Issue XVI

IN THE KNOW

The Social and economic Case for Reusing Older and Historic Buildings
posted by Joseph Lawniczak, Downtown Design Specialist

Spend any time in the downtown development world, and you’ll learn that most practitioners cringe when they hear the word “demolition.” It’s an involuntary reaction stemming from years of seeing perfectly sound structures falling to the wrecking ball—buildings that could very well have been rehabilitated and reused. They’ve seen the negative effects that the razing of these structures has had nationwide, on both commercial and residential districts whose sense of place was greatly diminished once these buildings were gone.

Those old enough to remember the days of urban renewal (the 1950’s through the 1980’s) will recall the way federal funding contributed to mass demolition of “blighted” neighborhoods, either to make way for freeways or the latest trend of modern, mega-scaled new developments. But in most cases, these “blighted” areas were some of the oldest, most historic and most architecturally significant districts in these cities. Sure, many of the buildings needed attention, but we now know that the more sustainable approach would have been to invest in the rehabilitation of these structures rather than in their demolition. 

Sadly, many cities either haven’t learned from past mistakes, or have forgotten the lessons they taught us. For instance, several cities hit hardest by the 2008-09 recession have spent millions on the demolition of abandoned homes. Philadelphia, in fact, demolished so many homes that the city spends as much as $1.8 million annually just to maintain the vacant lots where the homes once stood. In turn, neighborhoods that once had a unique, cohesive character and sense of place are now left with massive holes in that fabric, sending a message that the area is unsafe, uninhabited, unmaintained, unmonitored and not “owned” by anyone. These factors discourage investment, bring down property values, reduce property tax revenue and invite crime. 

It’s important to note that this refers not only to historic buildings, but to many other existing structures as well. Even non-historic existing buildings often contribute greatly to the character and cohesiveness of a neighborhood when they have the same scale and proportions as adjacent historic ones. Very often, the most fiscally responsible and cost-effective approach is to rehabilitate and reuse what is already there, whether designated historic or not. Overall, the reuse of existing properties often acts as a catalyst for additional private investment nearby. 

Proof of the value of these older and historic areas can be found in two examples:

Developers in suburbs across the country are spending billions of dollars trying to replicate what we have in our historic downtowns. They know that people are looking for that character when deciding where to shop, dine and entertain, and they are willing to invest greatly in recreating it. But what we have in our historic districts is authentic, not recreated.

In contrast, historic cities like Savannah, Georgia, and Galena, Illinois, have devoted themselves to preserving their historic character, and it has created an economic boom for each for the past few decades. In fact, studies show that heritage tourism brings in hundreds of dollars more per visit than any other type of tourism.

It’s important to understand that cities like Savannah and Galena weren’t always as vibrant as they are today. During the mid-20th century, both cities were struggling. Savannah had a number of historic buildings demolished in the name of blight elimination and urban renewal, and it took a group of citizens to say “enough” and then work for decades to turn it around. In Galena, the economy was so depleted during these decades that the city couldn’t even afford to tear buildings down if it wanted to. As a result, the entire community still maintains its 1800’s character—again, authentically, unlike new developments that try to mimic it.

Secondly, let’s consider the effect that demolition has just on our landfills. The Brookings Institution predicted in 2005 that if current trends continued, as many as one-third of all existing buildings would be demolished by 2030. That equals 82 billion square feet—enough waste to fill 2,500 NFL stadiums. Similarly, as Donovan Rypkema of Place Economics has written, imagine a standard, two-story, 25-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep historic commercial building on Main Street. If you tore that one small building down, you would generate the same amount of landfill waste as 1.34 million recycled aluminum cans. This is just not sustainable—and lest anyone think that saving older buildings is just a “feel-good” activity, it has been proven that historic preservation creates jobs. Building rehabilitation and remodeling jobs are ongoing by nature, so typically local workers are hired—and since they require less building materials than new construction, materials can be purchased locally, which benefits the local economy.

