Historic Preservation 101 | May is National Historic Preservation Month
Below is an article from 2016, revised somewhat, which is a great explanation of the environment for historic preservation and how it should work, can work, and often, doesn't work.
In "Without remedies there's nothing you can do: historic preservation in Chicago and DC" (2014) and "Historic Preservation Tuesday: Saving buildings vs. the right to petition to redress grievances" (2015), I argue that when historic preservation efforts are successful mostly it is because communities have put into place processes for nominating and landmarking buildings.
Campaigns without legal backup or the ability within local law to trigger "remedies" tend to fail.
Most people don't understand that a property listed on "the National Register of Historic Places" only protects a building vis a vis "federal undertakings." Only if a "local" project were funded by the federal government would it be subject to the National Historic Preservation Act.
As the cited entries make clear, to protect buildings at the local level, local laws, regulations, and designations are required. Even so, there is plenty of work to be done even if such laws exist.
(1) Because most communities haven't done full inventories of buildings worth saving, or if they have they haven't moved from the identification phase to formally protecting the buildings, for example see the 2004 series in the Chicago Tribune:
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 1: Search and Destroy"
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 2: Demolition Machine
-- "Squandered Heritage Part 3: Alternatives
(2) Many communities have laws which allow the Executive and/or the Legislative Branch final approval on landmark decisions or the authority to revoke landmark status,
(3) or if the local law doesn't provide a practical way for preservation minded citizens to initiate a landmark nomination to stay a demolition, plenty of historic preservation efforts end in failure. (The City of Chicago added a demolition delay provision to its building regulation regulations after the Tribune series was published.)
Comparing four different contemporary historic preservation advocacy efforts--in suburban Minneapolis, two in Baltimore County, Maryland, and in McLean/Fairfax County, Virginia--provides some insight into this, confirming the reality that how to be successful in "saving buildings" is either a matter of law or a matter of being able to successfully pressure either a developer or tenant.
Seven points of pressure:
★ Government in terms of existing laws and regulations concerning land use generally and historic preservation specifically, and whether or not appointed officials will support or deny their support of a preservation effort.
In extraordinary cases, the local government may step in and acquire a property in order to preserve it ("Kenton County Buys Bavarian Brewery Building, Will Move Government To Historic Site," River City News). In the Kenton County case, a developer who bought a vacant manufacturing site anticipating that it could be used as a casino wanted to demolish the buildings after the casino project was scuttled. The City of Covington sued to prevent the demolition and later the County Government stepped in. Eminent domain authority can also be used.
Another issue is preservation of buildings owned by local governments, and whether or not they do a good job of it. Many do not and/or are overwhelmed by the cost of maintaining buildings. Some governments do an amazing job of preserving and maintaining such buildings. This is even an issue with the federal government, e.g., "National Park Service turns 100, but facilities not being kept up," Columbus Dispatch).
Prentice Women's Hospital, Chicago.
Other prominent examples are the demolition of buildings determined to be obsolete, such as the Prentice-Women's Hospital in Chicago ("Is the demolition of Prentice Hospital another Penn Station Moment?," ArchDaily) or the County Government Building in Orange County, New York. There tends to be less interest in preserving buildings of more recent construction.
★ Local Elected Officials in terms of whether or not they will support or deny their support to a preservation effort, how they direct appointed officials to act, and their willingness to try to persuade property owners and developers to take a different tack.
This is particularly important when the Executive Branch is responsible for planning functions, and City/County Councils have the final decision-making authority.
Unfortunately elected officials and therefore government often will cave when a developer states that a business venture--economic development--won't go forward if encumbered if historic buildings must be retained.
★ Real Estate Developer/Property Owner. Without historic preservation protections in place before the onset of a project, it is very difficult to "save" a building. However, it the developer wants to save the building they will.
But most developers are focused on "land" and the opportunity to refashion it, and see existing buildings as obstacles.
However, a minority of developers seek out and rehabilitate historic buildings, especially in cities, because of the ability to monetize value from historic identity and authenticity. Getting these developers to buy historic properties rather than developers lacking concern for historic architecture is the best course of action.
