The Case Against Historical Districts
September 18, 2014

I have noticed a trend in the United States, particularly for smaller towns and cities, to label their urban cores their 'historical town' or something similar. In my Arkansan town, they seem to be very proud of this that they built a banner announcing it;

While it is great to celebrate your heritage, labelling it as historic implies that it is a bygone place - a relic of a past generation that you want to preserve. I understand why many places feel the need to go out of their way to preserve their urban cores by labelling them as 'historic', as progress for the past 60 years around here has been synonymous with suburbanisation and decentralisation, so out of desperation they label what little urbanism they have left 'historic' to preserve it.

From another Arkansan town's Wikipedia article;

What little urbanism they have they label 'historic.'

I am an urbanist, and if I were put in that situation of rapid suburbanization I would probably have done something similar. However, I feel that it is doing more harm than good, because even if the 'historical' title has no legal meaning, labelling your urban core 'historic' implies to businesses that if you want progress you should go elsewhere. If your 'historical' core is the only place that is zoned for urban development the only growth you are going to get is auto-oriented suburban development.

I feel that there is a psychological element to this too - if all of the urban cores you have every known in your life are just a bunch of old buildings that happen to have not been bulldozed yet because some people labeled them 'historic' - you might get the impression that urbanism is a thing of the past.

Coming from Australia, it is rare to see historical districts in Australian towns. Even though the country is largely suburbanized like the United States, most of our small towns still have pretty much everything that are not single family homes or industrial buildings in one area;

There are exceptions to this, of course, just as their are exceptions to American towns, but I am comparing the typical pattern from my region of Australia to the region of the United States where I currently reside. Even as the population suburbanized, those small Australian towns never abandoned their Main Street. There has never been a strong desire to call their town centre a 'historical district' to save it, because there has never really been a threat attempting to destroy it.

Functional towns tend have a mixture of old and new buildings side by side;

Unless the town was recently founded, we expect there to a mixture of old and new buildings as a sign that the town is organically and incrementally growing. However, for there to be a new building, there most likely was an old building that it replaced.

I am sympathetic to those that try to preserve old buildings. We have buildings full of great architecture and great memories, and it is a shame for us to loose them. But realistically, we cannot preserve every building, because if every generation simply built then moved on, it would become obvious that many of our towns would quickly run out of space. Naturally, as our town grows and needs change, buildings need to be renovated and in many cases, replaced.

What is worth preserving?

There is no one answer to this, but the buildings most worth preserving are likely to be the buildings with the most value. A building of sentimental, architectural, or historical importance is likely to have value. From a free-market perspective without any distortions or regulations, the only time you would replace a building is to replace it with something better. As a business, it makes very little sense to replace an asset of high value with an asset of low value - as you would have made a loss in that transaction. In this case, the business would be better off selling the building rather than replacing it.

There are exceptional cases to this, such as when a stadium attempts to buy out all of the surrounding properties and turn them into parking. In these cases, perhaps labelling the property 'historical' could give it legal protection, but perhaps the argument should be on wasteful land use, not neccessarily perserving some random old buildings.

We know the free-market system works for the most part because our modern cities are full of well preserved historical and modern buildings. I am going to show some examples from Adelaide, Australia. I am using Adelaide because the city is my hometown - it was where I was born and raised - so I can think of several examples.

Adelaide Arcade is a beautiful shopping arcade from the 1890s;

It is also in the part of the city with the most expensive floor space;

Given the land value alone, it would be tempting to replace it with a higher-rise building that can generate more income. However, despite being surrounded by much denser retail, Adelaide Arcade, without any sort of historical protection, has managed to outlive a century of development and remains in good condition because it has value. There is a sense of pride in owning such a significant property, and I am sure there are many others eager to get their hands on it, so if the existing owner either wants to build something new or can no longer afford to maintain the property, it would be more profitable for them to sell it rather than demolish it.

