Historic preservation is great for cities. Aesthetic, symbolic, cultural, social, education, economic, and more reasons abound for WHY historic preservation is so great.
Historic rehabilitation means jobs – generally well-paid jobs, particularly for those without advanced formal education. Rehabilitation tends to be more labor intensive than new construction, so work restoring historic buildings has a greater job creating impact per dollar spent than new construction.
2. Downtown Revitalization
Thirty years ago, the conventional wisdom was that downtowns had been replaced by shopping centers, and if downtowns survived at all it would be exclusively because local government and financial institutions were located there. In large cities and small towns, the most common and ultimately successful strategy was to identify, protect, reuse, and enhance the historic buildings that differentiated downtown from the mall. For those places wise and farsighted enough to reinvest and redevelop their historic structures rather than raze them, the payoff is clear.
In Indianapolis, while about 11% of the downtown is made up of historic districts, they contribute a disproportionate amount of income generation, containing nearly 39,000 jobs, 26% of all of the jobs downtown. In Nashville, commercial property values in downtown historic districts increased in value by 425% over 10 years between 2007 and 2017, compared to the rest of downtown at a rate of 236%.
3. Heritage Tourism
Often when “economics” and “historic preservation” appear in the same sentence, the reaction is, “Oh, you must mean heritage tourism.” In fact, tourism is just one economic contributor of historic preservation, but it is an important one. Consistent findings in both the US and internationally indicate that heritage visitors stay longer, visit more places, and spend more per day than do tourists with no interest in historic resources.
4. Property Values
There is no area of preservation economic analysis that has been done more often than measuring the impact of local historic districts on property values. Regardless of the researcher, the methodology, or the location of the study, the results of these analyses have been remarkable consistent: In nearly every instance properties in local historic districts have greater rates of appreciation than properties elsewhere in the same city. Thirty years ago, opponents to the creation of a local historic district usually claimed, “Historic districts mean one more layer of regulation. More regulation means, prima facie, lower property values.” Of course, study after study has demonstrated the opposite has been true; the values of properties have significantly benefited from local district designation. Today the argument – often from the same people who opposed districts early – is more likely to be, “Those damn historic districts will mean my property value is going up, so I’ll have to pay more property taxes.”
In Indianapolis, between 2002 and 2016, a single-family house in a local historic district has on average increased in value 7.3% each year, compared with just
under 3.5% for houses not in historic districts. This market preference also extends to the amount of activity. Historic districts, which only make up 5.5% of properties in the city, represented nearly 20% of all sales and almost 35% of the aggregate sale amount.
5. Foreclosure Patterns
Hardest hit in the 2007 Great Recession was the real estate market. It didn’t recover for most cities until 2012. Economists argue over the causes of the recession, but one thing is not in dispute – millions of Americans lost virtually all of their assets through the foreclosure of their homes. While the foreclosure rate varied from neighborhood to neighborhood and community to community, a trend emerged from the rates in local historic districts which had decidedly lower foreclosure rates.
Between 2008 and 2012, the foreclosure actions for single family homes in Indianapolis reached a staggering 26 percent. But those with homes in local historic and conservation districts – while also hit hard by the recession – fared much better with just 6% foreclosure rates. It isn’t that people who live in historic districts never get fired, or divorced, or run their credit card bills up too high. Rather, there is a latent demand for homes in those neighborhoods even in market downturns.
6-24. Many More Reasons
If you’ve followed along this far, you would probably be better served by reading the entire document prepared by PlaceEconomics. However, here is a list of the remaining reasons historic preservation is good for our community:
6. Strength in Up and Down Markets
7. Small Business
8. Start Ups and Young Businesses
9. Jobs in Knowledge and Creative Class Sectors
10. Millennials and Housing
11. Walkability / Bikeability
12. Density at a Human Scale
13. Environmental Responsibility
14. Smart Growth
15. Neighborhood Level Diversity
16. Housing Affordability
17. First Place of Return
18. Attractors of Growth
19. Allows Cities to Evolve
20. Tax Generation
21. Preservation as a Catalyst
22. Home to Social and Cultural Institutions
23. Neighborhood Stability and Community Engagement
24. Housing Vacancy
Let’s be honest, we preservationists haven’t done a great job of making our case for historic preservation and its contributions to active, vibrant, prosperous cities. Too often the general public only hears us rambling on about paint colors or obsessing about window replacements. We need to do better.
The good news is the facts are on our side. When the first studies of the impact of historic preservation were done twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t much to measure – jobs, heritage tourism, property values, and downtown revitalization. That was about it. Today with the availability of big data, GIS, and smart young people who know how to use the technology, we’ve found dozens of ways historic preservation is great for cities. Every time PlaceEconomics takes on a new assignment we find more positive preservation impacts.
It’s perfectly fine when we talk among ourselves to argue about cornices and gargoyles. But when we are talking to those who don’t call themselves preservationists”—when we talk to mayors and bankers and minority communities and housing advocates and real estate developers—we need to expand our vocabulary.
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