June 1, 2001 - From the June, 2001 issue

Trust For Historic Preservation President Opines: "New" Preservationists & Their Effect On The Urban Core

Richard Moe, President of The National Trust for Historic Preservation, has long advocated a smarter growth paradigm. In fact, his vocal leadership may be the reason why preservationists have evolved from "little old ladies in tennis shows" to savvy entreprenuers, environmentalists and developers who believe that preservation is simply one componenet of a plan to build better communities. TPR is pleased to excerpt Richard's comments to the National Press Club last month.


Richard Moe

Everybody loves good news and America's cities have had a dose of it lately. Employment is up, urban crime rates are down. Construction cranes have sprouted everywhere and shiny downtown projects-new sports arenas, convention centers, museums, concert halls and courthouses-have opened to great fanfare in city centers from coast to coast.

More important, people are coming back. New census figures indicate that the great migration to the suburbs has slowed down.

[A]t long last America's cities appear to be making a comeback. Still, it's much too early to claim victory. The good news is heavily qualified. To begin with, many cities are still hemorrhaging people. In some places, an overall increase in urban population simply reflects the fact that many suburbs have reached urban density. In cities that have experienced real population growth, much of it is attributable to an enormous influx of immigrants during the decade. In short, some cities are doing better than others-and even in the cities that are making progress, many neighborhoods are being left behind.

Our cities still have a long way to go before we can proclaim that they're finally "back." And if they're ever going to make it, the federal government must play a role. Over the years, federal housing and transportation policies have had the effect, whether intended or not, of driving people out of the cities. And in plenty of other areas, from tax codes to infrastructure investment and the location of government offices, the federal government has contributed heavily to today's urban problems.

Now it has a clear duty to play an active role in solving them. At the very least, our cities deserve a level playing field. Fifty years ago, Washington began to offer economic inducements to families that wanted to flee to the suburbs; it s time to offer the same kinds of inducements to help people return to, or stay in, the city. This doesn't have to mean creating a whole new set of programs. It can mean simply recognizing what's already working.

One of the things that's working is historic preservation. As a growing number of America's cities are being reborn, historic preservation is playing a major role-in many cases the leading role-in the process.

[S]ome may be surprised to hear that. If so, it's probably because preservation isn't what they think it is. Preservation has matured from the proverbial "little old ladies in tennis shoes," to an equally dedicated but much more sophisticated national movement that's having a profound impact on the look and livability of America's communities

Don Rypkema, a nationally recognized expert on the subject, puts it this way: I do not know of a single sustained success story in downtown revitalization anywhere in the United States where historic preservation was not a key component of the effort. That doesn't mean it isn't theoretically possible to have downtown revitalization [without] historic preservation, but I don't know about it, I haven't read about it, I haven't seen it.

How did this happen? What accounts for it? For one thing, America started to undergo a great national change of heart back in the 1960s and 70s, the heyday of Urban Renewal and Interstate Highway construction. We lost thousands of historic buildings and neighborhoods during those decades, but we gained something in the process: a new attitude toward the past.

Having rethought our attitude toward our heritage, we created financial incentives for saving it. In 1976, for the first time, the federal government offered a tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings. An expanded credit in the early 1980s made historic rehab a very attractive investment opportunity-and generated the biggest boom preservation has ever known.

Since the credit was enacted almost a quarter-century ago, more than 28,000 renovation projects have been completed. Nearly 300,000 housing units have been rehabbed or created-most of them affordable and many of them in downtown areas, where they're critical to the creation of urban vitality. Here's the really impressive number: Altogether, tax-credit rehab has leveraged a private-sector investment of more than $22 billion in the revitalization of America's communities.

Rehab tax-credit legislation has forged a mutually beneficial and enormously successful partnership between government and private-sector businessmen. Right now there's a crying need-and a great opportunity-for such a partnership in older residential neighborhoods.

Obviously, this one piece of federal legislation won't fix everything. If we hope to create truly livable neighborhoods in our urban centers, we have to overcome some other formidable barriers at the state and local levels.

