Saturday, June 15, 2013

Historic Preservation Can Help Right-Size Cleveland

I am thrilled to have been awarded the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation Mid Career Grant ( for my proposal, “Putting Historic Preservation on the Map: Right-Sizing Cleveland.” My project will start by mapping the story of our current demolition patterns and determining the extent to which historic preservation concerns have influenced demolition in Cleveland to date. I’ll also investigate ways historic preservation can be better incorporated into right-sizing in the future, and identify and suggest protecting pocket historic target areas outside of landmark districts.

For me, historic preservation is about saving the building stock that individually and collectively provides a sense of place and defines the unique character of our city. In Cleveland, with our crisis of vacancy, that means strategically finding alternatives to indiscriminate demolition, rehabilitating houses and commercial buildings, finding better mothballing strategies, and finding ways to keep buildings from deteriorating. If we are going to be tearing lots of buildings down, let’s do that in a thoughtful way that leaves behind resilient and walkable neighborhood villages interspersed with productive greenspace and well connected by transit.

I’m going into my project with some preconceived ideas. I will start from the assumption that neighborhood areas with intact, walkable, transit-friendly urban fabric and historic character are the most likely areas to establish a sense of place, attract new residents, and keep existing residents. Protecting endangered buildings, providing targeted resources, and maintaining densities in these areas is necessary to lay the foundation for redevelopment based on the rehabilitation of historic buildings. While some parts of the city may need to become less dense and less populated, attracting residents to areas with historic assets is an appropriate strategy for right-sizing a city.

The idea that historic preservation should be a key consideration in right-sizing the city has been percolating in the last few years. In 2011 in response to the emergence of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funding for demolition the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation convened a task force on right-sizing:  The Rightsizing Task Force visited Cleveland and held a community forum in June 2012.  Donovan Rypkema and Cara Bertron wrote a report for the task force suggesting that historic preservation should have a key role in planning for right-sizing: . Brenda Mahoney has suggested strategies for incorporating historic preservation into right-sizing drawn from her experience working with two cities in Michigan: . Locally, the Cleveland Restoration Society has been engaged in community conversations about right-sizing, including an Ohio Preservation Summit on Vacant and Abandoned Buildings in May 2012.

Cleveland Land Use Map Showing Vacant Parcels in Grey

Asserting that historic preservation should be a focus of demolition planning efforts acknowledges the need for strategic demolition. I’m not opposed to strategic demolition. However, I think that massive spending for demolition has an important opportunity cost. Although spending limited funds for rehab and new construction is more expensive and challenging than demolition, it has a much greater impact. I feel instinctively that rehabbing one house has much more of a revitalizing effect on a street than tearing down several houses on that street. I want to find data to back that up. There are barriers to rehab like a cycle of negatively trending appraisals that lower selling prices below the cost to rehab, and we need new strategies to address these problems. Removing a nuisance property improves quality of life temporarily for immediate neighbors, but the resulting vacant lot does little to increase demand for the neighborhood in the long term.

I’m also not philosophically opposed to the idea of a shrinking city. Places do not necessarily have to grow to be sustainable, wonderful places to live. But as long as we are building new homes in the suburbs while so many houses in the city sit empty, there is an alternative to tearing so many houses down.  We have to realize that sprawl in a shrinking city does not make any sense. A shrinking region must strategically address where this shrinkage should occur – and it should not occur disproportionately in the core of the region where urban advantages are greatest.

There is no doubt that Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Institute, and other local leaders have done an incredible job at the national level raising awareness of the vacancy problems in cities like Cleveland and successfully attracting funding to address these problems. I have some comments though, on some of the ways Rokakis frames the vacancy problem in a relatively recent PD editorial (April 21,Demolishing area’s vacant homes will help rebuild the community”).
  • “there are thousands of homes beyond repair,” which are “neither historic nor positioned to operate functionally in the rehab market.” While some homes truly are beyond repair, many homes slated for demolition would be perfect for gut rehabs, which is a common rehab approach that strips the house down to the studs and replaces most of the systems in the house. Cleveland Housing Network, for example, a major non-profit housing organization in Cleveland, has done many gut rehabs. And a gut rehab is an opportunity to make an existing house as energy efficient as the greenest new home.
  • To claim that the thousands of houses slated for demolition in Cleveland are not historic shows a very limited appreciation for Cleveland’s housing stock. A home does not have to be ornate or built by a well-known architect or have had some famous role in history to contribute to the historic character of a neighborhood. Small, plain, worker cottages from the 1930’s and earlier collectively provide a historic fabric that can be one of the most competitive aspects of neighborhoods and cities.
  • “There is much more supply than demand.”   This is a problem that cannot be fixed simply by tearing down enough houses. The supply of homes can shrink and shrink and still be greater than the demand if the demand curve keeps shifting in the negative direction. According to economists, things that shift the housing demand curve include changes in taste, population, income, and expectations. Expectations are especially key in shifting the demand curve for housing. People want to know what their house will sell for in the future and what their neighborhood will be like in the future. Speculation can shift the demand curve in either a positive direction, causing a housing boom, or in a negative direction, causing a housing bust. We need to focus more on shifting expectations in a positive direction to create demand and less on reducing supply. Demolition does not do much to increase expectations for a neighborhood.
  • “It is time for all of us to speak with one voice so that our officials in Washington understand the severity of this problem.” I felt like this sentence was aimed at quelling people like me who have hesitations about pouring so much money into demolition. I think I can see where it is coming from, though. Making the argument for funding for demolition is simpler than trying to get more money for rehab. To get money for rehab you have to tell a more complicated story about how we’re going to get people to buy those homes, why the private market should be subsidized, and why we need money for rehab more than growing cities. It’s a more difficult, but important message.
Historic preservation is sometimes dismissed as a luxury strategy benefiting only the “creative class” elite and lumped into the category of things that would be nice to do if we had extra money, but are not as fundamentally important as other strategies that are seen as directly addressing jobs and poverty, and as helping the majority of Cleveland residents.  I disagree, and see historic preservation as a crucial core strategy that should be at the heart of planning for economic development and sustainability. For example, I believe that historic preservation is an anti-poverty strategy.
  • For homeowners, historic preservation raises surrounding property values. While this may increase the tax burden, for areas with extremely depressed appraisals, increased property values more importantly enables homeowners to obtain home improvement loans for basic home repair and weatherization, refinance at lower rates, and sell their homes. 
  • For renters, historic preservation provides economic opportunity by supporting the long-term health of residents. This may not be immediately evident, but I see connections between preserving our housing and reducing health disparities linked to housing. Code enforcement, a common historic preservation strategy to keep buildings from falling into disrepair, provides a minimum housing standard for healthy housing that directly impacts renters.  Deteriorated, unhealthy housing results in greater asthma rates, lead poisoning, and injuries- health problems that exacerbate poverty and have lifetime costs to tenants and taxpayers. Keeping homes from falling into disrepair, while protecting our heritage, also protects our most vulnerable residents.
Historic preservation, while it may attract desirable new residents, primarily benefits existing residents. It’s an approach to city-making that embraces authenticity and improves quality of life for all of us. It should be an integral part of planning for right-sizing Cleveland.

These views are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer or of the Fitch Foundation. The James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation encourages new thinking and original research in the field of American historic preservation. To achieve this mission the Foundation awards grants to mid-career professionals who have an academic or professional background in preservation or a related field.