There is the case of the Capri Theatre, a 1940s Art Deco cinema;

There have been multiple attempts to demolish it, but it had sentimental value to the community that they managed to purchase it, and today it is still a functional movie theatre, staffed by volunteers.

Sometimes we do loose real treasures, like the Jubilee Building;

It is heartbreaking to know that a really beautiful building like that no longer exists. We knock down buildings all of the time - usually buildings that have very little value to replace them with something with more value. It is impossible for us to know what buildings would have value to future generations. So, unfortunately, we do loose some - but does this justify labelling the area a 'historical district' and preventing all future development? In my opinion, no.

There are two reasons I do not support historical districts. a) They discourage development - and if you are talking about your urban core, then the only other place for development to occur is on the suburban outskirts. b) The free-market is better at protecting properties of significant value. The free-market is not perfect - every city has that building they regret was demolished - but I have yet found a better system.

Progress (the right kind of incremental and organic progress, not pseudo-progress and decentralization in the name of job creation) should mean adding value and charm to your town. If the desire to create a historical district is to preserve what little charm or urbanism you have remaining in your town, then I think you should really reflect on your zoning code and development regulations, because you are doing something wrong. Progress should be a positive thing.

The best way to preserve our historical buildings is to encourage investment and development, and not by outlawing them with silly regulations. By encouraging investment and development, we keep property values high and attract wealth, and that will make our historical buildings valuable. By being valuable and worth something, we prevent them from falling into disrepair and becoming obsolete.

We know this because cities that attract wealth and investment tend to take very good care of their buildings;

The worst thing we can do to preserve our history is by making it obsolete.



