The Georgia Trust

SPEECHES

Preservation and the 21st Century Economy
Georgia Preservation Conference
Macon, Ga.
28 February 2002
Donovan D. Rypkema, President, The Real Estate Services Group


Thank you and good morning. Well, I’ll tell you what would have been an easy way to make this presentation today. I could have done what I often do, and that is to tell the story of historic preservation in numbers. I could have pointed out that here in Georgia a million dollars of building rehabilitation adds fourteen more jobs than does a million dollars of production of the average manufacturing firm in Georgia. Or I could have told you how that same million dollars of building rehabilitation adds $891,000 to the household incomes of Georgia citizens – fully $250,000 more than a million dollars of manufacturing.

Or I could have pointed out that rehabilitation in Georgia adds two more jobs and $56,000 more in household income than does the same amount in new construction. Or I could have cited the research that has been done here in Georgia demonstrating the disproportionate benefit of heritage tourism over other kinds of visitation, or the incredible economic success of the Georgia Main Street Program – economic development within the context of historic preservation, or the consistently positive impact that local historic districts have on property values in Georgia. I might even have mentioned the effective way the State of Georgia has used their transportation enhancement funds to preserve Georgia’s heritage.

I could have done all of those things – but I’m not going to.

Instead I’m going to talk briefly about three issues that might not come instantly to mind when one says “historic preservation” but ought to. And finally take aim at ourselves as preservationists at where I see we are failing in our responsibilities.

So the first of these issues is the one Dick Moe spent much of his time talking about – Smart Growth. And on that issue I just have a couple of things to add. First – and he could hardly say this himself – it was Dick Moe who first effectively articulated the connection between historic preservation and stemming sprawl. While that link is now abundantly obvious to all of us, it was not when Dick began talking about it. And in many cases he literally dragged preservationists into the anti-sprawl battle. Today there is no movement in America that commands greater support across political boundaries, regional boundaries, city/suburb/rural boundaries than does Smart Growth. Greg was right, it is Dick Moe who personifies our enlightenment about Smart Growth.

The only other thing I have to add about Smart Growth is this: historic preservation is not just one of the tools of Smart Growth – it is the indispensable crucial tool. Greenbelts around cities are nice; but you can have Smart Growth without greenbelts. Transferable development rights are a useful tool, but you can have Smart Growth without TDRs. Conservation easements can assist in reaching Smart Growth ends, but you can have Smart Growth without conservation easements. But, simply put, there can be no Smart Growth without historic preservation. Period. No exception. Any anti-sprawl strategy that does not have historic preservation at its core is Stupid Growth. Period.

So on to the next issue.

Remember those tests you used to take in high school that would give you four words or phrases and then ask you what their connection was? Well, let me give you such a test: Amazon rain forest, endangered species, vehicle emissions, recycled paper. Every fifth grader in Georgia would hear that list and say, “Environment.” And she would be right, of course. But when you think of it there really isn't much direct connection between reused paper and endangered species. And yet we all readily accept it’s all about the environment.

Now if I were to say, “economic development, neighborhood stabilization, smart growth, and downtown revitalization” maybe most of you in this audience would say “historic preservation” but I dare say the vast majority of Georgians would not...and certainly not every fifth grader in the state. We as preservationists are having an amazingly wide impact, but we have yet to weave the web of awareness regarding preservation’s impact among the public in general. And I want to return shortly with some specific examples.

But I don’t want to leave this issue of the environment quite yet. You know we all diligently recycle our Coke cans. It’s a pain in the neck, but we do it because it’s good for the environment. Now even though a quarter of everything dumped at the landfill is from construction debris, we don’t often think about the environment in relation to the demolition of historic buildings. But let me put it in context for you. Let’s say that today we tear down one small building like this in downtown Macon. We have now wiped out the environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 aluminum cans that were recycled. We’ve not only wasted an historic building, we’ve wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of Macon. Now why doesn’t every environmentalist have a bumper sticker saying “Recycle your aluminum cans AND your historic buildings”? Either that or let us off the hook from having to sort those Coke cans every week.

