Thursday, March 26, 2015

Urban Renewal vs. Historic Preservation: Urban Renewal, Historic Preservation, TIF and Urban Renewal Redefined

III. Urban Renewal

          Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines urban renewal as “a process by which old buildings or buildings that are in bad condition in part of a city are replaced or repaired”. The Housing Act of 1949 and its update in 1954 opened the door to modern urban renewal. It allowed for federal funds to be used for slum clearance and public housing. This meant if there was an area that was determined to be suffering from blight, which is defined by Webster’s as: “something that is in damaged condition and can cause harm or damage like a disease”, the people residing in the area could be forced to relocate and the old buildings could be torn down, even if they were historically valuable. City governments simply had to determine if an area was in need of urban renewal, apply for the federal funding if they thought it was, contribute a portion of the funds from their own coffers and once the money was granted use it to force the relocation of the people residing in the area, tear down the old buildings and build new structures in their place. The problem with this was a lot of the old buildings were historically significant and could have been and should have been repaired, restored, renovated and re-purposed into public housing and businesses. Proponents of urban renewal are not in favor of historic preservation. Though one proponent, Edward L. Glaeser, states in a City Journal article titled Preservation Follies: “It is wise and good to protect the most cherished parts of a city’s architectural history. But New York’s vast historic districts, which include thousands of utterly undistinguished structures, don’t accomplish that goal. Worse, they impede new construction, keeping real estate in New York City enormously expensive (despite a housing crash), especially in its most desirable, historically protected areas. It’s time to ask whether New York’s big historic districts make sense.” In the J. Peter Byrne’s George Mason Law Review article, Historic Preservation and its cultured Despisers: Reflections on the Contemporary Role of Preservation Law in Urban Development Glaeser is described as one who thinks historic preservation restricts too much development, raises prices and undermines the vitality of cities. This is an an extremist view in favor of urban renewal and is not conducive to working well with historic preservation. There are extremist views on the historic preservation side of this argument as well. 

IV. Historic Preservation

           Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines preserve as: “to keep something in its original state or in good condition, and safe from harm or loss.”  After the loss of New York’s Penn Station in 1962 New York City decided to enact and adopt historic preservation plans and ordinances to protect their remaining structures and buildings. This is one of the first known preservation plans and laws in the United States. In the mid 1960’s the National Register of Historic Places was created. Any historic building or district on the register was protected from demolition with the use of government or public funds. But it does not protect the building from being destroyed by whomever owns it with private money. New York City’s historic preservation plan and ordinances and the creation of the National Register of Historic Places was the start of modern historic preservation in the United States. The next part came when President Nixon defunded much of the money available for urban renewal in the early 1970’s. There were areas all over the United States that were slated to have their historic buildings destroyed that were left standing because of this. Even though the intention of reducing the funds was not meant to preserve the historic structures it was the positive side effect of it. Another example of unintentional historic preservation is the push to build shopping centers and business districts on the outer areas of cities where nothing but empty land existed before. Because the business was relocated to the outer areas of a city it actually helped prevent the demolition of historic buildings. As with urban renewal there are extreme views with historic preservation. In the article Historic Preservation goes Awry it is explained when preservation is not a good idea. The article describes the Georgetown Municipal Incinerator building. It went through a transformation called facadism. This is where all but the exterior is completely altered for the sole benefit of keeping the facade, or outside of the building intact. This does not necessarily preserve the historic value of the building. Just because a building is old does not mean it is historically significant and should be saved. Since the 1960’s other cities across the United States have adopted historic preservation plans and legislation to preserve their historic structures and sites. Though urban renewal and the destruction of historic structures still occurred in the 1980’s it had slowed down because of the limited funding available. The 1990’s saw a large push to restore, renovate, and re purpose historic buildings more than what had occurred in the past. By the year 2000 businesses and the people were starting to return to these once abandoned areas of the urban centers. A lot of these areas have rent controlled housing for qualified individuals on the upper levels of the buildings while the ground floor is used for restaurants, retail shops and even micro breweries.

V. TIF and Urban Renewal Redefined

          The urban renewal of the past is no longer funded in the same way and is no longer called urban renewal. Today the terms used are urban redevelopment, revitalization and sustainability. It is thought this changed because of the stigma attached to the term urban renewal. The funding for such measures is now called Tax Incremental Financing or TIF. While TIF can be used similar to how urban renewal money was it has not been. It has been used to help preserve an area’s historic assets. This has lead to and caused redevelopment, revitalization and sustainability in cities. Two very good examples of revitalization and sustainability is St. Louis, Missouri and the Bronx in New York City. In St. Louis work is being done to revitalize and sustain areas hit hard by former urban renewal efforts. The existing structures are being restored and reused and what are now vacant lots are being cleaned up and having new buildings constructed upon them with materials such as reclaimed bricks from buildings in such decay they cannot be saved. TIF is being used to help fund these efforts. In the Bronx neighborhood of New York City modern urban redevelopment has taken place. With the use of private and local development money was used to restore, renovate and re-purpose historic structures in the West Haven area. The St. Louis and Bronx examples show how proponents on both sides can and should work together to accomplish their goals. Two cities in Iowa are known to have historic preservation plans. They are Iowa City and Dubuque, Iowa. Both cities have these plans to help preserve their history and advise the residents and property owners what is an is not allowed when it comes to owning a historic structure.

Previous articles in the series: