Written by Priya Chhaya
A few months ago Planet Money on NPR ran a story about Youngstown, Ohio, a city in the rust belt of America that has been working to save its city through the process of “rightsizing.” As a result Forum members conversed about the role of preservation in this conversation as other cities look to rightsizing as a means of dealing with abandoned buildings.
Next Tuesday, Forum members will have an opportunity to discuss the role of preservationists in the conversation, but I asked Royce Yeater, the director of the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to answer a few basic questions about the issue:
What is “Rightsizing” anyway?
Saginaw, Michigan's empty train depot.
“Rightsizing” is the practice of shrinking a city to a more manageable footprint and infrastructure in response to sustained population loss by demolishing vacant and abandoned property and curtailing services in neighborhoods beyond redemption, to concentrate investment in other neighborhoods through rehabilitation and new construction.
How are historic properties being affected?
Research suggests there may be more stability and thus less impact in some historically designated districts, but still some historic districts neighborhoods are so heavily impacted that they are being slated for clearance. The general impact on all “older and historic” housing is severe, and particularly so in neighborhoods that once may have had character worthy of historic district designation, but where the loss of integrity has eroded that potential. The greatest impact is on working class neighborhoods from the early 20th century, but some high quality “manager” neighborhoods from the 19teens and 20s are also suffering from abandonment. The abiding glut of real estate is undermining the value of all properties, designated or not, discouraging all maintenance and reinvestment.
When neighborhood populations plummet, it also affects related institutional and commercial property, leaving many churches, schools, and neighborhood retail nodes vacant and abandoned. In many communities, the preservation infrastructure – historic preservation commissions and non-profit advocacy organizations – have been undermined by the loss of population and funding, along with a general malaise that erodes the spirit to fight on.
What can preservationists do about it?
A neighborhood in Saginaw, Michigan.
Tune in and speak out, but first do the research and visit impacted communities to get educated on the scale and scope of the problem. 40,000 vacant properties in Detroit is different than a few hundred. When any realistic prospect of a community roaring back in the next 30 years is unlikely, mothballing may not work. Rehabilitation assumes there is someone to buy the property when rehab is complete and that is often not the case, and if it is, market value comes nowhere near cost, leaving a huge gap for any community development agency to swallow. Still, by focusing rehabilitation on the best neighborhoods – those with solid and once attractive housing and other amenities – and by letting go of lesser areas to concentrate resources and rehab, preservationists can be a voice for rightsizing that results in quality places to live with historic character, cultural identity, and market viability. To do that, we must argue for a plan that considers historic significance and potential as an asset, and then we must get behind that plan to help make it happen
What are some places where preservationists can get more information about rightsizing?
The media is filled with stories about rightsizing, since the concept of shrinking a city is seen as novel. Many planning and community development organizations and agencies are also focused on the issue. Nationally, leadership is coming from the Center for Community Progress, a new non-profit organization based in Washington DC, to coordinate and encourage state policies that expedite the process of gaining public control of abandoned property and then planning and implementing both clearance and revitalization strategies.
Are you a Forum member? You can continue this conversation next Tuesday during the Forum online chat, where Royce Yeater will be joined by Brenna Moloney of the Michigan Historic Preservation, and Bradford White, principal of Brad White & Associates (and a member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) at 2 pm. For additional information on Rightsizing check out Brenna’s blog series here on PreservationNation, and this OpEd by former National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe.
Priya Chhaya is a program associate in the Center for Preservation Leadership at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.