a strategic approach to historic preservation

Avenue Theatre before it was demolished. Image from Carlos Celdran's Blog.

I know the wrecking ball has taken down the Avenue theatre, despite the heroic efforts of Carlos Celdran, Ivan Henares and the rest of the blogosphere along with the work of the Heritage Conservation Society and the NCCA. The nearby Galaxy theatre and a few more historic structures are also in danger of being demolished.

As forensic as this post may be, I'd like to contribute some notes on how to take a more strategic approach to historic preservation:

1. It's about economics

The Avenue theatre was reputedly demolished to make way for a parking lot. The owners apparently think that parking fees will give them better returns than whatever was in the existing building.

Apart from being historical artifacts, buildings are utilitarian objects -they were built to be used or to be lived in. Keeping the building in use, keeping it economically productive will insure its preservation more than any regulation or historic designation.

So the building owner's pro-forma is one of the most powerful tools the historic preservationist needs to understand.

Good regulations are built on incentives that keep the building owners pro-forma healthy -i.e., the owner should earn more by maintaining the building than letting it rust or turning it into a parking lot.

Historic Tax Credits -that allow the owner/new developer to offset the cost of maintenance or redevelopment within the first year of the pro-forma (i.e. -even before the building takes in tenants) have been effective in many locales.

Some non-profits and cities even do pro-bono work to help the building owner find development partners (i.e.-new tenants) conditioned of course on redevelopment and preservation rules.

(See my previous post on the role of rent control in historic preservation.)

2. It's about reuse

Many historic buildings become obsolete because the use they were built for has become obsolete. So old warehouse buildings lose their usefulness when the business they used to house has failed or the industry they used to served has lost out to new technology.

In many older downtowns, the old storefronts and theatres lose out their audiences to newer malls with larger capacities, better airconditioning, stage technology or even parking.

The trick is to find an appropriate historic reuse. Incentives for conversions also help, such as expedited building inspections or tax waivers.

3. It's about the district

Historic preservation works best when it considers the district as a whole -not that the whole district needs to be declared a historic site* but that the role of the historic sites -particularly when it comes to reuse -is considered in the context of the economics and demographics of the district.

Successful preservation efforts must consider residents and neighbors. Is there a demand for housing that will justify a conversion into lofts or apartments? Is there need for business incubator space? A school? A civic facility?

For many theatres retrofitted for stage performance, the question is whether there is enough retail in the area to provide a critical mass of possible attendees or viewers. (Apart of course from having a theatre-group that can actually draw an audience). -Whatever it be, the re-use of the historic building must serve the needs of the locals and the local clientele. Preserving buildings as tourists sites (very tempting for many cities) is rarely effective. At best it dolls up the historic building -preserving the facade while letting the rest of the space go to waste. It also removes the building from the life of the community -treating it as a trinket rather than a part of the social fabric.

In the US, one of the most potent weapons of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is its Main Streets program that encourages conservation in the context of reviving old town centers and business districts.

*- (Some cities/states have taken to the historic preservation of whole districts. This has been successful in high demand markets -if it is coupled with sensible redevelopment processes. In many places, the designation of whole districts has tended to stunt the market and continued, rather than reversed decay.)

4. It's about local government

All historic preservation must be tackled at the local level. National recognition or designation programs rarely produce anything more than a historic plaque on the site and maybe a mention on the national historic register. (This approach is more "monumentalism" -emphasizing preservation at the expense of revitalization.)

Historic preservationists have gotten the most traction when they get local government involved in actively encouraging preservation and reuse.

The logic behind this is that the legal authority for construction and demolition permits rests with the local government. So too with zoning and land use.

Enlightened national governments can provide the right policy environment -and economic incentives (Q: Why not give the same tax breaks we give to IT centers to businesses that locate and reuse historic buildings?) but ultimately, the local government has to buy in -and factor historic conservation into their land use and economic development plans.

5. It's about politics

If it's about local governments -then it's about local politics. Unless the historic preservationists are prepared to mount a serious electoral challenge, polemics about the incumbent mayor or city council do more harm to the cause.

Given that our mayors are allowed 3 consecutive terms -and can run again for another 3 terms after a one term hiatus (the "sabbatical" term often taken by the mayor's own patsy), incumbent mayors in the Philippines can realistically hold sway over the city for 30 years or more. Long enough to see real changes -and long enough to sit in opposition to historic preservation until no historic buildings are left.

Historic preservationists can make better headway if they can find a seat at the mayor's power table. In many cities, this is best done by finding allies in business who also double as financial supporters of the mayor. (c.f.- Carlos Slim's role in the redevelopment of Mexico city's historic core.) The mayor and the city council will listen to a businessperson (or businesspersons) with enough investment clout who can speak about preserving heritage while directing resources into the economic development of the other parts of the city.

Historic preservationists then need 3 legs to their campaign if they are to wage a strategic and successful effort: Education (getting people to value heritage), Economics (making preservation and reuse profitable) and Politics (finding a seat on the table). Media is a useful tool, and so are the courts but resorting to sound byte battles will probably save a building or two - while ceding the rest of the war to preserve the historic fabric of the city.

(For further reading, check out the works of Dr. Ismail Serageldin on the role of historic sites and culture in urban development.)

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