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.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Another historic preservation followup

1.  A nice piece on preservation month activities in Boston, "Preservation Can Be Inspiring — this month (and every month)," from Planners Web.

2.  The article mentions how the City of Boston Landmarks Commission has coordinated 50 events throughout the month.  Here's the calendar and program of all the events.

3.  DC had its Preservation Awards event earlier in the month.  See the DC Government press release "Mayor Gray Announces Winners of Historic Preservation Awards" for the list of winners, which included Ann Hughes Hargrove, for Lifetime Achievement (she's awesome).

(Looking at the DC Historic Preservation Office webpage on the past awards reminds me that I had forgotten that it was I who was the one who suggested to people in Mayor Williams' Administration that DC needed to create an annual historic preservation awards program.)

4.  The Washington Examiner did a piece, "Preservationists praise D.C. efforts as area nonprofits get $1 million," on the recent Partners in Preservation funding contest in the region and tied it together with the DC preservation awards.

While all of the participants in the funding contest received some money, ten of the twenty four participants receiving the most votes also received the most money, each getting grants of up to $100,000.  Also see "Cathedral, Mount Vernon, Woodson House, other local sites net preservation grants" and "Partnered for preservation" from the Post.

5.  San Diego's Save Our Heritage Organization's award program is next week.

Left: Chicano Park, San Diego.  Photo by Jaye MacAskill.

I like how they herald individuals for their work with house preservation and property owners who invest in restoration of historic architectural elements of the buildings they own.  The San Diego Union-Tribune has a photo feature on the awardees, "San Diego's top preservationists."  SOHO's website has a lot of good resources.

6.  Over the past three years, there's been important discussion in the Austin American-Statesman ("Austin tax breaks for historical landmarks more generous than other cities, review finds") and other local media in Central Texas about historic preservation tax reductions and how they are handled in Austin.  The way that the City of Austin deals with preservation is by focusing on individual buildings, whereas in the last 40+ years, the dominant method across the country has been focused on creating locally designated historic districts and a regulatory process for managing alteration, maintenance, and the design of new construction in these districts.

In Austin, individual homeowners seek historic designation and they get a 50% property tax reduction in perpetuity, on the presumption (true enough but not to this extent) that it costs more to maintain older buildings to historic standards.

This ends up costing the city and other taxing authorities (the school district, the health district, the community college system) a lot of money, although in the past couple years, the School District opted out of the program ("School district dumps tax break on historical properties," Austin American-Statesman).

Some citizens have challenged the city's approach via lawsuit, which was denied ("Judge dismisses historic preservation lawsuit" from the Austin American-Statesman).

I believe that the plaintiffs were right to raise the issue, but they did it in a manner where they were likely to be unsuccessful.  Instead, they should have worked to get the local government to restructure the program, rather than pursue a lawsuit where they didn't really have a solid legal argument.

Focusing a historic preservation program on providing tax credits--very large credits to expensive properties too, which seems to many people to be inequitable--is bad policy because it creates the conditions for serious abuse.

No other jurisdiction in the U.S. does it this way (although Texas allows localities to give a tax credit for up to 10 years for buildings in newly created historic districts, in part as a recognition that designation usually leads to property value increases).

This kind of abuse came up in the DC region with facade easement tax credits a few years ago, when organizations popped up to do this, for a portion of the one-time federal tax credit.

See "Group Ends Pitches for Home Easements: Criticism of Tax Deductions Leads National Architectural Trust to Halt Practice" which has internal links to all the articles in the Fall 2004 investigative series and "U.S. targets tax break tied to facade easements" from the Washington Post).  Easements are given on the presumption that the owner is giving something up by agreeing to not change the facade of the building.  But in DC, if your property is already designated, it's almost certain that the facade cannot be significantly changed anyway.  So an easement doesn't change anything (except in certain very specific and rare situations and usually mostly for commercial properties).  Hence no "loss" of use and therefore no justification for a tax credit.

At the same time, while the easements were misused in the DC area, tax credit-based easements can be a significant source of financing for very large adaptive reuse projects.  But because of the misuse, many in Congress were instead considering eliminating the program in its entirety ("Senators Vow to End Tax Easements," Post), which could have been crippling to those truly deserving projects.

This is why it's better to structure historic preservation programs in ways that make sense, rather than invite abuse.

Like with the easements and federal legislators, advocates in Austin end up being on the defensive, because of a poorly structured program. Historic preservation takes the hit, rather than the abuse.

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