When historic buildings make economic sense

“People want more authenticity in their lives, in what they wear, in what they eat and in the kind of places they live. That's the kind of authenticity that historic buildings can bring to a city,” said Stephanie Meeks, CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. - 

When people talk about infrastructure, they normally mean roads, bridges and public transportation. But the CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says maybe we should think about historic buildings and places as infrastructure, too. The NTHP is a nonprofit organization that works to save old buildings from demolition and revitalize historic neighborhoods. Its CEO, Stephanie Meeks, is the author of a new book, “The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation Is Reviving America’s Communities.” She talked with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal about using preservation for economic development. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: This is a country which has traditionally not spent a whole lot of time looking back. It's always forward, and new and better and bigger and more and “I want, I want, I want.” On your best days are you making progress in that? Or is it two steps forward, one step back? Which I guess is progress too, but you know what I mean.

Stephanie Meeks: I think we're making a lot of progress, actually. Just in the seven years that I've been in this job — seven years ago we were out making the case that preservation is good business. And we were getting crickets. Today, we're working arm in arm with the Urban Land Institute, with mayors and with developers across the country who see that as millennials and empty nesters move back into cities, they're flocking to neighborhoods with historic buildings. People want more authenticity in their lives, in what they wear, in what they eat and in the kind of places they live. That's the kind of authenticity that historic buildings can bring to a city.

Ryssdal: Which I totally get, but those millennials and the empty nesters, they want the cool old buildings with exposed brick and neatly redone beams, but up-to-date appliances and all of that stuff. None of that is cheap, and a lot of urban renters can't get there from here. How do you take care of those folks?

Meeks: There are cities who are figuring out a way to do this. There's a great story in Macon, Georgia, in a neighborhood called the Bells Hill neighborhood. It's right next to Mercer University. Over the course of several years, they've invested in improving 500 homes, and they've done it without displacing any of the current residents. At the same time, the property taxes in the area have increased by a million dollars a year. They've done that mostly by building on vacant lots, but they've also worked with the city to apply property tax freezes for some low-income homeowners, and they've also recruited low-income homeowners into the area to ensure that the neighborhood continues to have that balance that everybody wanted to see.

Ryssdal:  Seems to me like you can't do it by yourself, right? It can't just be a nonprofit thing, you have to get that — and this is a trite old phrase — but, you have to get that public-private partnership, right? Because you need the tax freezes, but you also need private developers and investment.

Meeks: That's absolutely right. These are policy solutions, and it takes progressive public policy in order to make sure that our cities continue to work for everyone.

Ryssdal: So when you think about economic progress coming out of historic preservation, is all progress the same progress? I mean, is economic development economic development? Or do you want it to be small business? Do you want it to be locals? Or do you just want the dollars?

Meeks: What we see over time is that historic buildings are great incubators for small businesses. For women- and minority-owned businesses, they played a really important role. But at the end of the day, Kai, we want to see historic buildings in active use to their communities. We are not about casting things in amber and turning everything into a museum. We understand that historic buildings need to evolve over time and meet the needs of their community. And that may mean a small business, or it might mean it might mean a chain business.

Ryssdal: What happens — in a city or town or anywhere — if you don't get it right? If you preserve something that shouldn’t be preserved or that economic development doesn't happen?

Meeks: Well, the thing about preservation is that if you're not successful, there's no going back. If something gets torn down, it's gone. And that's why we advocate that demolition should always be the option of last resort. There are cities in Europe, for example, where you can see how buildings have just evolved over time. And that's a lesson that I think American cities need to learn as well. How can we build on the infrastructure that we already have? We recycle cans and newspapers; we need to be thinking about how we recycle our buildings as well.

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