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Economics and Historic Preservation
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Things change; things remain the same. In 1995 local historic districts were opposed because of fear they would reduce property values. Today they are opposed because they increase property values and, hence, property taxes.

In 1995 older, close-in neighborhoods were written off as slum and blight. Today they are championed by the National Association of Realtors, Smart Growth America, and the public health industry as being "walkable."

In 1995 heritage tourism was seen as an economic opportunity for few communities. Today towns and cities of every size have demonstrated its effectiveness as a local economic development strategy.

In 1995 little was known quantitatively about the role historic preservation plays in the local economy. Today more than 20 states have commissioned studies on the economic impact of historic preservation.

American preservation has always been more market driven than in most countries, so it's not surprising that the economics/preservation connection was looked at in the U.S. earlier and more often than elsewhere. But in recent years the international world of heritage conservation has begun to acknowledge those links. At the beginning of the latest recession, the European Parliament held hearings on "The Economic Role of Heritage in Times of Economic Crisis." The same year the European Heritage Heads Forum devoted its annual meeting to heritage as an effective response to economic downturns. In 2011 the focus of the Council of Europe Heritage Days Forum was "Value the Heritage! Heritage during the Recession—Luxury or Necessity?" and even ICOMOS had as the theme of its triennial General Assembly, "Heritage: The Driver of Development."

The ultimate endorsement of historic preservation as economic development came this October with the publication of Economics of Uniqueness: Investing in Historic City Cores and Cultural Heritage Assets for Sustainable Development by none other than the World Bank.

So we've come a long way...or have we? Far fewer local historic districts are being created today than in 1995, and almost none without vociferous opposition. Stimulus plans to fight the recession were adopted by most developed countries around the world. Heritage conservation was at the core of these strategies in Norway, Australia, Hong Kong, France, and elsewhere. In the U.S., $870 billion stimulus? Not part of the program. The federal rehabilitation tax credit is one of the few federal programs of any kind that returns to the treasury more money than it costs, but it is in jeopardy of repeal.

I've never been apologetic about a career focused on the economic side of historic preservation, but I've always argued that in the long run, the other values of the built heritage—aesthetic, environmental, social, symbolic, educational, cultural, etc.,—were more important than the economic value. Today I believe that more than ever. We've made the case for the economics of historic preservation and we need to continue to do so. But unless we as preservationists are able to reframe our arguments in a larger context, and make preservation an everyday working tool for towns and cities, we risk losing the progress we've made. The buildings of the past are too important to the communities of the future for us to allow that to happen.

Here's the deal:

  • ◾   We are going to have to choose between historic preservation and economic development.

  • ◾   Preservation is kind of nice when times are good, but we simply can't afford it when local budgets are stretched to the limit.

  • ◾   It's great that the rich can afford to restore their mansions, but the public sector certainly can't afford to rehabilitate these old buildings and most certainly preservation is not a cost-effective means of housing the poor.

  • ◾   Historic districts, because of the restrictions they place on properties, inherently reduce property values.

  • ◾   Close-in residential neighborhoods are in such a state of deterioration that we need to raze them to get rid of slum and blight, the crime and the eyesores those neighborhoods represent.

  • ◾   Preservation probably works as a tourism strategy in Santa Fe or Charleston but is antithetical to broader economic development anywhere else.

Those statements have three things in common: we hear them all the time; they are all economic arguments; and...

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