And the same time we are adversely affecting the environment with that demolition, we are also adversely affecting the quality of our city. I am going to give you an analogy and I will apologize in advance for it; I just haven’t come up with a better one. When I was growing up my dad was in the cattle business. In that business when you buy a new bull for the herd, or a registered cow, you make sure that it is better than the average quality of the whole herd. Every new bull doesn’t have to be the best one you own, but if you add one of a quality less than the average, it is inevitable that the quality of the entire herd will eventually decline. Conversely, if you are going to get rid of an animal, you get rid of one of lower quality, not of better quality, or the long run effect is the same.

Now translate that to buildings, especially in your downtown. Every new building that we add doesn’t have to be the best building downtown; but if it is one more concrete block, Drivit covered structure, less than the average quality of the whole, the overall physical quality of downtown can do nothing but decline. Likewise when we are pondering tearing a building down. If it is of a quality greater than the average – and frankly most historic buildings still standing will meet that test – tearing it down reduces, does not enhance, the overall quality of downtown. Demolition of historic buildings reduces both quality and affordability.

Now why do we care about affordability? That brings me to my next issue. Over the next ten years around 20 million net new jobs are going to be created in America. And that’s great. But nearly seven million of those jobs – 34 percent of the total, are going to pay less than $20,000 per year. Now I suppose that has all kinds of political, social, and philosophical issues involved. But I have just one question – Where are those people going to live? We’ve got some choices here. We could build houses way out in the country where land might be cheap – but we will exacerbate all of those problems that Dick mentioned. I suppose we could build a whole bunch of public housing. But I don’t know where the constituency is for that. Many have concluded that public housing is a noble 70-year effort that has failed. Or we can start paying attention to and reinvesting in our older and historic neighborhoods.

Now certainly not every building over 50 years old is or ought to be considered "historic". But for the moment let’s take a look at the housing in this country built before 1950. And let's for the sake of discussion consider older and historic neighborhoods without distinction. You all know about the census of population every ten years, but not everyone knows that there is also a periodic census of housing. What I want to do is to share with you some of what has been learned about these older neighborhoods.

Think about those $20,000-a-year jobs. What can they afford for rent? No more than around $500 a month. Well, 48% of the housing built before 1950 that is tenant- occupied rents for less than $500 a month.

There’s a basic principle in real estate that you can't build new and rent cheap. And to demonstrate that, 84% of housing built in the last five years rents for more than $500 a month. In other words, out of the price range of those six million workers.

32% of all households living below the poverty line live in older and historic housing

Oh, and by the way, 35% of Black homeowners live in older and historic houses and 38% of Black households with incomes less than $20,000 annually live in those houses as well.

Of the people below the poverty line but still owning their own homes, 30% of those houses were built before 1950.

Now you can say, “well, but those poor people have housing subsidies to take care of the affordability issue.” 70% of households with incomes less than $20,000 receive no housing subsidy of any kind.

I’ll bet many of you have someone in your city hall – a building inspector or a police chief or a member of the city council who will say, “Yeah, but those old houses are about to fall down.” Well, as it happens this housing survey also looks at the condition of housing and identifies units that suffer from severe physical problems – arguably the properties that ought to be torn down. You know how many pre-1950 houses are identified as having severe physical problems? Three percent! Another 8% are identified as having moderate physical problems. Meaning 89% of older and historic housing isn't on the physical problem list.

Oh, but then someone will say, “Yeah, but a whole bunch of those old houses are sitting there vacant.” Well, the rental vacancy rate for pre-1950 housing is 7.1%. You know what the rental vacancy rate is for all housing? 7.3% -- a statistically insignificant difference from older housing.

So when you see a house being torn down in an older neighborhood in your community, don’t just weep for the architectural character or cultural significance or historic importance that is being lost forever. Also say to yourself, “Well, there's one more unit of affordable housing that we’ve thrown away.”

Now you may have a hot shot economic director back home who says, “Well, I understand how other places are going to have to worry about this affordable housing for workers business, but our town is going to be part of the new economy, the high tech economy, the cutting edge economy. And those are all high paid jobs so we don’t have to worry about the affordable housing issue.”

Well, Mr. “we’re the new economy” economic development director, let me splain you something. In the next ten years for every new job for a computer programmer we’ll need 7 clerical workers; for every chemist we’ll need 43 cashiers; for every operations research analyst we’ll need 73 janitors.