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For instance, it makes no sense to offer a tax incentive for rehab-and then make the rehab process harder than it has to be. In fact, local building and zoning codes often make it difficult, or even impossible, for owners and developers to rehabilitate older buildings and bring new life to deteriorated neighborhoods.

To replace these misguided regulations, we need "smart codes" that encourage reinvestment.

Also at the state and local levels, we need to support and strengthen the institution that is the strongest anchor of a truly livable community: the neighborhood school. Thanks to inadequate maintenance budgets, misguided state education department policies and consolidation of smaller facilities into mega-schools, these cherished icons are being abandoned and demolished at an alarming rate. We should be doing all we can to keep these schools alive-but instead, we're tossing them aside like yesterday's newspaper.

With sensitive renovation and adequate maintenance, older schools can provide first-class learning facilities as well as-or better than-huge, impersonal new schools in locations accessible only by car and too remote to have any meaningful connection to the community where the students live. Older neighborhoods need schools to attract and retain the middle-class residents whose presence is a key to sustaining livability-and, perhaps more important, to ensure that in-town kids have access to the equity in education to which they're entitled. If we want these neighborhoods to revive and flourish, we can't keep cutting the heart out of them.

I'm not so naïve as to believe that preservation is the answer to all of our cities' ills. There are plenty of urban problems-crime, unemployment and poor public services, for instance-that preservation alone can't solve. Unfortunately, the critical need to find solutions to these problems isn't being talked about at the highest levels of government. In fact, there are no serious urban policy conversations underway anywhere in official Washington today.

Circumstances have given us a unique window of opportunity to help our cities. If we miss it, we could lose ground. Now-while the momentum of urban recovery is working in our favor, while a new generation of enlightened mayors and savvy developers has come to the fore, while the nation's fiscal health is strong-now is the time to launch a focused national effort to take the cities off of life-support and move them into the recovery room.

What we don't need are massive new urban programs like those that have had such mixed success in the past. Rather, I would like to see President Bush bring together a dozen of the nation's most creative mayors, a dozen of our most civic-minded corporate CEOs and a dozen of our most effective nonprofit leaders and challenge them to come up with 5 or 6 carefully targeted initiatives to stimulate more private investment in our cities. The public/private partnerships that are likely to emerge from these initiatives will offer just the kind of vision and energy our cities need to tackle the challenge of creating more affordable housing, improving the quality of public education and creating new jobs.

Forging effective public/private partnerships. Emphasizing the preservation and reuse of existing buildings. Eliminating barriers and creating incentives for reinvestment. These are tools that work and it doesn't take a genius to know that when you have a tool that does the job effectively and efficiently, you use it. If we're not smart enough to realize that, maybe we deserve suburban sprawl that is soulless and increasingly traffic-choked, farmland and open space that are fast disappearing, and urban centers that look like illustrations for a textbook on neglect and abandonment and failed initiatives.

In a new book about urban design entitled The Seduction of Place: The City in the 21st Century, author Joseph Rykwert notes that " irrationality and miscalculation-sometimes ruinous miscalculation-are an inescapable part of the history of urban development ."

Those two terms, "irrationality" and "ruinous miscalculation," offer a pretty accurate summary of the way Americans have treated our cities in the post-World War II era. But the fact that we made tragic mistakes in the past doesn't mean we have to keep making them forever. We need to learn from those mistakes. We need to recognize that there are powerful forces-including market forces-that we can harness to accomplish the hopes and aspirations we all share for our cities. It's a question of priorities -and leadership.

No great nation, including America, can survive-let alone thrive -without healthy urban centers. If we continue to allow the cities to rot at the core, the blight will spread outward. It's already happening: problems that were once confined to inner-city areas are plaguing the older inner-ring suburbs now. We can run, but we can't hide.

Reclaiming the cities now, while we have the opportunity and the tools at hand, is the sensible thing to do. It's also the right thing-and I'm convinced that most Americans know that. They're simply waiting for the leadership to make it happen.

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