Profiles in Preservation: Kennedy Smith

Posted on: January 15th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Priya Chhaya

Profiles in Preservation are designed to help the preservation community learn more about an individual's path to preservation, and to get a more intimate glimpse into what their day-to-day job is like (with a few questions thrown in about history and their favorite building). The Preservation Career Center recently talked to Kennedy Smith, principal with the Community Land Use and Economics Group.

1. Describe your job. What do you do from day to day, and how do you view your role in the larger preservation field?

I am one of two principals in a small, specialized downtown economic development consulting firm, the Community Land Use and Economics Group (CLUE Group, for short). We offer a broad range of economic development services for older and historic commercial districts – market analyses, business development plans, financing strategies, and economic impact studies, for example. In all our work, our ultimate goal is to significantly improve the economic performance of older downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts – and, by doing so, to help ensure that historic commercial districts once again become culturally and economically vibrant places.

My work is different every day. Every assignment for which we’re hired is different from every other assignment, and every community has its own unique issues. One day I might be giving a speech for a state planning association; another day I might be hunkered down sifting through business data for an older commercial district; another I might be exploring ways to streamline local or state regulations to make revitalization easier; another I might be conducting interviews with lenders and investors to find out how to make more capital available for commercial building rehabilitation projects; another might involve creating cool new marketing events for a historic downtown. I love the variety of our assignments, and I love having a job that blends economics with creative problem solving in order to preserve historic places.

2. How did you become interested in preservation? What did you study in college, and what brought you to this career?

I’ve always loved historic places, but it was the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, when I was in high school, that really got me focused on preservation. It seemed like the nation was suddenly paying serious attention to recycling glass, newspaper, and aluminum cans – but no one seemed to be making the connection to reusing buildings. A regional shopping mall had opened in my home town a few years earlier, draining business away from the downtown and setting off a downward spiral of economic and physical decay. No one seemed to care that the community was demolishing historic downtown buildings – while at the same time recycling bottles and cans. This disconnect haunted me throughout my college and grad school years, and it was ultimately my interest in helping communities fully use existing buildings before building new, redundant ones – in essence, recycling historic buildings by reusing them – that led me to historic preservation.

I studied urban economics and classical archaeology in college. I went on to graduate school in architecture, but I found myself wanting to work more with districts and communities, than with individual buildings. So, after grad school, I went to work for a downtown business association and, after several years and lots of fascinating experiences there, I joined the staff of the National Trust’s Main Street Center. After 19 years at the National Trust – almost 14 of them as the Center’s director – I left the Trust and launched the Community Land Use and Economics Group with a former National Trust coworker, Leslie Tucker Carey (Leslie left the firm a couple of years later). A year later, we were joined by another former National Trust staff member, Josh Bloom.

3. What is the strangest or coolest thing you’ve ever done as a preservationist, either personally or professionally?

On the “strange” side, I’ve been hired to help create economic development strategies for several very unusual sites in the past several years. For example, I’ve been asked to identify some potential revenue-generating strategies for a historic ruin that will be preserved as a ruin (e.g., no roof, no restrooms) and for a visitors’ center on a pueblo whose residents don’t want their community to attract visitors. On the “cool” side, I’ve had the opportunity to learn firsthand about community economics over the past two decades, in hundreds of communities in all 50 states and around the world – not something I would have expected when I first got interested in historic preservation – and to meet thousands of fascinating people dedicated to making their communities better places.

4. What would you like to see changed or improved about the field?

I believe that, as a movement, we focus too much on details and too little on the big picture. The preservation movement has grown more effective over the years at saving individual historic buildings, but preservation is far from being the primary force that drives development in our towns and cities. Unfortunately, other forces and movements play a much more prominent role in shaping communities. For example, tax policy lets owners of commercial buildings fully depreciate their buildings over the course of 39 years – and, as a result, too many commercial buildings are being developed with the expectation that they will not last much more than 39 years. In other words, in this instance, tax policy encourages short building life-spans and sprawl development.

Another example: the movement towards environmentally sustainable development should, theoretically, fit hand-in-hand with historic preservation. But LEED certification, awarded by the US Green Building Council and increasingly being built into local planning and land use policies, typically provides greater rewards for new “green” construction than for rehabilitation of an existing building, diverting potential investment away from historic rehabilitation and into new construction.

These are just a couple of examples; there are, unfortunately, dozens more. I therefore think it is imperative that, as a movement, we put much more energy into thinking and acting strategically to make historic preservation THE driving force that shapes towns and cities.

5. What advice can you give someone who wants to get involved in preservation?

Be creative. Historic preservation is still a relatively new discipline, and it needs many new tools, resources, and approaches. Learn the basics – but always be thinking about ways to create new tools, break through roadblocks, and level the playing field to make it easier to rehabilitate a historic building than to build a new one.

In 2005 I was very fortunate to be one of ten people awarded a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University – a year in which to explore whatever interests and ideas we wish. I spent most of the year exploring advanced topics in public finance, real estate development finance, and community economic development, focusing on historic preservation applications, along with green development and landscape design. But the most fascinating topics I explored were economic development programs that have worked well outside the United States but that, for one reason or another, haven’t worked well here.

7. What is your favorite building?

Too tough a question! I have scores of favorites. Some are well known, like Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia and Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. I am also drawn to Neolithic brochs and cairns, particularly in Scotland – structures like Dun Telve, near Skye, and Maes Howe, in Orkney. But most of my favorites are small downtown buildings that are local, rather than national or international, landmarks – buildings like the Johnson Abstract Company building in downtown Oskaloosa, Iowa, and the Farmers and Merchants Bank, a beautiful Egyptian Revival building in downtown Salisbury, Maryland.

8. Can you tell us about a random historical fact that has informed the work you do?

In my speeches, I often talk about the great hall at Oxford University’s New College. The hall (which serves, with some digital enhancements, as the Hogwarts dining hall in the Harry Potter movies) is spanned by massive oak beams. When the hall was built in the late 14th century, the carpenters who built it knew that the beams would last several hundred years – but that they would eventually need to be replaced. So, when they milled the beams, they planted a row of oak seedlings nearby so that, in the future, the University would have a source of mature oak from which to mill the new beams. Now, that’s long-range planning. Unlike many of the people involved in shaping our towns and cities today, preservationists plan for the long-range future. We need to teach – and persuade – the rest of the community development world to do the same.

Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She can be found on Twitter @PC_PresNation.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.