★ Tenant. In rare instances major tenants may be susceptible to pressure in terms of supporting historic preservation efforts. Most retail chains have specific design and building formats (there is a great new book on this topic concerning Walmart, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment) that are somewhat flexible, but generally they do not favor "old" or historic buildings except in one-off but multiple circumstances.
Broadway Theater Rite Aid, Seattle.
One example is CVS, which likes to locate stores in old theaters. Rite Aid has done the same in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle, as have both Walgreens and CVS in New Orleans.
Generally in center cities chains will locate stores in historic buildings but they tend to be unwilling to do this when they have other choices, building new stores from the ground up, incorporating their standard designs, which they consider to be key elements of branding identity.
Heinen's opens downtown supermarket in renovated Cleveland Trust Company," Cleveland Plain Dealer).
This is atypical. But companies do it for "flagship stores," as a way to make a statement.
For example, the REI outdoor store opened such a store in a landmarked building in DC (I happened to lead the effort that got the building landmarked.)
★ Residents. Residents independent of preservation advocates may or may not support a preservation effort. Either way, support or opposition can tip a campaign to success or failure. However, typically people don't care that much, and plenty of people are negative either for "property rights" concerns or out of the general belief in the US that "new is better."
★ Money. If a preservation advocacy initiative has the money to buy a building and preserve it, they usually can. Because preservation groups usually don't have the money they need to preserve all the buildings worth preserving, most of these efforts are about persuading other parties or using "other people's money,"
★ Property control/Ownership is related to money. If a preservation group owns the property, even if derelict, they're in a better position to shape the outcome. So if a preservation group or group of citizens can buy the property in the face of pressure, they can save the building.
Flickr photo by Pat Gavin. Baltimore County -- Bel Loc Diner, Googie architecture style vs. standard suburban Starbucks.
In Baltimore County, the developer of a potential Starbucks site was not interested in rehabilitating the diner for a Starbucks, instead preferring to build the standard suburban Starbucks format, while saving a sign. ("Bel-Loc Diner in Baltimore County to be torn down for a Starbucks")
Starbucks is happy with this even though they are tenants in great Googie architecture elsewhere.
The executive branch of the County Government is fine with that, because they see the new store as "economic development" for a corridor that is in need of revitalization, and don't see the value of historic preservation as an element of the corridor's identity. The Councilmember is on the fence, but ultimately the Executive Branch calls the shots.
Preservation Maryland and Preservation Alliance of Baltimore County had campaigns to save the building, but were unable to impact any of the five pressure points for success. There isn't a concerted campaign by residents to save the building, although this isn't a surprise, because of how American built culture favors "the new."
Unfortunately, a campaign to designate the building in advance of this particular proposal did not occur, but even if it did, the County would have been likely to approve a demolition. However, had designation been in place, it would have created a much different "space" for discussions on how to proceed. If Starbucks really wanted to be at that location, likely they would have acquiesced and saved the building. But not being forced to save the building means they prefer the easy way forward.
A point about tenants: is it an urban or suburban thing? A big national company like Starbucks has different real estate groups across the country, and are inconsistent in terms of "preservation." It could even be that the company has a different policy for center cities and towns, where it appears they often favor historic buildings, and suburban settings, where preservation generally isn't an issue.
Baltimore County -- Presbyterian Mansion
Photo: The Presbyterian Home of Maryland, based in Towson, is closing. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
A different preservation matter is also ongoing ("Baltimore County backs out of deal to move workers to Towson Presbyterian Home," Baltimore Sun), at an earlier phase in the development of the site compared to the Bel-Loc Diner. A 4 acre nursing home campus is being vacated. It has been purchased by one of Baltimore's primary developers, who proposed saving the main building, rehabilitating it, and renting it out to the County Government for offices.
A note about residents: alternatives can be worse. Local residents opposed that particular use--not necessarily preservation of the building-arguing that it would generate extranormal amounts of traffic, and the County scuttled its proposal.
However, that could mean that the developer demolishes the building and constructs new housing on the site, which may generate as much traffic, just at different times.
