Progressive Preservation

The spectrum along which historic preservation efforts are derived is often calibrated in unique ways at the community level. At its worst, historic preservation touts faux historicism and NIMBY-ism, and at its best, the effort is a celebration of brand identity and a thoughtful preservation of character. Whether backward or forward-looking, preservation battles nevertheless perpetuate in cities across the country, in a back-and-forth struggle between salvaging or lamenting the losses of legitimate and dubious landmarks alike amongst cries of gentrification. The problem is especially acute in areas of the Southeast United States, where history runs deep and relatively recent manufacturing and economic booms pair opportunity with relatively low costs of living.

Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia are relatively small cities that are remarkably diverse in their respective economic bases – thriving ports, bustling downtowns, respected colleges and universities, and heavy tourist traffic based largely on their intact historic districts. As a developer, urban planner, and, longstanding member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Agora’s perspective is that of strategic preservation. Protecting iconic structures and maintaining historic districts, while also providing the spaces, infrastructure, and technology for modern businesses to thrive, are key opportunities for preservation. Preservation and progress need not be mutually exclusive.

Sometimes lost on preservationists is the extraordinary cost of providing historically accurate materials, endless and ill-defined design reviews, and prevention of highest and best land uses. This last point is not to suggest that towers should replace low slung buildings, but that downtown sites are often heavily underutilized. All of these costly items translate to higher sales and lease prices, which has a range of effects. The alternative to high rent can often be lack of investment in deteriorating structures.

The flip side, of course, is that developers sometimes miss the inherent value created by history, tradition, and character. Highest and best use, as referenced above, does not mean build as cheaply as possible and rent for as much as possible. Downtown Savannah and Downtown Charleston work because of the whole, but that does not mean there is no room to push forward in a design sense.

Architects experienced in preservation concepts can be wonderfully creative and especially adept at modernizing tradition. Brownstone Brooklyn immediately comes to mind, as an undeniably historic and iconic image, yet developers, homeowners, and architects have produced wonderful examples of progressive preservation. In Savannah, the Starland Design District has been carved out and cultivated as a particular neighborhood where contemporary design is promoted. Starland has become a destination in its own right, and the thriving restaurants, boutiques, offices, and apartments show that contemporary design can work in a community known for historicism.

Strategic preservation respects and celebrates the old, but welcomes and accommodates the new as a means to protecting and promoting the bigger picture. The modern economy requires flexibility to succeed, and cities looking to bolster economic development need to also establish a certain level of flexibility that both preserves and progresses.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/us/as-its-economy-grows-charleston-is-torn-over-its-architectural-future.html for further discussion.