Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Idiocracy concerning historic preservation from both Yglesias and Glaeser

Matt Yglesias has a piece on historic preservation, "Bringing Balance to Preservation," that presumes that because a building is designated, that the owner isn't working to develop it.

From the article:

I was talking to some folks in my condo last night about a construction project just north of our building and I asked what the deal was with an enigmatic derelict warehouse that’s adjacent to the construction site (photo above). This, I was told, is owned by a different developer but nothing’s being done with it because the building is “for some reason” on the historic preservation list. I asked if there were something we could do to get the building taken off the list, since this listing seemed like the kind of thing that would likely be done by local NIMBY busybodies.

How the f*** do you know if your neighbor knows what the f*** they are talking about, what the developer's motivations are for that particular property, the ability to get financing, etc.

After getting involved in urban revitalization advocacy, I learned early on to not rely on bullshit spouted by neighbors, that I needed to find out for myself what the issues were, and to confirm whether or not what people said was actually true.

Not all developers have the same kinds of motivations and see the same value in places that I might see. Maybe they are waiting because they figure years down the road, they will be able to do something, when the site is worth more.

Take it from me, not all developers are good hearted souls looking to do what's best for the community. Some just hold on to properties waiting to be bought out at some predetermined mythical price.

Maybe they have such a low cost basis in the property that the family is waiting for the owner to die so that the property will be revalued in the estate process, so that they won't have to pay massive taxes when they sell because the property that costs thousands of dollars decades ago is worth millions today.

Plus, because real estate industry has over the past few decades shifted to the suburbs, in many parts of the city, only bottom feeders are interested. (DC does have a number of high class developers, some of which I've dealt with and others whom I've never met, but they are in the minority.) Maybe a bottom feeder owns the building visible from the condominium window, I don't know, without having more information on who owns the building and their track record.

The other thing is that developers and governments work on very long time frames, what seems like a long time to you (e.g., the 11 years it took from approving a developer for what is now called DC/USA to getting the grand opening of a Target store in Columbia Heights) is not long to a developer.

It's not very smart to jump to conclusions that historic preservation designation is preventing a building from being developed. Although I will admit, in some instances, this can happen.

Yglesias then goes on to deride the Mount Vernon Triangle Historic District. Now I have to disclose self-interest here, years ago I was roped into writing some architectural descriptions of four buildings in what became this district. I didn't write the nomination (although I have written building nominations before, some successful, some not).

But clearly Yglesias is a relatively new resident to the city, because he has no clue that what prevented development in this area for years was lack of demand, lack of interest, and hard core public nuisances--transvestite prostitution for many years in the city centered on this particular block was the worst, but not the only public nuisance, there were others. Until Paradigm built an apartment building at 5th and Massachusetts, which probably opened in 2004, and the renovation of the 6th and I Street Synagogue, no one wanted to be in this area at all. Those projects were followed by others including CityVista (I sat on an ANC6C committee which in 2005 made recommendations about the development of that site and others, including apartments and office buildings on Massachusetts Avenue).

The thing about the real estate market is that it is pretty conservative. The sites that aren't the best, those with more risk, secondary or tertiary sites (based on the development principle of "location, location, location") don't get developed until the primary sites are all used up (a/k/a "decline of inventory of developable sites").

The problem is that by the time plans and construction timelines for secondary and tertiary sites got made which would have been after 2003-2004, the US Government let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in 2008, and this destroyed the real estate financing market for commercial and multiunit residential property development, particularly in the center cities like DC.

Don't blame the designation of some worthy properties that can still be developed on the crash of the real estate financing market.

The reality, and he ought to be aware of it, is that real estate development not to mention owner desires and the ability to do financing is far more complicated than whether or not a building is designated.

It can be true that historic designation limits the opportunity to build differently, unless for whatever reason (in DC it is called "special merit") it is determined that the new project would be a significant contribution and therefore justifies demolition/replacement of the historic building. Even I can be convinced in some cases on special merit grounds that demolition of a historic building can be acceptable. But it better be a damn good case.

