The Pragmatism of Historic Preservation

Posted on: August 18th, 2011 by Guest Writer 4 Comments

Written by Brenna Moloney

The Hill House in Saginaw, Michigan. (Photo: Brenna Moloney)

In a recent article in the Saginaw (Michigan) News, a local reporter covered an on-going preservation battle in the Central Saginaw Historic District - specifically the proposed demolition of the stately Hill House (pictured), which is one vacant building in a residential historic district where homes are otherwise occupied and being rehabbed. One thing that he wrote struck me as off-key but not unusual. He began,

“Pragmatic and romantic notions face off at the northwest corner of Thompson and South Jefferson in Saginaw’s Cathedral District.”

To me, the issue over whether or not to invest in a city’s historic district is not a matter of ideology: tender-hearted dreamers vs. level-headed penny-pinchers. On the contrary, historic preservation and investing in a city’s key cultural resources is often one of the most pragmatic financial moves a municipality can make, especially when facing population decline and right-sizing. Just ask Charleston, South Carolina. Home to one of the first local historic district in the country, Charleston - while of course facing its own serious social and economic problems - has been able to make itself into a place where people want to go for vacation and to live. And where people go, money follows.

Even in Michigan, we have Holland, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Bay City …shall I go on? In various ways, these communities have committed themselves to protecting and promoting their historic properties. They have created a sense of place. In part because of this, these communities have been able to attract new industries and businesses, as well as build on heritage tourism to create a more diverse economy - one that has proven far more resilient over the long term than places that have not done so.

Tower details on Saginaw's Hill House. (Photo: Brenna Moloney)

As we know, protection and preservation opportunities do not just spontaneously spring out of the ground. New development does not either. Historic preservation is incentivized with TIFF zones and façade grant programs, and home-owner rehab programs that focus on preservation. Important historic homes and commercial buildings are given away or sold at below market price. You create an easement program to protect key properties; you promote the historic preservation tax credit program and perhaps create your own. You connect with other communities to see what they have done. You build partnerships with neighbors, local universities, and business people, etc. You establish a business incubator in the city center and encourage the reuse of historic buildings for new small businesses. You empower your historic district commission. You apply to be a Main Street Community. Finally, you assemble a visionary team capable of creating this kind of proactive environment and aggressively pursuing these goals.  Like it or not, creating a sense of place and finding a way to integrate aging building stock with new is part of the new economic paradigm.

Working as a preservation specialist in a right-sizing community often means connecting cities to these ideas and getting them to see their city and its planning process in a new way. Challenging city decision makers to see their resources as economic assets and to take responsibility for enriching them, is a huge part of that role as well. In this way, preservationists can play an important role in the economic future of a shrinking city. Once the results of that role are clearly seen, the perception of preservation will shift. We will no longer be seen as sentimental but instead be seen as a key component to managing change in a shrinking city.  

No important city development happens without diplomacy, incentives, networking and community input. This is true whether the development is a new battery factory, a medical school facility or the rehab of a lumber baron mansion into a bed and breakfast. All are worthwhile pursuits and all contribute to creating a vibrant economy and solid community. Call this romantic or idealistic if you will - but to me, this approach is the definition of pragmatism.

UPDATE: August 23, 2011

Brenna Moloney is a  preservation specialist for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network in Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her earlier posts on right-sizing.

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4 Responses

  1. Jerry A. McCoy

    August 18, 2011

    Non-incorporated communities such as ours have even MORE difficulties than those mentioned in trying to preserve its historic resources. I would be most interested in hearing from such communities and to learn about how their historic preservationists operate.

  2. Kate Powell

    August 18, 2011

    Excellent article! Keeping for future arguments!

  3. Brenna

    August 19, 2011

    Jerry- I don’t know where you’re writing from but in Michigan PA 169 enables counties to set up Historic District Commissions and establish local districts, which is one way that an unincorporated community might approach historic preservation (I think). Additionally, while listing properties on the National Register does not offer protection from private development, it can offer some protection for resources when federal money is used and a Section 106 Review is required. I empathize with your difficulties but frankly, I’m not well-versed because my focus is on shrinking urban centers. Perhaps you could write a blog about the struggles unincorporated communities face and educate the rest of us!