The Value of Heritage

February 4, 2017 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 371

When a lover of history, architecture, or neighborhoods sees an historic building or district, they value it.  They want to save it, to preserve that value.

Casino Club building (1927) San Antonio

“Value” is a word with many connotations, from the moralistic to the economic, from “values voters” (remember those?) to a dollar amount that has something to do with price, cost, and time.  Traditionally, historic preservation began by placing moral values  – like patriotism – on landmarks, like the 19th century efforts to save Mount Vernon.  In the 20th century came a focus on aesthetic values, although if you scratch the surface of William Sumner Appleton you get plenty of “moralisms” involving rabid fear of non Anglo-Saxons.  Heck, even after the invention of architectural historians in 1941, it took almost 50 years until we could safely landmark apartment buildings, which, as everyone knows, promote promiscuity and communism.

Read the National Register nomination – it’s in there.  Hotel St. Benedict Flats, 1882.

409 Edgecombe in Harlem – the one that finally broke down the architectural bias against apartments in New York City – because of its massive historic significance.

In the last 50 years heritage conservation has included economic values, especially since the advent of Main Street in the 1970s and heritage areas in the 1980s, where architectural design is only a quarter of the cocktail designed to promote economic development.

Still an essential ingredient

Indeed, some in the preservation movement are concerned that there has been too much focus on economics, that we valorize questionable landmarks in favor of developers seeking investment tax credits.  There is also the question of gentrification and its sometime partner displacement, one that was posed to me by the media before I arrived in San Antonio.

In the 1960s preservationists were accused to impeding economic growth: today they are accused of causing it.

We also caused old junk to be elegant BTW

I was at City Council the other day listening to a citizen oppose a bond issue because it would make taxes go up – even though they were not changing the tax rate – because values would go up.  It reminded me of a series of articles that John McCarron wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1987 about impoverished neighborhoods whose leaders were working against neighborhood improvement.  This was the dawning of the “gentrification” issue and McCarron struggled to explain what was going on – why were politicians working against neighborhood improvement?  Were they just trying to maintain their voters in place through a stagnant economy?

Eppur si muove…

How can you avoid gentrification?  When asked about this in San Antonio, I often point to the incredible success of the Pearl Brewery development, which has created tons of economic value by turning an old industrial site into a residential and commercial magnet, which means there is no displacement because no one lived there before.  The same is arguably true of the planned development of the 35-acre Lone Star Brewery in Southtown.  But that is answering the question of “displacement,” not the hoary and elusive “gentrification,” which seems to mean that prices are going up rapidly in a community, and also implies there is some sort of cultural shift going on as well.

Definitely a warning sign….

How can you improve a place without making it more expensive?  Well, you can’t in a market economy.  Can’t.  Prices simply don’t stay still.  The assumption that there is a static state that can be preserved in amber is mentally possible but physically impossible.  The best you can hope for is steady, manageable change.  In a way, it is like the transition in the heritage conservation field itself, which began as an attempt to keep things the way they are and evolved into a system for managing change, because the first proposition is a scientific impossibility.

Except technology – that stays the same 🙂

I remember asking an economist friend of mine whether money now was more valuable than money later (the principle – and principal – of lending).  His response was of course smarter than the question: “Most people seem to think so.”  Economics is a social science and perhaps if everyone believes prices should stay the same, they would.  But that isn’t going to happen.  Somewhere, someone wants to make money.

Eppur si muove

I like the Galileo quote not simply because it posits science and evidence in the face of unprovable dogma, but because it describes a key factor in moralistic, aesthetic, and economic values: time.

Churn.  The Sea of Milk – Vishnu as pivot, Angkor Wat

Nothing stays still, not electrons, not water, not buildings, not cities, not history and certainly not our bodies.  The dismal science of economics recognizes this because the equilibrium it seeks is dynamic, not static.  Heritage conservationists know this as well – if 5 million people are tramping through the Colosseum each year, it is not staying the same.  Neither is your neighborhood.  Babies are born, people die, solar panels get added and that damn dog will someday – someday – stop barking.

Time is especially important to economic value, as my naive question above proved.  Price is an historical event – a point in time – whereas cost includes time-based things like mortgages and construction.  Historic preservation tax incentives were designed to bridge the gap between the cost of a historic project and its value in the marketplace.  My favorite illustration of this is the Frank Lloyd Wright building I bought for $1 in 1992 – which was $40,000 more than its value.

How did we get out of this economic hole?  Time.  The neighborhood (that’s the externalities for you economists) changed over time until the cost of buying and rehabbing this building could be justified by a price that covered the outlays.

Of course, values can go the other way, as we saw in 2008, a crisis that resided principally in exurbia.  I remember asking a mortgage banker how many bad loans he had in historic Oak Park that year, and the answer was none.  Historic areas tend to maintain and stabilize value.

Because you control externalities over time.  Duh.

I think the impulse of Anne Pamela Cunningham and William Sumner Appleton and that guy at City Council are the same – fear of change.  This is a constant theme in our field, one I resist but is always present.  We have NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard) and we have BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything).  It is in fear of change that the definition of “gentrification” resides, and it is a fear of time.

Eppur si muove.  Orloj, Prague

This is where moral, aesthetic, social and even economic “values” fail, because in their uninflected state they are static, like ideology, and can’t account for the dynamic constant in experience – time.

“The fault, Horatio, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.”

Heritage conservation does account for time, because it is inflected with an understanding of change.  It seeks to preserve certain values in harmony with the passage of time, not in futile opposition to it. It celebrates both continuity and change, which is necessary to tackle problems of organized complexity, to borrow the words of our great urbanist Jane Jacobs.

Celestial Clock.  Misra Yanta at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, India.

We value time, just as we value history and aesthetics and morality, and in valuing time we engage in real solutions, not simple oppositions and physical impossibilities.

Because it moves, nevertheless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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