The Path To The Future


When I was asked last fall to present a keynote address to the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary, I was asked to focus on the economic value of preservation as a real estate development tool, in part because Calgary was an oil city more known for its glass towers than its old buildings.

In retrospect, it seems odd that in 2016 we would need to make the argument that historic preservation is a path to the future.  There is scarcely a city in Europe or the Americas that has not seen an economic “boom” from its historic buildings, especially if those buildings are conserved in enough concentration to spark revitalization.  From Denver’s LoDo and Seattle’s Pioneer Square to Manhattan’s SoHo and Chicago’s Printers’ Row, it seems every town has an historic district that has turned into an economic engine.

Still, there are those who cling to the half-century old idea that historic buildings are museums, restoration is expensive, and historic museums need subsidies because they are outside of our economic everyday.  This concept fails three realities. 

First, for nearly fifty years we have been repurposing thousands of buildings in economically viable ways, aided for the last forty years by investment tax credits.  Second, this multibillion-dollar industry has created the infrastructure to restore and rehabilitate older buildings.  Third, museums have transformed over the same time into productive, often profitable enterprises.  There were no blockbuster exhibits in the 1960s and gift shops were quaint appendages, not number-crunching marketing machines.

But the myth persists, driven by the first argument.  “Everyone knows” that preservation is expensive.  Which it could be, in a vacuum, but the fact of the matter is that real estate is an asset whose value is entirely determined by externalities.  Once you have a critical mass of historic buildings, you actually generate economic growth thanks to those externalities.

You start saving historic buildings in a city and there is a positive knock-on effect.  Each one you save creates an externality that grants value to the next one.  It is like dominoes falling UP rather than DOWN.

Photo: (c) Vincent L. Michael

Preservationists got to this party early.  In stark contrast to the stereotype, preservationists were not focused solely on nostalgia and romantic ideas about history and architecture.   Mary Means began the Main Street program in the 1970s at the National Trust’s Midwest office, recognizing not simply the value of the new tax credits, but the economic potential of harnessing externalities.

Means saw that commercial buildings were in danger because planner and developers did not see their future potential.  It was a DIY effort, but more importantly, it was an effort that pushed beyond the boundaries of “historic preservation.”

The Main Street program had Four Points and only one of them–Design–was related to the traditional concerns of historic preservation.  The other three were all about the base–the economic base, that is.

Organization.  Main Streets needed to be coordinated through cooperative local agencies, not to compete with shopping malls, but to create a dynamic NEW product that was firing on all cylinders. 

Events (now Promotion).  Main Streets needed to promote their new product, arguably difficult in the heyday of the suburban shopping mall, but one that was already starting to work in tourist towns. 

Economic Restructuring (now Economic Vitality).  This was the most ambitious, most pragmatic and most brilliant of the Main Street Four Points.  It recognized that Main Streets were economically viable products in the modern world but ONLY if they did not try to be what they were in the old world before the malls. 

This was a stunning foresight by the preservation community.  It was abject abandonment of all the nostalgic reasons we want to save things.  We weren’t trying to preserve the past as past.  We can save historic buildings only if they become something new.  To survive, historic places must serve the future, so let’s focus 75% of our energy on that. And it worked.  Everywhere.  It worked so well that by the dawn of the 21st century shopping malls were stealing the Design piece from Main Street and creating ersatz Dodge City storefront malls, while old warehouse districts in every city from Leeds to Los Angeles had multiplied in value with lofts and shops and hipster cafes.

More importantly, the success of Main Street offered an alternative model to the economics of the mall and megastore, an alternative focused on local growth.  The mall and megastore delighted Wall Street because they centralized–alienated–profits.

Main Street offered–and offers still–jobs that can’t be outsourced; resources from within; growth building on permanent, local fixtures not subject to the whim of a distant corporation.  Money circulating in the local economy.  There are other sustainable economic strategies, but heritage conservation has proven to be one of the best and longest-lasting.

Interestingly, while Main Street has become an effective tool for the economic revitalization of various small and medium-sized towns, its first iterations included neighborhoods in large cities, notably Chicago.  Similar real estate economic realities exist in Baltimore and Boulder as in Natchitoches and Libertyville.  You can see successful Main Streets in Washington, DC, Boston, Cleveland, Orland, and elsewhere.

And of course you can see those loft districts of revitalized buildings in nearly every city in the Western world (and many in the East).  Main Street is a living legacy of the time when preservationists discovered the key to urban revitalization before the planners and developers.

Photo: (c) Vincent L. Michael

This economic approach to saving old buildings went on to spawn heritage areas in the 1980s, which added natural area conservation and recreation as goals, effectively subsuming much of the traditional urban and regional planning discipline. 

But, still we have to make the argument.  Thankfully, we have not only the tools to do so, but two generations of success to point to.

Read more of Vince Michael's work on his heritage conservation blog, Time Tells.