Historic Preservation Makes Twin Cities Healthy, Wealthy and Wise

By Harris, Marlys | MinnPost.com, February 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

Historic Preservation Makes Twin Cities Healthy, Wealthy and Wise


Harris, Marlys, MinnPost.com


When I met up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, I was amazed at her appearance. She looked healthier, brighter -- not more beautiful -- just better. After I poured on the compliments, she confided that she'd had some work done by Dr. So-and-So, a highly regarded plastic surgeon. That's when I realized that the best makeovers don't transform a person into something she's not -- my friend will never look like Pamela Anderson or Michelle Pfeiffer -- but subtly enhance the old face that's already there.

And so it goes for cities. Historic preservation, a movement that once confined itself to saving national monuments, is now brightening up Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities around the nation. Keeping the old along with the new won't make our towns into Barcelona or Florence, but, in the end, produces a better and subtly more interesting us.

Old buildings weren't always in fashion. Time was, we thought that anything beyond a certain vintage should be junked to make way for "progress." Such was the rationale behind urban renewal, whose wrecking balls took out huge swaths of character-rich neighborhoods and substituted apartment and office boxes that made the landscape as bland-looking as a face that's received too many Botox injections.

In reaction, city planners, developers, neighborhood activists and others have turned to the preservation and protection of older buildings. Classic preservation first got underway in the 19th century when advocates devoted themselves to saving historic landmarks and monuments, for example, Philadelphia's Free Quaker Meeting House.

Another direction

Jane Jacobs, author of "Death and Life of Great American Cities," however, sent preservation in another direction. Old buildings, she argued, were necessary to give a neighborhood variety and texture and economic vitality:

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. ... Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawnshops go into older buildings. ... Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts-studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions-these go into old buildings.

Preservation began to mean more than saving a building from being torn down. A real victory would be to repurpose it. "When a building is being used, it automatically is preserved," says Will O'Keefe, director of communications for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a nonprofit.

Trouble was and is, many of those charming (and uncharming) old piles were unusable as apartments or offices without expensive renovations that included new heating and air-conditioning, mold remediation, updated electrical systems and so on. Jacobs to the contrary notwithstanding, those fix-ups could cost a lot more than new construction. So to bridge the gap, Congress created the historic preservation tax credit. In 1976, the federal government rolled out the program which allowed building owners to subtract directly from their tax bill a credit equal to 20 percent of the cost of rehabilitating a historic building.

To qualify, a building had to be in a designated historic district like the French Quarter in New Orleans (and fit in with its distinctive architecture -- a Home Depot in the French Quarter wouldn't qualify); or the building must be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Speaking in Detroit the other day, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that over the years, the credit had been involved in the renovation 39,000 historic buildings, which had encouraged $66 billion in private investment and created 2.2 million jobs.

In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature gave the redevelopment of historic buildings a further boost by adopting its own historic preservation tax credit. …

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