To some, the word “preservationist” brings to mind fanatical activists protesting in front of a bulldozer. While some people have been known to resort to this tactic in the past, risking bodily harm is not the way the vast majority of preservationists (nor The Georgia Trust) choose to preserve buildings today. Every situation is unique and requires its own set of plans, but there are a few universal tips we can offer today’s preservationists:
1) Take action early.
Be aware of what is going on in your community, especially in the real estate realm. Notice empty buildings or properties for sale and keep tabs on the progress.
“The best way to save an endangered historic property is to start before it is endangered,” says Beth Shorthouse, former manager of The Georgia Trust’s Living Places program. If your local preservation commission has a survey of historic properties, you are one step ahead of the game. The Historic Preservation Division (HPD) of the Department of Natural Resources (404-565-2840) might also be able to help you locate a survey. If not, this is a great project in which to involve the community and raise awareness of the area’s historic resources—and most importantly, this will create a base audience to appeal to if a property is endangered. If you are involved in a potential demolition, it is best to step in is as early as possible. You will find the other parties may be more open to discussion of alternatives before they’ve invested significant amounts of time and money.
2) Do your research and formulate alternatives.
You can’t just march up to an owner who has developed plans to alter or demolish a building and tell them to abandon their project because the old building is prettier than their plans. You must have valid reasons why the structure should be preserved, and show how it can benefit the community. Researching the economic benefits of preservation is always well worth the effort. Is there another site for a parking lot, or an adaptive use for an aging building? Can tax incentives be used? In a publicly funded project such as transportation or road construction, check with HPD to see if Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 applies to the project (this federal law requires the developer to assess the project’s effect on nearby significant cultural resources in the area if federal funds, licensing or approval is involved). Look for ways to help the other party obtain their ultimate goal while preserving your beloved structure.
3) Meet with the property owner/developer.
Your first instinct may be to run to your local media and tell them your story. However, this plan can backfire and may serve only to aggravate the property owner or developer. Instead, avoid viewing the other party as your opponent. Facilitate a face-to-face meeting and carefully listen to their goals. Don’t argue, but tell them and show them that you want to work with them. The easiest way, by far, to prevent a demolition is to convert the owner. Take the opportunity to briefly and politely tell them about the significance of the structure and suggest options to demolition. Listen carefully and show them you understand their situation and genuinely want to develop a solution that will meet their key goals. Hysterical preservationists are easy to dismiss; calm ones are a force to be reckoned with.
4) Develop partnerships within the community.
If a property is endangered, you will need backing from other people or groups to arouse interest and communicate your message to decision-makers. Ask yourself who else in your community could benefit from saving the property or who else would be interested. Look at the overall impact the project would have on the community—you may find allies in environmental organizations or other special-interest groups. Neighborhood organizations, downtown groups, business owners, local governments, preservation commissions and local preservation organizations can be strong partners.
If you are in a crisis or emergency situation, your first call should be to your local preservation organization. They can offer technical assistance and support and in some situations, they may also be able to provide you with information on the significance of the property and enlighten you on any local preservation ordinances or laws that may protect the structure. For a list of preservation organizations, visit the Georgia Historical Society or visit our links page to contact staffed historic preservation organizations. If you do not have a local preservation group, contact your regional development center (call HPD for contact information).
Next time you drive by that abandoned house or old building for sale, give it more than just a passing glance—the first step in saving a historic structure is simply being aware of it in the first place.