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Charles • 12.24.2014 • 13:12 PM (MST)
Oh and back to the point of the article... Should we designate historic districts? When we talk about preservation, we often mean keeping certain buildings. This is superficial. A deeper form of preservation would be about preserving the social and economic structures that produced those buildings, thus ensuring that those buildings are cherished and that more like it are produced. Less restrictive land zoning is a key part of those proper structures. For example perhaps mixed use downtowns have more pedestrians, so encourage buildings that look good close up. If everyone's in cars, it encourages buildings to look good from afar, so old buildings lose value and are replaced. I also think the free market should work in most cases, but one huge problem with local citizens pooling money to save cherished buildings is that the developer might be so wealthy that locals cannot muster up enough funding to buy the building. You could argue that if the developer really ignores local opinion, no one would buy their new condos or shop at their stores... unless the clients are from another part of the city or from out of town. A free market could degenerate into the heritage of the poor being wiped out by the rich. So I agree with some of you that some democratic process should be put in place, especially since it's the locals who will have to live with the buildings for decades to come. One solution: every controversial redevelopment must be voted upon by people living within a 10-minute walking distance of the site (roughly the people that see it the most). If more than 50% of eligible voters vote no, then it's a no-go. Less than 50% means not enough people care. The saved building wouldn’t become a heritage building - people might have voted against the new building, not for the old one. There is a risk that rich neighbourhoods can use this mechanism to prevent any increase in density to keep their property prices artificially high. But remember... for buildings at the edge of those neighbourhoods, half or more of the circle of eligible voters would fall outside the neighbourhood. So even the most stubborn neighbourhoods would slowly redevelop from the outside in. This mechanism would ensure a gradual transition. Summary: Historic districts are band-aids to deeper problems, but we still need a democratic mechanism to stop redevelopment that is profitable but extremely unpopular.
Charles • 12.23.2014 • 23:32 PM (MST)
High rises do not have to mean bad pedestrian spaces. You can have a "base and tower" design where there's a base block of 2 to 7 storeys, with commercial space on the first floor, and a tower that's set back from the edge so you don't see the tower as a pedestrian on the side walk. This is in fact how many New York buidings are built, such as the Empire State Building - you wouldn't know you were besides one of the tallest buildings in New York if you were walking past it. Vancouver high rises are another good example. That base and tower design is part of an idea called "Vancouverism." More detail on how the design works can be found from the City of Toronto. It's a beautiful document: This way you get continuity with historical lower buildings AND higher density. No sacrifices! It just requires a bit of imagination. And some city regulations. Do these regulations distort the free market? Yes, in the sense that developers can't fill up all the air space on their plot and can't pursue designs that they think are more attractive. But no, because developers can still build as tall as they want, determined by demand. These regulations simply make sure the free market works in the public interest.
Paul • 10.17.2014 • 13:37 PM (MDT)
Our cities are constantly evolving places, and I believe the architecture should reflect that. I'm not sure I understand the benefit of preserving the architecture of a place in a specific, random time period. If a building has outlived it's useful life and needs to be replaced it should be replaced by something that is of it's current time. Most European cities, which are much older than any city in this country, have buildings which were built over the course of centuries and we treasure their richness. But except for a few that do have strong historic districts that are preserved, they continue to add new buildings to the historic fabric. The public infrastructure is also often replaced with more contemporary design. Here <iframe width="600" height="400" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" src="|1|209.2532942898975|2.0424597364568102|38.789139|0.16157699999996566"></iframe> (not sure how to link to a google street image- hope that worked) is just one of many examples of a new building, and new public infrastructure that blends well with the existing urban fabric. I visited the town of Xabia in Spain several years ago while they were replacing many of the streets/sidewalks in the historic center. I also came across a new building amongst the older buildings. I was struck by the contemporary design that blended well with the buildings built over a variety of time periods. I also noted that the streetlights, tree grates, benches, etc. were much more contemporary (why do we insist on 'acorn' style streetlights that mimic gas lighting from the 19th century? Hasn't our lighting design evolved in the past 100+ years? ). I think part of our need to preserve 'historical' buildings in this country is that we are relatively young and do not have a lot of 'historic' places so maybe we feel we must preserve what we have. However, I would argue the urban fabric is richer and more interesting when it does have a mix of buildings from different periods. Freezing an urban district in a specific time period can stifle the economic vitality of a place. New buildings should fit and compliment the historic fabric but I have no problem with a new building mixed among older buildings.
myb6 • 09.23.2014 • 09:31 AM (MDT)