Furthermore the so-called new economy workers are driven by quality-of-life issues on where they want to live. Quality of life means good childcare, and childcare workers make less than $11,000 a year. Quality of life means nice restaurants, and waiters and waitresses – and we’ll need 300,000 more of them over the next ten years – make $12,730. Quality of life means clean and safe buildings, which require janitors and guards and they make less than $16,000 a year. So high tech, high pay, new economy cities – good for you…but you're going to have to have a whole bunch of workers who don’t get paid like you do. Those workers are going to need a place to live. So you better be insisting that older neighborhoods be protected and enhanced if for no other reason than to make sure your kid’s nanny has a place she can afford to live.

Now I’ll apologize for being such a numbers geek giving you all what are essentially economic development statistics. But after all I’m not in the business of historic preservation, I’m in the business of economic development. And when I go into communities – of whatever size – I often ask the Mayor or the Chamber of Commerce executive or the Economic Development Director “Why are you involved in economic development at all?” And their first answer will be, “Well, to increase the tax base, to attract new business, to provide more jobs, to increase loan demand and property values.” Answers like that. But when I continue to ask the question, especially one-on-one, it isn't about those things at all. The real reason that they’re involved in economic development is this: “I want my kid to be able to come back here and find a job if that's what she wants to do.” But the question is, why would anyone want to come back if their town is indistinguishable from any other town? A columnist in California, Steve Weigand, wrote this: “And from the Brave New World of the Internet comes the following new term. Generica: fast food joints, strip malls and subdivisions, as in ‘we were so lost in Generica, I didn’t know what city it was.’”

We often think young people don’t get this, but we’re wrong. Let me tell you about the small town of Rushville, Ill. There is this school there built in 1919 with an addition built in 1925. The addition was the gymnasium on the lower level and an auditorium space on the upper level. The school board decided the structure no longer worked so they built new schools, added to others, and a year ago the junior high kids who were the most recent users of the school were moved out. But the school board decided that not only didn’t the building work as a school – it was unusable for anything and they intended to demolish it. When I toured the building I went into one of those little dressing rooms that are usually found behind the stage in high school auditoriums. There written in graffiti on the wall--clearly by a 14 or 15 year old was this: “Those who want to tear this building down have never seen this place as Wonderland.” That kid clearly understood what the school superintendent did not--that the evolution of the community was represented in that building and it was a far too precious commodity to be lost. The school board didn’t understand that and the building was torn down.

But if the Rushville School Board didn’t understand that, others do. In his book The Good Society sociologist Robert Bellah observes, “Communities, in the sense in which we are using the term, have a history – in an important sense they are constituted by their past – and for this reason we can speak of a real community as a 'community of memory,’ one that does not forget its past.”

Earlier I mentioned the US Census taken every ten years. Over the next several months that data will be released on the neighborhood level, called Census Tracts. Here’s what I would ask every one of you to do. Find someone in your community who will take that Census Tract information and compare the characteristics of your historic districts with the other neighborhoods in your community. Here’s what you’re going to find – it will be in the historic districts – and only the historic districts – where there are people of all incomes, all races, all educational levels living side by side. Other neighborhoods will be all Black or all white; all rich or all poor. Lots of Presidents have said, “I want my cabinet to look like America.” Well, virtually the only neighborhoods that look like your entire community are your historic districts. And I haven’t looked at a single piece of data from Georgia, but I’ve looked in Philadelphia, and Indianapolis, and Des Moines and a dozen other places. And even though those are northern cities, they are largely segregated by income or race or both. But the historic districts are mirrors of the entire wonderful diversity of the city. Just see if that isn’t also true in your community.

So here we have all these attributes of historic preservation – smart growth, environment, job creation, tourism attraction, downtown revitalization, neighborhood stabilization, affordable housing, economic development – what a great story.

And yet, I have to tell you I’m a bit angry today. Or maybe I’ve confused anger and disappointment. Let me tell you why. We have failed to adequately tell this broader story of preservation to our friends and neighbors. I’ll give you four quick examples:

Ten days ago the communications director of the Congress of New Urbanism, in an extraordinary combination of arrogance and ignorance, wrote that until the Charter for the New Urbanism came along historic cities were still declining. Well, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the ladies of Savannah, or Marguerite Williams in Thomasville or Maryel Battin here in Macon, or Liz Lyon or the leadership of the 40 some Georgia Main Street communities somehow found a press release in 1996 mentioning the newly adopted Charter of the Congress for New Urbanism and become instantly enlightened about historic preservation. Oh, and by the way, the number of times “historic preservation” is mentioned in the Charter of the Congress for New Urbanism? Exactly zero.

