What Does “Right Size” Mean for Historic Preservation?

by Michael R. Allen

Last week I participated in two gatherings held consecutively in St. Louis’ kindred city, Philadelphia: the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, hosted by the Center for Community Progress, and the Right Size, Right Place Forum hosted by the emergent Preservation Rightsizing Network. While I was a session moderator and presenter, respectively, I would have attended each of these events regardless. The preservationist impulse of my younger career has hit head-on the realization that historic district creation, demolition protest and the fabled building “mothballing” are transitory tools at best — not options that resolve vacancy and threats, but stabs at creating possibilities. The hard work lies within those possibilities.

Right-sizing could mean surveying fragile resources in neighborhoods like The Ville in St. Louis. These buildings on Aldine Avenue were included in a 2009-10 survey that concluded there was no National Register historic district possible that would include them.

The first challenge remains framing the term “rightsizing.” Our panel took aim at the prevalent and oversimplified connotation that “rightsizing” means demolition of supposed liability properties. Perhaps we erred in our offensive, as we received very intelligent critique reminding the panel that “right size” need not be restricted to subtractive activities. Indeed, “right-sizing” can also refer to infill projects that add density to stable neighborhoods, renovation of historic buildings that add new residents or businesses, interim or permanent uses for vacant lots, and the creation of historic districts to guide policy-making. The “right size” of every American city is not necessarily smaller. However, much of the discussion on “rightsizing” (or “managed decline,” or “shrinking cities”) nearly obsesses over population loss and resource scarcity, without being more accurate about the complexity of planning in what are more accurately called changing rather than shrinking cities.

Thus, the realm of Reclaiming Vacant Properties might seem to be foreign soil for the preservationist, and there were but a handful of us practitioners amid the critical mass of landbank professionals, planners and community development folks. Yet the opening plenary showed a wider recognition that existing buildings are assets than some might expect. A panel of mayors from South Bend, Gary, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Allenton — company St. Louis should embrace, not shun — turned up some interesting comments by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory. Mallory admitted that he personally joins a city staffer on drives to look at each building on the city’s demolition lists. The mayor then makes his recommendations for demolition to the city. Mallory explained that he doesn’t want demolition to create holes in viable blocks, lowering property values and removing potential city revenue and population.

The 2006 restoration of the  Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit's depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

The 2006 restoration of the Lucian Moore Residence (1883) in Detroit’s depleted Brush Park Historic District is rightsizing too. Source: Andrew Jameson, Wikipedia Commons.

Still, a questioner at the end of the plenary posed the oft-stated opinion that rehabilitation of historic buildings is usually more expensive than new construction, a false dichotomy. The dichotomy that is more likely in cities with significant vacancy is the gap between a renovated historic building and a long-term vacant lot. The question underscored that the language of historic preservation has yet to reach many people working in community development. Yet the panel that I moderated, “Building on Historic Assets,’ attracted over 60 people even put up against the Detroit Future City panel. There is an intersection of interest when preservation practitioners show up in unlikely places.

Our challenge in the right-sizing world is posing historic preservation as practice, specialized knowledge about place that is as essentially to good planning as the knowledge brought by tax foreclosure experts, architects and urban planners. Yet our key values should not be diluted in the process. As Advisory Council on Historic Preservation member Brad White stated on our panel at Reclaiming Vacant Cities, the message is not even that historic buildings have value, it’s that buildings have value. Period. Buildings have economic value, social value, artistic value and ecological value. All of these are traits that planners tout with new green space projects, affordable housing developments, downtown retail, and other endeavors based on new construction. How do we remind people that existing buildings offer every bit of the value of new buildings, with the added values of energy conserved by already being built, and material quality that this country will never see again?

Renovating 27 historic buildings and removing a failed pedestrian mall in St. Louis’ Old North is also right-sizing.

Two preservation professionals who are working on strategies for asset-based “right size” planning are Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron at PlaceEconomics. The PlaceEconomics Rightsizing Cities Initiative promotes “planning decisions and regenerative opportunities that are deeply rooted in local landscapes and character.” So far, PlaceEconomics has worked on a pilot ReLocal program in Muncie, Indiana. Although the project delves into decisions about demolition, the goal is to get planning agencies to consider the economic benefits of preservation and the costs of demolition — to look beyond policies that encourage demolition as the only blight remedy. As Rypkema often says in his frequent lectures, demolishing a building removes one option for a property — and why would cities want to narrow their options?

Government officials are not our only needed allies — we must reach people who live in places whose revitalization we can foresee and assist. The people who live in neighborhoods affected by right-size initiatives, or just large housing or redevelopment projects, are predominantly poor and in many cases largely African-American. The historic preservation movement has never done well at reaching out to these groups, in some cases because we aren’t listening. I work with urban preservation groups in St. Louis and other cities, and none have more than a few African-Americans on their boards or staffs. Poor people aren’t represented at all. If we are going to help right-size cities, we have to realize that cities are collections of people before they are collections of buildings — and we are going to have to treat urban neighborhoods as something other than the frontiers we seek to intellectually colonize.

Two houses sit alone on Garfield Avenue in the Greater Ville in St. Louis. The vacant houses are assessed at a higher property tax rate than any of the numerous vacant lots around them. Preservation is not just about saving buildings, it is about working to retain value when possible.