This reminds me of other examples when opposition by residents to particular projects results, down the road, in worse outcomes (a Walmart instead of housing, etc.) because at the time opponents couldn't conceptualize scenarios and outcomes that were worse. From the article:
Residents of the Southland Hills community are planning a rally Sunday to draw attention to their concerns about the building and generate support for landmark designation.McLean, Virginia -- a house dating to the 1700s
"We're a neighborhood and we want to remain a neighborhood," said Kate Knott, another Southland Hills resident.
Adler said Caves Valley [the developer] will oppose landmark status for the building. Now that offices are off the table, he said the company is evaluating whether the existing building can be incorporated in a residential project — or must be torn down to build new.
The company has the property, which is zoned for up to 5.5 homes per acre, under contract. Presbyterian Home officials have said the contract is subject to a 60-day study period, which runs through mid-October.
Washington's NBC station reported (Historic McLean Home Set for Demolition") on plans by a developer to demolish a house dating to the 1700s, said to have significant connections to historical events associated with the War of 1812 and the Civil, to build three new houses in its place.
Fairfax County's comprehensive plan calls for inventorying potential historic resources, but mostly this goal remains unattained. While the County has a process for landmarking individual buildings, the State of Virginia does not authorize local jurisdiction to enact interim protections for "old" potentially designatable buildings threatened by demolition. By contrast other states, cities, and counties, including DC, have such a process.
Whether or not local officials in Fairfax County are prepared to stick their necks out and try to save the building--this could be done by attempts at "suasion" with the developer--there is no way to file a landmark nomination to save the building once a demolition permit has been issued, and it has.
A note about money and property control. Likely the only alternative to demolition would be for the government or private entities to step in and buy the property. This happens on occasion, but not very often. It's facilitated when there are "revolving funds" and other mechanisms in place that can be tapped when a "preservation emergency" comes along.
A note about state government versus local government. If the state political environment is not friendly, the ability to protect resources at the local level can be pre-empted by laws passed by the State Legislature, as is the case in Virginia. It's also an issue in Utah.
The State Legislature has prevented the City of Salt Lake from creating more historic districts ("Herbert signs legislation that could impede local historic districts," Salt Lake Tribune). It's sad, because that city has remarkable neighborhoods consisting primarily of Victorian-era architecture, primarily of frame construction.
Terrace Theatre, Robbinsdale, Minnesota
Robbinsdale, a suburb of Minneapolis, doesn't prioritize preservation in its city plan and doesn't consider older architecture to be historic unless it is "high architecture" or associated with particularly significant events.
Therefore a cinema building dating to the 1950s doesn't seem out of the ordinary or worth protecting, although the city plan does see the opportunity for adaptively reusing the building.
While the cinema hasn't been operating for a long time and it's "obsolete" in part because of how the cinema industry has shifted to very buildings with 10 to 25 screens, there has been an ongoing campaign to "save" the building, focused more on persuasion, because the city doesn't have a historic preservation protection ordinance.
-- The Historic Terrace Theatre – Since 1951
-- Save the Terrace – Robbinsdale Historical Society
The developer of the site, a former shopping center, isn't particularly interested in preserving the building, although one could argue doing so would fit in with how new shopping centers are adding entertainment and "third place" kinds of options to round out their offerings to keep customers on-site longer ("A fresh take on 'Retailtainment' and future of fun," Chain Store Age). From the article:
Retail has been the foundation of shopping centers throughout their existence, but new entertainment concepts are making inroads in traditional retail venues.More than 2,000 sign petition to preserve Robbinsdale's historic Terrace Theater:The Robbinsdale building could be pricey to reopen," Minneapolis Star-Tribune) hasn't been successful with either the developer ("Robbinsdale's dilemma: Save Terrace Theatre or open new grocery") or the city ("Robbinsdale to consider Terrace demo with or without Hy-Vee"), their campaign targeting the anchor tenant has been.
