses. The point is not that cities can or should return to the full glory of their wealthier pasts. The point is that they are becoming places where people want to live, shop, run businesses, and go to school." Peter, what's your reaction to that commentary?

If he's making the point that cities are generally in a subtle but discernible upswing, I agree. That has become evident in the current increase in housing units in both major and mid-sized cities nationwide. A useful tool in dealing with this is the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credit along with the tax credits that approximately 16 states have passed, because when an owner or developer combines those two funding mechanisms, they find a very sweet incentive to rehab in a sensitive way.

However, we still have a lot of hard work to do before our downtowns finally rebound. The reaction of mayors across the country to tear down vacant buildings has caused many urban neighborhoods to be far less attractive for reinvestment. That's one reason we've been pushing the Homeowners Tax Credit for almost seven years now-we think it will make older housing in cities again viable and usable.

Are there developers of scale around the country that can work in partnership with the efforts of the Trust to make a significant contribution to the revitalization of our urban cores? Is that energy out there?

There are several companies doing great work-with or without us. We've worked with Randy Alexander in Wisconsin, Richard Barron in St. Louis, and Jonathan Rose (part of the Rose development family) in New York City. We've also worked with Tony Goldman on several hotels in Miami Beach and SoHo. We had Tony speak at the L.A. Conference, and he was really struck by Los Angeles. Perhaps he'll find a project here in L.A.?

Peter, let's end with this: L.A. has a Mayor's race coming up this spring. As a member of the preservationist community, what would you hope to hear from Mayoral candidates in terms of an agenda that mirrors the National Trust's?

I'd like to hear a commitment to revitalize Downtown L.A., and a recognition that rehabilitation and preservation are absolutely essential to that revitalization.

I'd like to see support for projects like the adaptive reuse of St. Vibiana's, which will be a marvelous educational and performing arts facility for the general Downtown area.

I'd like to see support for a citywide Main Street program so that neighborhoods with commercial districts can seek to obtain financial and technical assistance in beginning the revitalization process.

And I'd advocate for an overall conservation management plan in Los Angeles-a broad survey of what's important historically and architecturally in an attempt to figure out a more systematic way to protect and utilize those structures.

Finally, my general impression is that the review board in L.A. and the local ordinance for designated districts and landmarks is one of the weaker ones in the country, and I'd hope that would be strengthened in a collaborative way.

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