The scene goes something like this: The development team from my office receives an invitation to tour a long-vacant historic school—a veritable "white elephant" for which no one can figure out a feasible new use.
As developers of historic buildings, we are no stranger to these kinds of invitations. We go and look. We get excited about the building's history and its one-of-a-kind historic features. We dream about new uses, new life, and new vitality as we walk through the vacant corridors.
And then, invariably, we must consider certain realities—condition of the building, environmental hazards, available financing, and market demand for new uses. All of these come to the table, as does one other: Can we—with the myriad challenges and opportunities presented by this historic building—create a feasible project that responds to the market while also meeting the Secretary's Standards for Historic Rehabilitation? When thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in rehab tax credits are at stake, meeting the Standards is a pivotal endgame that requires careful, upfront due diligence.
The Team of Experts
Building an expert team is the first step toward a developer's success in the world of tax-advantaged rehabilitation. The architect must either be experienced with the Standards or be willing to respond to the input of a historic preservation consultant who can advise on design feasibility. Many developers run into trouble by selecting architects who are well-known locally or with whom they have built a working relationship on non-historic projects, yet the architect is not experienced in historic rehab. Significant dollars [End Page 40] can be spent on a design that is not sufficiently vetted with SHPO and NPS staff, leading to conflict and costly negotiation as the design team attempts to salvage and rework as much of the original concept as possible. For timing and budgetary reasons, it is essential to take a proactive approach to the
design review process and attempt, from the outset, to create the design that is most likely to be approved.
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What Does the Building Want to Be?
Besides establishing a team that is an asset rather than a liability, the developer must make many decisions, and often many compromises, when meeting the Standards. A savvy developer of historic properties will evaluate an adaptive use concept for compatibility with the Standards from the beginning—a critical early step toward managing expectations. Often, what the building wants to be and what the market wants the building to be are two different things.
Sometimes it is feasible to reconcile these two under the expertise of a highly skilled architect. An example of this in our own portfolio was a small factory building with a character-defining saw-tooth light monitor. When we rehabilitated this building in 2005, the new use was to be multiple creative offices—a use that would divide up the historically-open manufacturing space and had the potential to obscure views of this special skylight structure. The architect's solution was to use clerestory windows and butt-glazing above the eight-foot corridor walls, which preserved oblique views of the monitor and conveys a sense of the second floor's original volume. [End Page 41]
However, there are times when the historic uses and the planned uses are so disparate—for instance a hotel in a historic warehouse or apartments in a Masonic temple—that meeting the Standards can be a Herculean challenge for even the most adroit design team. Sometimes the opposite use of space is desired, such as converting an old hotel with single-occupancy rooms into a bull-pen-style office. These types of conversions are challenging because the new use often requires the near obliteration of the character of the original space.
In addition to use, there are other situations where a developer has to reconcile market preferences with meeting the Standards...