Yglesias picks up an idea, apparently a very stupid idea, from urban economist Edward Glaeser, that communities should have a limit on the number of landmarked buildings, believing somehow that this encumbers the ability of cities to improve.

The reason this is stupid is that for the most part, the only sustainable urban revitalization strategy is historic preservation based. It's one of the fundamental propositions from Jane Jacobs concerning The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that cities need a large stock of old buildings, paid off, with low running costs, to foster innovation. It was not an interest in historic preservation, but her understanding of the forces that foster innovation, that led to this conclusion.

(It's also why the Main Street commercial district revitalization approach, one based on historic preservation and placemaking principles, but very much focused on rebuilding broken local economies, was created.)

In practical terms, use of federal (and where applicable state and local) historic preservation tax credits and easements are a significant source of funds for rehabilitation and construction projects in cities. Putting a limit on the number of buildings that can benefit from this program seems counterproductive, not to mention that no benefits to such a ceiling seem evident--based at least on a practical understanding of how urban revitalization works in traditional center cities.

But it should be no surprise that it is the old warehouse and industrial buildings in places like Manhattan, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia that are being refashioned into hip exciting neighborhoods such as the Meatpacking District, Red Hook, DUMBO, Greenpoint, Station North, Strip District, and Northern Liberties in those cities. See for example, "Polish Is Still Spoken, but Industry Is History" from the New York Times about the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn.

DC is a little different, sadly, from those cities, because as a government town for the most part, we don't have those kinds of old large scale industrial buildings that can be refashioned into new purposes for new decades and new centuries. Lack of inventory is a big hindrance to supporting the kinds of arts and other uses in DC that drive neighborhood revitalization in other cities

Probably the best books on this subject are Changing Places and Cities: Back from the Edge. I always say that if you have time to only read one book about improving cities, it should be Cities: Back from the Edge, which is a kind of primer based on The Death and Life of Great American Cities--but much more accessible and easier to grasp, because of the case studies. (Death and Life is seemingly simple but pretty complex.)

Even if people want to shop in a new Target store in Columbia Heights, or a Whole Foods Market in Dupont Circle, the reality is that people are attracted to living in DC primarily because of historic building stock, pedestrian-centric (and transit supportive) urban design, and identity and meaning derived from being in real places.

The funny thing about people like Yglesias is that likely they are relative newcomers to the city. They didn't live here before 2003, and it was not until 2003 that DC really "took off" in terms of there developing a new critical mass of developers wanting to build and people wanting to live in new housing.

Try living in DC for the one or two or three decades before 2003, when for the most part, people with choices didn't want to live in the city, where the quality of municipal services was under continual decline, mortgage interest rates were high, and crime especially the murder rate, was climbing.

Before 2003, the people who were keeping the city going were still "urban pioneers," from many decades--1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s--who took a chance on living in the city when national trends and local municipal mismanagement (on that note, see The Future Once Happened Here and Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington DC) discouraged seemingly smart and rational people from choosing to live in the city. (Did we have to be a little bit crazy?)

They are the "hysterical preservationists" that people like Yglesias deride today. Hmm, talk about gratitude.

Historic preservationists are the people who gutted it out and saved the city for the new residents of today, who gladly consume today's more exciting and vibrant city as know it all conquerers.

It's easy to write an under-informed blog post, article, or book, or opine from your condominium window.

It's hard to get off your ass, and spend time and energy--years--working to improve your neighborhood or your city.

And yes, I too am frustrated with and dissatisfied with developers who own properties and let them moulder for years if not decades, creating nuisances of a high order. But that is another battle for a different day.

Greenpoint, a traditionally Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, is drawing in younger residents.
Greenpoint, a traditionally Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, is drawing in younger residents. Unaffected by the recent building boom in neighboring Williamsburg, Greenpoint is full of low-rise buildings. A group pauses to listen to music pouring out of a loft space on North 15th Street.. Photo: Jessica Dimmock for The New York Times

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