Example two: I was in someone's office not long ago and spotted this publication Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research. It seems that HUD hired some academics to look around America and try to determine if there were such a thing as a neighborhood that maintained economic and racial diversity over several years. And they found several such neighborhoods, in fact, and wrote case studies about them. Well, when I was reading the case studies I thought, “These certainly sound familiar.” So I checked – nearly all of them are historic districts. Did these researchers recognize that? No! The fact that the common denominator of these diverse neighborhoods was that they were historic eluded these august scholars.

Example three: Here's a book that was released a couple of years ago – Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival. The front cover of the book, in fact, is the before and after photographs of a restored historic building. How many times is historic preservation mentioned in the book? Historic preservation doesn't even show up in the index.

Example four: the National Governors Association last year released this publication – New Community Design to the Rescue: Fulfilling Another American Dream. Wel,l other than its rather presumptuous title, it’s a good publication that identifies good design principles for towns and cities, and even mentions older neighborhoods. But how often is historic preservation mentioned? Exactly twice, in footnotes citing a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If “Historic Preservation” weren’t part of the National Trust's name, historic preservation wouldn’t have been mentioned at all.

One of the pages in this publication is entitled “Benefits of New Community Design” and here they are:

Synergistic effect of mixed use, in which residential and commercial uses support each other and contribute to long-term vitality

Community interaction and civic life supported by design

Transportation choice and walkability

Narrower, connected streets with tree-lined sidewalks

Planned open space designed for gathering places and diverse recreational activities

Efficient use of infrastructure

Houses closer to street, with porches

Diverse housing for different incomes

Efficient use of land; high housing density

Supports regional environmental goals – reduced land consumption, improved air and water quality

Linked to adjacent communities

Enhances and complements neighboring or surrounding community

Pedestrian-friendly design, mixed uses, and nearby green spaces promote health

Great list, and I agree with every item. But every one of those characteristics is true of your historic district in your community. We don’t need some “New Community Design” to rescue us. We've just got make sure we rescue our historic districts.

I guess I'm not really angry at HUD or the National Governors Association or the Congress for Cute Urbanism. If they don’t get it, that’s our fault, not theirs. And telling the historic preservation story isn’t Dick Moe’s job, or Greg Paxton’s or Ray Luce’s. It's my responsibility and yours. If our mayor and our banker and our legislator and our economic development director don't learn about the wide-ranging impact of historic preservation from us, where are they going to learn it? We – each of us – need to do a much better job of telling our great story. And the story is this.

If we are to have an effective environmental policy historic preservation is important.

If we are to have an effective transportation policy historic preservation is important.

If we are to have vibrant downtowns historic preservation is important.

If we want Smart Growth historic preservation is not only important but irreplaceable.

If a local official wants to claim the treasured mantel of fiscal responsibility historic preservation is imperative.

If we want to avoid Generica historic preservation it is essential to establish differentiation.

If new businesses, start-up businesses, innovative businesses, creative businesses are going to be fostered and encouraged a community will need historic buildings for that to take place.

If the essential workers of this century are going to be able to afford a place to live, we’ll need older and historic buildings to house them

Let me close with a word about those advocates of downtown revitalization and historic preservation – most of you. I have a hard time separating those two, by the way, for one simple reason – I cannot identify a single sustained success story in downtown revitalization in a city of any size anywhere in the country where historic preservation was not a key element in the process.

Regardless of the size of the community, those of you working for downtown revitalization and historic preservation represent the Real Urbanism.

They aren’t the cute urbanism with a pleasing pattern of pastel porches; they are the challenging urbanism of complexity, conflict, and compromise.

They aren’t the squeaky clean urbanism; they’re the dirty, gritty, gum-on-the-sidewalk, graffiti-on-the wall urbanism.

They aren’t the idealized urbanism conjured up by experts from elsewhere; they are the urbanism created daily by the barber, the crotchety building owner, the clueless merchant, and the ineffectual public official.

They aren’t the new buildings that respect their context; they are the context.

Sometimes they call themselves the Downtown Partnership or the Preservation Association or the Main Street program. But I’ll tell you what I think you are. I think you are the local chapter of the Congress for Real Urbanism. And I consider myself privileged to work with you and your colleagues around the world. I thank you for that, and thank you for allowing me to be here with you today.

Thank you very much.

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