Building real alliances in distressed neighborhoods will entail listening, building more inclusive leadership structures on preservation campaigns and within preservation organizations. We need to shed some of our old skin. Many preservation battles don’t involve demolition — they involve keeping homeowners and renters in their homes, so buildings don’t go vacant. Foreclosure mediation, home repair, eminent domain resistance, mediation with code compliance are all aspects of preservation work that historic preservationists need to get better at. Communities typically welcome practitioners who offer resources for them. We have to develop capacity to provide those resources, and then remember that they are in service to the real ground-level leaders.

Preservation practitioners have the chance to help define “rightsizing,” and through that process redefine urban preservation so that it is more responsive to 21st century needs and possibilities. Historic preservationists should have been talking to urban planners and residents of poor neighborhoods more often for decades. What happened in Philadelphia is just part of a larger and long-term dialogue that will place historic preservation more centrally in urban development and right-sizing — alongside disciplines that are not questioned when they claim seats at the table. We should not be shy about taking a seat, but we should make sure we are ready to collaborate, listen, and develop new methods.

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  • guest

    Very good post. Here in St. Louis, many African Americans do sit on boards of community development organizations working to improve their own communities. These groups work at the neighborhood level. They may not meet the definition of “urban preservation groups”, if that means preservation of historic buildings. But they clearly are in the front of the bus working in their own community, ahead of paid planners, consultants, and the rest of the cadre of “built environment” and government led initiatives.

    Your point that “people come before buildings” is a message more urbanists, architecture enthusiasts, and historic preservationists need to hear – and embrace. Your point that helping to keep current residents in their homes and preventing buildings from going vacant is perhaps the most important of all. Avoiding vacancy is the first step to historic preservation. In contrast, back here in St. Louis, blaming LRA about the loss of historic fabric, really is a red herring and totally missing the point.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    I appreciate this response. You make a great point about neighborhood leadership — if preservation ever becomes a broad movement locally it needs to build upon the people doing the work in their communities.

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Bravo. ‘Right-sizing’ might not be the correct term for the new wave of gentrification that’s closing in on us, but it’s a good enough term to use while contemplating the ways in which preservation intersects urban planning and city (re)building.

    The magnetism of Brooklyn can be a catalyst for the rebuilding of a better city of Saint Louis, a lower density urbanity. This is the time for creative adaptation and experimentation. Wonderful new cityscapes can be imagined and inspired by idealistic preservationists like Michael Allen.

    Bring on the daring ideas!

  • David A. Woodruff

    Hey! I live in the Lucian Moore Residence in Detroit!

  • mlbhl

    I live in Kansas City MO. Having hated nearly every home I had due to just boring architecture, etc., at a late time in my life I have discovered an apt. that was saved from demolition. Once an iconic neighborhood, Hyde Park deteriorated with white flight to suburbs. Now has been rehabbed by M*A*C Properties. This company has worked wonders with old buildings/apts./hotels in Chicago, Kansas City and now starting in St. Louis MO. I commend them for they have turned this neighborhood around into a new day of glorious architecture and lovely living. They have kept the amazing marble, facades, etc. and modernized kitchens/bathrooms, kept the artistic moldings and features, and it is amazing. Vibrant colors enhance the properties; included are secure building entrances and parking areas. They have saved buildings that could never be replicated and have historical significance. They work with the city and historic preservation groups.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    Since when?

  • David A. Woodruff

    We moved in November of 2012.

  • dempster holland

    I am not sure exactly what you are advocating. As best as I can tell, you
    want to at least treat neighborhoods or buildings on an individual basis,
    rather than simply demolish . It is interesting that you lament the lack
    of interest by poor people in preservation work. I suspect the reason is
    that most poor want more income so they can move to a better neighborhood,
    which to them (and to most people) will mean a newer neighborhood.
    If they do stay they will normally want vacent buildings torn down so they
    won’t be a haven for criminals. Generally, they will not be in a mood to
    wait around for some long range plan to fix up all the old buildings
    Where preservation has been a success in st louis is either a) areas which
    still have large houses originally built for the elite (Laf park); b) areas where
    there is particularly interesting architecture (balconies in soulard) c) areas
    which have always been middle or upper class and have good institutional
    anchors (central west end) d) scattered other areas of interest (near tower
    grove park). Unfortunately, most of north st louis does not fit into any of
    these categories, and there is the compounded problem of African-American
    resentment of white gentrifiers. In the eastern part of n st louis, the basic
    de facto city response has been to let the area empty out (rather than
    forcibly relocate) and then rebuild. The problem then, of course, is
    what to do in the meantime and that is where the preservationists (save
    empty buildings) clash with the remaining residents (demolish vacent
    buildings)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jibreelx JKR

    Right sizing, thats must be the 21st century term for “urban renewal.”

  • Ron Fagerstrom

    If St. Louis is “right sized” with 318,000 persons, then it
    must have been “wrong sized” when it had 857,000 people (1950). The “right sized” mentality seems to have an
    anti-density bias, while density is a quintessential ingredient of great,
    thriving cities. During the last half of
    the 20th century we desecrated our beloved cities with ominous, anti-urban
    public policies such as urban renewal, redlining, granting tax exemptions for
    home ownership (vs rental) and cutting swaths through city neighborhoods for freeways.
    And we now term our dishonored and
    vandalized cities “right sized?” No, we
    utterly failed to see, understand,
    value, honor, nurture and love our
    cities. Instead of twiddling our thumbs
    trying to figure out what to do with all this vacant land, let’s vision St. Louis
    as a great, urban, thriving city. We
    know what such a city is made of, it’s no mystery; let’s build it.