Zeph, Aesthetics/livability: all the beautiful, livable places I've been were originally built by market forces. I'm open to counter-examples. The land for Central Park was acquired on the market by New York state. I have no problem with that. There is no city that is so geographically constrained it geometrically MUST contain high-rise apartments. The problem is that the land value within a city is extremely spiky. Refusing more intense use where the amenities are located destroys incredible amounts of value (in the $ sense but also quality-of-life, civic vitality, human happiness/dignity...) and is really quite tragic.
myb6 • 09.23.2014 • 09:13 AM (MDT)
"their aesthetic" ""I would prefer" "my belief" If it's important to you or any group you're part of, including your city, you can pay for the taking. I understand that sometimes you need a tool to combat some a-hole property owner who wants to do something incredibly destructive, but that's why there's eminent domain (with compensation). "hideous uniformity...constructed within the past 75 years" all those pre-war buildings we both love weren't constructed under historic district limitations, plus pre-war there were plenty of junky shacks built, just over time the junky shacks are generally the first to go. I never claimed market outcomes are ideal, but historically they build higher-quality cities than planners (nearly all the historic districts you love were originally a market result). But I actually believe the far more important distinction is auto- versus ped-oriented, which is necessarily a result of public policy (I can't think of a city on the planet where the bulk of ROW is private). I'm all for ROW/Infra decisions that steer development pressure away from an historic area getting squeezed. In theory, historic districts need not necessarily infringe on freedom of movement or monopolize assets. In reality, they're used for exclusionary purposes and unearned profits. No, current residents aren't the only stakeholders; cities usually contain assets that aren't purely local, and if they're going to monopolize those assets they can bear the costs. "Skyscrapers" what about pre-war downtowns or east asian city centers, are they such horrible places? I understand your aesthetic is different, but can you acknowledge that others don't all share your opinion and if you intend to grant your aesthetic a monopoly you should bear the costs of that decision?
Andrew Price • 09.22.2014 • 14:08 PM (MDT)
Thank you for commenting Douglas. I agree with you. A valley of hollow skyscrapers is not a humane environment either. The main point I want people to take away from this article is my last sentence: "The worst thing we can do to preserve our history is by making it obsolete." By decentralizing our city and making downtown irrelevant, we scurry to protect what little urbanism we have that remaining before it fades away - rather than making our urban cores the centre of activity - largely making this kind of preservation irrelevant. In a city that is rapidly constructing high-rise properties, the context is very different. However, if 'new' implies 'bad' (either decentralization or a valley of skyscrapers on wide auto-oriented streets) - you're probably pursuing the wrong sort of growth. In which case, you have larger problems than historical preservation. The free market works pretty good if you're pursuing the right kind of growth - the kind of growth that built those structures in the first place.
Douglas Bright • 09.22.2014 • 13:52 PM (MDT)
@myb6: Why does my aesthetic get to override all other interests? It shouldn't, unless my aesthetic is shared by a majority of residents in the downtown area. Oftentimes, their aesthetic isn't considered. The result is an ugly mish-mash of each property owner doing their own thing without regard to the context of the neighborhood. Why do I imply that unified design is desirable in of itself? I agree there is hideous uniformity out there...usually constructed within the past 75 years. I don't mean to imply that unified design or uniformity equals sameness either. I advocate compatibility of new construction, and preferably the preservation of, historic (pre-1940) contexts in neighborhoods. I don't advocate the preservation or new construction of neighborhoods that replicate of the same building styles ad nauseum like one might find in Daly City, Calif. ( Why should a city center belong exclusively to one time and place? I would prefer this to be the case for the city I live in. Residents of other cities should make their priorities as a community. The decision should not be left to individual property owners. Why do I imply that current residents should have full determination over growth patterns? Does that not invite their monopolization of important regional assets, and violate the spirit of the law regarding free movement? I don't think local control over growth and development decisions constitutes an infringement on free movement anymore than creating a neighborhood park would infringe on it. I don't see the correlation. But yes, "monopolization of important regional assets" by people who actually have to live in those environments and the best deciders of their value is a central point of self-determination and I am a supporter of this. Why do I believe my individual, emotional reaction is a better reflection of the greater interest than market outcomes? My individual reaction is not just emotional. I can also cite macro-economic, quality of life, public health, etc. etc. reasons for my belief that market outcomes are not always the best outcomes. And my reaction is a reflection of the "greater interest" if my neighbors agree with me. If they don't, then so be it. What is inherently wrong about a skyscraper? Do I not believe there are any 20+ story buildings that are beautiful and good neighbors? Skyscrapers are by definition not built to human scale. They dehumanize the population both below and within them. 20+ story buildings "can" be beautiful (from a distance) - that is what they were sometimes intended to be. They are almost never intended to be beautiful up close. Casting shadows on their neighbors, creating wind tunnels, and plunging their surroundings into a cave-like hovel of existence, is not what I would consider to be "neighborly". They create a cold, sterile environment downtown. They create environments for cars to zip around. These are not places for people. Having said that, if the residents really want to topple their human scale, historic, charming buildings to create this wasteland so they can be transformed from human beings into ants scurrying around the base of impersonal concrete monoliths, then so be it. But this decision shouldn't be made by a few developers claiming that the "free market" should take precedence over quality of life. Visit Houston and you'll see how wrong the "free market" can be.
