Lately CityLab published a bit of debate between Kriston Capps and Stephanie Meeks on historic preservation. Capps is a staff writer and Meeks is the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In their respective articles, Capps argued that historic preservation is a handout to homevoters while Meeks argues that history is important in its own right.
Meeks actually fails to address Capps’ criticisms of historic preservation, which are more about historic districts. No one would argue that genuinely historic buildings should be demolished, but historic districts do not protect history. They protect buildings on the basis that they’re old and age is not synonymous with history.
When asked why they moved to these areas, residents often talk about the desire to live somewhere distinctive, to be some place rather than no place. They want things like windows that open, exposed brick, and walkable communities, and continually use words like “charm” and “authenticity” to describe what they are looking for. In short, many Americans today want their homes and workplaces to be unique and distinctive—exactly the kind of distinctiveness, character, and sense of place that historic preservation districts provide.
But what Meeks has failed to notice is that modern zoning and building codes make it illegal to build new neighborhoods that are as good as the old ones. It is also utterly ahistoric to arbitrarily fix the form of buildings in a neighborhood. They did not develop all at once. They were not planned to be the way they are.
The rhetorical lengths preservationists often go to quickly reach the ridiculous. For example, Beacon Hill residents objected to plans by the City to install Americans With Disabilities Act-complaint ramps on sidewalks as “inappropriate” as though their parking and electricity was somehow historic.
But the real effect of historic preservation districts is that it forces the sort of gentrification that people most hate. Since the homeowners of neighborhoods able to get them designated a preservation district are likely to be whiter and wealthier, they restrict the supply of housing in their neighborhoods, driving up their property values, and forcing new development into less wealthy neighborhoods.
The developers of luxury housing cannot build anything in the most in-demand neighborhoods of Boston, like Beacon Hill, the North End, Back Bay and the South End because of blanket preservation measures. As a result, the new luxury towers go up in Chinatown and East Boston, curtailing the organic development of those neighborhoods.
Cities ought to build upon the past, not be slaves to it.