Even in mixed-use venues, it is generally accepted that a critical mass of traditional retail is the highlight, and that other uses are complementary pieces, designed to drive traffic and support the retail component. While the industry has been slowly evolving away from that traditional model for some time now (dining and entertainment uses in particular have emerged as more significant pieces of the commercial puzzle) that trend has exploded in recent years. A wide range of dynamic and engaging new entertainment uses have sprung up, and have functioned as increasingly prominent features on the development landscape.
Today, entertainment is no longer a side dish: it’s the main course. And it’s a meal that landlords and commercial development decision-makers are increasingly interested in ordering.
In a surprising turn, the main tenant for the proposed development, Hy-Vee, a Des Moines-based supermarket company that has been expanding in the Minneapolis market, has backed off the project because of public pressure around saving the theater ("Hy-Vee halts Robbinsdale grocery store plans due to local resistance," Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal).
Normally, that would be enough to get the developer to modify their plans, because typically construction finance loans aren't released without a certain number of committed tenants, in particular the anchor, and a Hy-Vee, one of the nation's more successful independent supermarket chains, is almost impossible to replace.
Despite Hy-Vee pulling out, at least for now, in a hearing the city approved the demolition ("Robbinsdale council approves Terrace Theatre teardown; lawsuit filed to halt demolition") and seemingly, the developer plans to move forward.
Some conclusions. In the Bel-Loc Diner situation in Baltimore County, there's no question that if Starbucks preferred to rehabilitate the diner building, the building would have been saved, but updated and improved.
The Robbinsdale situation is a little different, because Hy-Vee wouldn't be a tenant in the Terrace Theatre building, instead it would be preserved and operated as a separate initiative, for which the developer has no tenant, and neither the advocacy group nor the city have money for such a project.
This is an odd instance where a preservation advocacy campaign gets a solid win -- the key tenant backs out of a project because of how the action might harm relationships with current and future customers -- but for some reason, the developer doesn't care.
I think the general lesson is once a building is under threat, it's usually too late to save it in the face of other plans, because the public isn't in a position to act as fast as the developer, and in many cases there are too few tools to address the problem.
1. Don't wait to nominate a building.
2. Make sure you have/create strong local laws and a process for protecting threatened buildings.
3. Inventory historic resources in your community in advance of them being threatened.
4. Legalize a process for providing interim protections for buildings under threat, which might require the creation of laws at the state level too.
5. Develop relationships with developers interested or willing to take on projects involving historic buildings.
6. Try to line up money that can be used to buy buildings and fund rehabilitation.
Unfortunately in the case of the Terrace Theatre, a "cinema drafthouse" type use is already present at the New Hope Cinema Grill located in an adjacent town, less than four miles away.
For communities other than Robbinsdale, the New Hope Cinema Grill is actually a great model for how to bring back a historic theater building--even though this particular operation isn't legacy and in a historic theater but in an old shopping center.
It started out as a way to occupy part of a mostly vacant shopping center. It shows movies, runs a comedy club operation, and holds special events. They expanded the operation in other vacant spaces next door, adding a bar and grill done in a movies theme, which also scheduledslive music,ed in buildings adjacent to the theater ("Outtakes Bar & Grill opening in New Hope," Sun-Post) ,
The DC counter-example. I complain a fair amount about the failure to protect the aesthetic elements of the built environment in those places ("Biggest issues of the coming year?: regulation of building alterations in "old" neighborhoods | expanding design review requirements," 2018) and "viewsheds" ("An argument for the aesthetic quality of the ensemble: special design guidelines are required for DC's avenues," 2015) in the city that are deserving of protection but aren't designated.
That being said, DC has one of the strongest local preservation laws in the US, which is a model for other communities.
(1) interested parties can nominate buildings without owner permission
(2) landmarked buildings and contributing structures in historic districts are almost impossible to demolish
(3) an independent commission, the Historic Preservation Review Board, makes decisions about landmarking
(4) neither the City Council nor the Mayor/Executive Branch can overturn these decisions
(5) when a demolition permit is issued, there is a 30-day period to file a landmark nomination (although in order to prevent demolition, ultimately, the building has to meet a very high standard of historicity/architectural value, and the average house doesn't meet that standard).