Zeph • 09.19.2014 • 17:05 PM (MDT)
@myb6: I think heterogenity in building facades (and interiors) is a really good thing! If the same building, or even decorative style, was copy-pasted across a whole downtown, it would get boring, regardless of whether its an older period style or modern. Older styles tend to have more character and variety, and break up homogenous environments, whereas today's styles are often utilitarian concrete/brick boxes made as cheaply as possible. In that sense, I think an aesthetic interests should definitely be taken into account when considering what to build or tear down, just as much as other factors. Another thing to consider is that historical buildings often have a sentimental value for the residence which can't be measured in dollars per sq ft. You can min-max a downtown with high rise grey boxes but most humans will avoid being there if they can help it. Really, what good is a city at all if people don't want to be there? When you take away all the things that make a city livable and worth being in, you have basically an industrial zone. You don't *have* to have historical buildings but it's worth trying to leverage them instead of tearing them down to make buildings or, as often happens, turn them into parking lots. Planners have to find a mix of emotional reactions with market factors. The fact that we make parks and green spaces in otherwise crowded cities shows that we value having humans in the area, and we don't want to drive them away. Central Park in NYC is a huge plot of land that could be worth untold billions if developed, but it would suck a lot of the intangible humanity out of the city, and the residents there would probably revolt :) I'm not saying that a huge monolithic park is necessarily the best use of land in a city, but it's a reminder that cities are ultimately for people. Regarding your last part about skyscrapers, there are certainly some gorgeous buildings out there, and I can even admire some as works of art, but at the same time I think they are one of the biggest ways in which humans have over-engineered a solution to urban development, and they certainly make at best problematic neighbors to lower, human-scale buildings. High-rise apartments are not great for living in (and there are studies to back this up), and are a solution when you are very confined for space (Hong Kong, Taiwan, NYC), but in almost all other cities, which aren't locked for space by water, skyscrapers are unnecessary.
myb6 • 09.18.2014 • 12:32 PM (MDT)
Douglas, Why does your aesthetic get to override all other interests? Why do you imply that unified design is desirable in of itself? There's plenty of hideous uniformity. Why should a city center belong exclusively to one time and place? Why do you imply that current residents should have full determination over growth patterns? Does that not invite their monopolization of important regional assets, and violate the spirit of the law regarding free movement? Why do you believe your individual, emotional reaction is a better reflection of the greater interest than market outcomes? What is inherently wrong about a skyscraper? Do you not believe there are any 20+ story buildings that are beautiful and good neighbors? You, and whatever governments/improvement-districts/etc you are a constituent of, are free to raise funds and either purchase property or contract with ownership. If your historic area is too successful, creating overwhelming development pressure, you can also advocate for infrastructure and other public investments to be directed elsewhere.
Douglas Bright • 09.18.2014 • 11:38 AM (MDT)
I work in the historic preservation field. I believe the solution is not to allow the free market to determine what is worth preserving. That has been an unmitigated failure in the United States. Most of our oldest cities have downtowns that are mismash of disjointed architecture that looks like a home furnished by crap someone picked up from a dozen different yard sales - there is no semblance of time and place. It has no character, no charm. It is confusing and ugly. Your picture of the Adelaide Arcade illustrates this perfectly - with a grotesque concrete Kmart monolith directly adjacent to this beautifully detailed late 19th century commercial building. Once, this street was probably full of architecture that resembled the Arcade - architecture that was compatible with it and helped present well-formed downtown that knew what it was trying to be. Once free-market developers got their grips on the street, they completely trashed this charm you get this pock-mark Kmart building next door. As the city grows and needs more room for people and businesses (assuming the residents want this growth to begin with), the solution is to extend the mixed-use, urban zoning beyond the "historic" core, while keeping the development dense (i.e. no large parking lots, suburban style tract homes, etc.). The solution is not demolishing historic buildings to replace them with 20 story skyscrapers, no matter how the free market feels, because when you do this, you destroy the charm (soul, aesthetic continuity, cultural integrity, etc. whatever you call it) of the neighborhood. If you want a 20 story skyscraper (and I certainly wouldn't want one in my city), build it just outside the historic core. Many European cities have done this successfully.