Preservation Through Growth
Historic preservation cannot be an alternative to the way that cities work
I had a piece recently in Discourse, the in-house magazine of the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Institute, as part of a great series over there on historic preservation (here’s the latest entry).
A quick note: libertarian-leaning economists and policy people are often very good on issues of housing and development; they see very clearly how artificial our land-use regime is, and how much potential economic growth it forecloses. And also how much human potential.
I was writing specifically about historic preservation. But you can’t really talk about historic preservation without talking about zoning, housing, and land use more broadly. Or, you could if we simply debated the merits of having somebody (government/foundation/museum/business) preserve this or that particular building. Or if we tried to develop a coherent sense of which visual and architectural styles are important enough to the American heritage that they should be preserved or remembered in some way.
But we often do much more than that. We have, for example, “historic districts,” where every building is under strict rules regarding alterations or demolition. And even more than that, the language and idea of historic preservation is tightly bound up with a broader opposition to development in general. A lot of people appear to think these are mutually exclusive, and that you can’t preserve things without shutting down development.
Take a look at this anecdote I used to open my piece:
“The community roared in disgust with cries for leadership, and with threats of boycott,” wrote the Annandale, Virginia Chamber of Commerce in 2012. “Better to ignore us than destroy our heritage and deliver a reviled project. No thanks will be forthcoming.”
If you thought those militant words might refer to something more notable than the replacement of a hamburger restaurant with a drugstore, you would be wrong.
That’s right—the hamburger restaurant is “heritage,” the drug store is “reviled.” The thing is, the vast majority of the residents of Annandale, Virginia today probably don’t know or care. More than half are non-white: many are immigrants or the children of immigrants. This sort of attitude can look like a boutique concern, even an exclusionary one, by old-timers who can’t let go of the past.
Now I actually have complex thoughts about this, which is why my piece tries to find a pro-growth, non-backward-looking way to think about historic preservation as a legitimate and worthy endeavor.
First, the suburbs are more or less designed to lack “heritage.” As James Howard Kunstler used to say, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish a suburban elementary school from an insecticide factory. But we want civic, even sacred, places. And I think that’s partly why objectively pretty uninteresting commercial buildings can hold so much meaning for people. And I think seeking some kind of continuity in the built environment, some landmarks, some recognition that today is not Year One, is a good thing.
Second, commercial structures, especially in the suburbs, actually have been fairly neglected by professional historic preservationists. Some of them see it as sort of beneath them. But—as you’ll know well if you’ve been following this newsletter for awhile—when I see a former chain building housing a new business, or even a repurposed sign, I see a kind of organic historic preservation. I think of it as an “architectural public domain.” And when a business owner finds value in an old building, I think that’s great, and I’d like to see more of it.
But. Economic vitality and natural population growth are at odds with encasing the built environment in amber. And we want economic vitality and natural population growth, or at least I do. (The connections between 20th century NIMBYism and concern about overpopulation are striking—look at the history of Boulder, Colorado—as is the fact that the same set of Supreme Court justices endorsed both forced sterilization and zoning.)
I think this is the most important bit in my piece:
In some cases, the preservation of an old structure simply can’t be justified given land values. Consider that if you look at any mature city in the United States, or even many small towns, the building currently on any given lot was probably not the first building there. Gas stations become condos; strip plazas become mixed-use developments; smaller, shorter buildings give way to taller ones. This is not a preference for growth over stasis; it is simply the way that healthy, living settlements develop over time. Historic preservation cannot be an alternative to the way that cities work.
My emphasis. That’s the whole thing right there. NIMBYism, and an academic historic preservationism disconnected from real urban planning, are in essence denials about the nature of human settlements. They are attempts to argue that it is possible for settlements not to grow or change, for families not to form, for the next generation not to be born. If you dig down to the metaphysical bedrock, NIMBYism is an impossibility and an absurdity. The city was made for man, not man for the city.
So, within these fundamental constraints, I imagine an increased appreciation for what exists—more adaptation, reuse, adaptive reuse, keeping or preserving of landmark signage or design elements, etc.—cultivating a keener eye for existing value, and getting to a regulatory environment that encourages the development of this value.
I think we are not seeing the full value in the old motels and auto garages and diners and neon signs—the old commercial structures that have indeed sometimes become a part of the heritage and character of the suburbs. The economic and cultural value is often there, but it is difficult for a large developer or bank to see or find it—as is true of an accessory unit on a house, or a one-off Main Street building rehab. Zoning and financing scaled for bigness artificially destroy so much value.
I’m not going to quote too much here—check out the whole piece, which includes several examples of aging commercial properties that have been revamped, and have become popular businesses that give new life to an old fabric. Also pay attention to the bit about the former mayor of Frederick, Maryland. But here’s an image of one of the businesses I mention: Unscripted, in Durham, North Carolina (credit Lynn Friedman/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0):
So, in short: I think you’d get more adaptation and preservation of existing structures, and more housing and urban development, if you devolved power and made it easier for small entrepreneurs to also be small developers.
Why don’t you tell me what you think?
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The problem is that 'development' is grey goo: it inexorably destroys whatever was there and reorders it according to the architectural fashions and commercial imperatives of the day. Fifty years ago that meant bulldozing charming old neighborhoods to build freeways and brutalist tower blocks, or paving over forests and meadows in favor of Wal-Marts and Taco Bells. Now it often means infill building in SFH suburbs of preposterously oversized, hideously expensive 7,000-sqft monstrosities built right to the edge of the lot. In all these cases there's no undo button, and the changes are for all intents and purposes irreversible; see your recent article on the difficulty of retrofitting car suburbs. All it takes is one building permit.
I see "historic preservation" as not so much about the value (or lack thereof) of what is preserved, but as a highly effective albeit blunt instrument to prevent the grey-gooification of one's neighborhood. Zoning laws and similar methods don't work well; developers are the classic single-issue special interest who use every conceivable means of attack, and they only need to win once. It's also much easier to organize people around the "historic preservation" catch-all than around the arcana of zoning or building codes.
I lived in Boulder, Colorado for three years in the mid 90's. It was such an artificially maintained small town that I couldn't wait to leave. Housing was ridiculously expensive, and this meant it automatically was uninviting to young families like myself then.
The consequences of tight/no growth were many, as is most likely the case elsewhere in the country. People had to commute thus contributing to traffic congestion of which the Denver area is notorious for. While I lived there, I saw few families with children, but it did seem that every adult had a dog. There was a meanness in the population that was not natural, the same coldness I've encountered over the years in liberals who likely are the believers in climate oncoming disaster and the evils of too many people in the world. These are the type who despite their effusive claims of compassionate concerns of all things lately declared of concern, are the least equipped with kindness and generosity. The rules you write about here are a means to keep themselves enclosed in protected exclusive little kingdoms inhabited by others like themselves. As you write, it is not conducive to growth and as such is unnatural and stale. It's about the people in control keeping their control.