Callaghan: Preservation has become central to economic development

May 4, 2014 

Many cities tear down historic buildings to make way for modern buildings.

Too often, at least in the recent past, Tacoma tore them down to make way for vacant lots.

The former is tragic but sometimes defensible. It forces policymakers to make a judgment about what is better for an area’s economy, for its urban fabric.

The latter is just mind-boggling. Perfectly salvageable buildings are demolished and trucked away to landfills with nothing more than the usually unfulfilled promise that developers will flock to the newly opened land. Worse yet are building owners, sometimes governments themselves, who allow character buildings to deteriorate beyond repair and then plead poverty when demands are made to preserve them.

May is Historic Preservation Month. It is the time when historic preservation advocates remind communities what is lost when history is destroyed and what is gained — emotionally, spiritually and economically — when their history is retained.

But it is also the time when those same preservationists are put into a position of being defensive and apologetic for what they do.

“My observation is that historic preservation is perceived in this building and in this community as being a regulatory function, a function that impedes many of the development goals,” director of Planning and Development Services Peter Huffman said in a briefing before the Tacoma City Council last week.

Huffman argued to the council that historic preservation is “relevant, it’s dynamic, it’s contemporary, and it actually can be hip. It’s not this pipe-smoking, tweed jacket sort of old, stuffy thing.”

Reuben McKnight, the city’s historic preservation officer, lamented that he didn’t get into preservation to argue with people about vinyl windows. That references one of the cudgels used by opponents to beat up on preservationists — that they’re obsessive and anal and don’t let homeowners in historic districts replace their worn-out wooden windows with vinyl ones.

I don’t doubt Huffman’s or McKnight’s commitment. Instead, I feel bad that preservation advocates must always defend the benefits of what they do. Imagine the police chief having to tell the council that arresting bad guys is still relevant, hip even.

McKnight pointed out that much of the building activity in Tacoma during the past several decades involved the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Even many government projects that have dominated development activity in Tacoma had historic preservation elements — Union Station, the University of Washington Tacoma, the Broadway Theater District, Stadium High, Lincoln High, Jason Lee Middle School and Washington Elementary, for example.

Between 1985 and 2012, the value of projects that rehabilitated historic buildings was $417 million, McKnight said.

McKnight likes to stress that preservation projects in privately owned buildings tend to use local contractors and craftspeople, keeping money local. They are also some of the greenest projects because they don’t create mounds of garbage or require manufacturing new materials.

Even stopping vinyl windows keeps the resale value of homes in the North Slope higher, because retaining the character of houses makes the district more appealing to buyers.

“Historic preservation isn’t a barrier to economic development,” McKnight said. “It is economic development. Especially in older cities like Tacoma, it’s one of our major assets and we really need to build on that.”

Defensiveness is expected. Preservationists are often portrayed as obstructionists. And there is a backlash nationally from developers and modernists who think we are becoming snared in what The Atlantic magazine dubbed “The Nostalgia Trap.”

But Tacoma is in a better place than any other city in the state. City Manager T.C. Broadnax might be the best preservation city manager Tacoma has ever had.

And the council last year strengthened the city’s 40-year-old preservation policies by adopting a groundbreaking ordinance to fight demolition by neglect. The measure declares the neglect of historic structures a public nuisance and creates tools to intervene and prevent deterioration.

McKnight summed up by describing how the heart and the head come together in historic preservation.

“The best projects are good not just because they’re financially beneficial but because they nurture the soul of the city,” he said. “Without that component, it’s just another project.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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