Why Historic Preservation Districts Should Be a Thing of the Past

GOP lawmakers in Midwestern states say such neighborhood designations infringe on homeowners’ rights. But really they stand in the way of affordable housing.

Homes in the McIntire Historic District in Salem, Massachusetts, in February 2013. (fjzii/Flickr)

Historic preservation is a handy tool. Sometimes it’s the scalpel: a precise instrument for safeguarding the long-term cultural legacy of the built environment against the temporary whims of private interests. But other times it’s the ax: a melee weapon for defending the interests of homeowners. There’s one scenario in which historic preservation almost always serves as the latter.

Certain buildings tend to be ideal candidates, categorically, for historic preservation. They are our churches, museums, theaters, libraries, and other civic and cultural buildings (parks and landscapes, too)—things that define a community. Historic preservation guarantees that these resources survive calamities like economic downturns, irresponsible stewards, and passing fads, as well as the biting passage of time.

Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for people who love residential architecture (as I do). Historic homes and neighborhoods can be immensely significant, culturally and architecturally. But houses belong to owners, and in the U.S., the tried-and-true way to build wealth is to acquire real estate. Historic homes, typically gorgeous single-family homes, are often powerful assets.

So when local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts—sometimes entire neighborhoods—they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.

Republicans are advancing on historic districts in the Midwest

The Kellogg House in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Brandon Bartoszek/Flickr)

The Republican Party is waging a fierce campaign against historic preservation in the Midwest. On Tuesday, conservative lawmakers in Michigan proposed an amendment to the state’s 1970 Local Historic Districts Act, the law that provides for establishing historic districts. The amendment would make it more difficult to form historic districts and add a “sunset” clause that would cause historic designation to lapse every 10 years, among other changes.

Historic preservation authorities are apoplectic. “Local historic districts are the only way for communities to manage and protect their historic assets, and 78 communities to date have chosen to enact ordinances to protect their historic assets at the local level, under current state law,” reads a summary statement from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

Michigan lawmakers may have picked up the idea from Wisconsin, where Republican legislators proposed a bill in December that would prevent municipalities from designating a property as historic over the consent of its owner. The bill drew significant pushback from across the state, prompting GOP lawmakers to soften its language earlier this month. The purported purpose of the act is to expand property rights in Wisconsin.

"How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy."

In Michigan, Republican State Representative Chris Afendoulis echoed that sentiment, telling The Grand Rapids Press that the bill would give homeowners more say in the materials they use in home-construction projects. “I just want people to have a little bit more say over their property,” he said.

An historic housing district in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. (Tony Webster/Flickr)

Preservationists in Michigan are raising the right questions about the push from conservative state lawmakers there. (For example: “Why would the State impose a sunset clause on local decisions?”) The property-owners’ rights frame embraced by the GOP reads like an effort to make it easier for homeowners to add a chintzy garage to a Craftsman home. (Shudder to think.)

To be sure, the preservation of history and culture is not near to the hearts of Midwest Republicans. But the argument on the preservation side isn’t wholly aesthetic, either. Both sides are arguing for homeowners’ financial interests.

"Regulating historic landmarks and districts does more than provide economic and cultural value. It protects a property owner's investment," said Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, during a state hearing on the matter. "It prevents your neighbor from demolishing or inappropriately altering his historic home and thus the fabric of the historic district that gives your property value."

There are at least 2,300 historic districts in the U.S., many of them centered on authenticating the assets of single-family homeowners. Neither property-rights advocates nor preservationists are asking the more fundamental question about whether insisting on single-family zoning—even for the most gorgeous houses in the nation—is a fair and just thing to do.

Charleston is a model for how not to do historic preservation

A rendering of a modern architecture center designed by Allied Works for Clemson University. (Allied Works Architecture)

Robert Behre, the architecture critic for The Post and Courier, reports from the front lines of historic-preservation skirmishes in Charleston. His column is a must-read for anyone interested in broad stylistic questions about modernism versus traditionalism, or pressing economic concerns about housing and affordability.

Since 2012, Behre has detailed the efforts by Clemson University to build a contemporary architecture center designed by Brad Cloepfil of Portland’s Allied Works. (He’s been at it even longer, if you count the architecture center that Boston’s Kennedy & Violich tried and failed to build for Clemson in 2005.) Neighborhood preservationists scuppered both schemes. Most recently, after receiving final approval for the design, Clemson abandoned its plans in late 2014, spurred by a lawsuit brought forward by two historic preservation groups and two neighborhood associations.

Charleston boasts the oldest historic district in the country, and modernist enterprises crash against historic preservation in Charleston like ships against the shoals. So it goes in a city that prizes its historic charm as a powerful economic engine for tourism.

Last year, The New York Times put the issue a different way. Buoyed by its port and manufacturing sector (and intense charm), Charleston is growing. Its metro-area population has climbed 11 percent since 2010. But in a sense, Charleston isn’t growing at all: Historic downtown, where density hasn’t budged, has seen real-estate prices skyrocket. In nearby suburban Mount Pleasant, authorities adopted a “growth” plan late last year that actually changed the zoning for less-dense housing—in part because a developer built a large apartment building there.

It’s a bummer about the cutting-edge architecture center. It fell victim to a powerful sense of entitlement among homeowners nurtured by a historic-district designation. But the situation in Mount Pleasant is grave. Charleston simply cannot afford single-family homeowners to all act as if their neighborhoods are so precious.

Behre reports that Charleston is changing its architectural-review process, which could ease the way for more ambitious growth. Charleston residents aren’t all against the idea. And as his longtime readers know, the people of Charleston bear an authentic interest in architecture; it’s not a front. Still, the same class of argument being levied against cutting-edge campus design is being used to thwart more affordable housing, and that’s a problem. The result is a Charleston elite of increasingly wealthy downtown residents, and an affordable housing crisis for everybody else.

The question is not just aesthetic—it’s constitutional

Nobody wants to see classic Georgian homes torn down and replaced by bland apartment buildings. No one wants to bulldoze gorgeous Queen Anne mansions to erect cookie-cutter condo buildings. Quite the opposite: Many, many people would like to live in beautiful, historic homes. Barring that, many people would like to just live near these homes: for the schools, amenities, safety, and property values that historic districts garner.

Historic districts thwart this access in the name of preserving the character of a neighborhood. It’s not that far off from any argument about preserving the character of a single-family neighborhood. And the results—pockets of highly segregated wealth and access—are the same around the nation, whether the homes are architecturally distinct or dreadful McMansions.

That case against historic districting is similar to the case against protectionist single-family zoning anywhere. And the question isn’t just aesthetic, it’s constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year on “disparate impact” means that wealthy communities cannot keep affordable housing out because wealthy residents feel that they’re better off without it. The federal government’s Affordable Furthering Fair Housing rule means that cities and neighborhoods cannot use single-family zoning to keep affordable housing at bay.

As cities confront the growing nationwide housing crisis, there will be both a need and a market for building more densely, even in the most precious neighborhoods. Historic preservation is a tool better used to protect community assets, not private assets. Historic preservation is a tool better used to safeguard the historical resources in which everyone can take pride—not the historical resources that were only ever allotted to winners by race-based housing policies.

No, this isn’t the Republican Party’s argument for getting rid of historic districts. But it should be. If there’s a market opportunity to build more and more affordable housing, then let’s take it. Yes, in Beacon Hill. Yes, in Logan Circle. Yes, among your Painted Ladies. There is a fate worse than ugly in housing, and that’s unfairness.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.