There are a number of reasons typically given to justify demolition of older and historic buildings:

Myth #1: The building is structurally unsound (beyond repair): This argument is often backed up by “experts” who have deemed it beyond repair, but it’s important to know that not all building experts have experience with older or historic buildings. Thousands upon thousands of buildings across the U.S. have been brought back to life over the past few decades, despite professionals deeming them too substantially deteriorated to salvage. One example of this is the former Village Hall in Tigerton, Wisconsin (pop. 741). This building had been neglected for years, and the roof was leaking so badly that the wood floors were buckled. Several windows and sills had been removed, allowing water and snow to enter the wall cavity. Past repairs were not compatible with the historic building elements; the bell tower had been removed long ago. The building was a mess–but the local Main Street program worked for years to save it, because it reflected the pride of the community. In short, they raised half a million dollars in grants, donations and tax credits, and the building now serves as a community center and Main Street office.

Myth #2: It doesn’t meet current energy efficiency standards: It is a myth that older buildings are not energy-efficient. In fact, in most cases, these structures were originally designed with many of the “green” building techniques advocated today. They used materials with good insulating value; they positioned windows to take advantage of natural light, solar heat gain, and ventilation; they used high ceilings and ceiling fans to help with air circulation; they used storm windows to provide double glazing; they used retractable canvas awnings to control the amount of sunlight entering the interior; and more. More often than not, historic elements such as windows simply need maintenance such as caulking and glazing to make them as energy-efficient as some of the new products made today.

Myth #3: It would be cheaper to build new: This argument is rarely, if ever, accurate because it misses three key points. First of all, the cost of demolition and site preparation is often omitted from such estimates, so they are not considering the entire cost. Second, it is nearly impossible to construct a building of the same quality and character as the one being replaced, so it is rarely an even comparison. Third, existing buildings are already served by utilities such as water, gas, electrical, sewer, etc., while new construction typically requires that all-new utilities be installed. Furthermore, in many cases, the cost of demolition and site preparation alone is comparable to the cost of getting a deteriorated building back up to code and life safety compliance. Far more buildings could be saved if we invested in those building improvements rather than in demolition.

Myth #4: We need this space for parking: Quite frankly, it is almost never appropriate to demolish an older or historic building solely for parking. This is never an appropriate reuse for a site—and from a downtown development standpoint, it is the mix of businesses, an exciting atmosphere and historic character, not parking, that will bring people to a district. If we demolish the very things that attract people to an area, there will be no visitors to park in the newly created spots.

Myth #5: It has sat vacant for so many years; it’s an eyesore: It is unfortunate how impatient we can be when a building is vacant in our communities. Sure, vacancies can absolutely have a negative effect on commercial and residential areas—but the most cost-effective thing to do is to work with the property owners to market the spaces, help them make necessary improvements, spice up vacant strorefronts with temporary art or displays, etc. Far too often, communities jump the gun and either allow a building to be torn down or allow the owners to convert it to inappropriate uses, such as ground-floor residential on Main Street. These changes are irreversible and can have a devastating effect on the area.

Thankfully, to make rehabilitation and reuse more feasible, there are a number of resources and tools to help those willing to invest. State and federal rehabilitation tax credits, local revolving loan funds, low-interest loan pools, building improvement grants, etc., can all offset the costs of rehabilitation and make a project feasible. We, as downtown development practitioners, should do all we can to inform property owners about these resources and be advocates for rehabilitation and reuse rather than demolition. The character and viability of our communities depend on it.

Most preservationists are optimistic about the future. With the sheer number of cities across the country that have committed to redevelopment based on historic preservation principles since the 1990s, most of the younger generation have been raised in a building-reuse mindset whether they know it or not. Many have dined in a converted train depot, lived in a former school, taken classes in a converted factory, etc. To many of them, demolition seems like a waste of a perfectly good resource—and they are most often correct.

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