From the Ground Up

Many neighborhood associations exist because of the desire to preserve character, presumably the layout and architectural style that has existed for several decades. Tensions arise between which areas are deemed worthy enough for preservation versus those slated for “revitalization,” with marginalized areas bearing the brunt of redevelopment. Local government entities tend to listen to whomever has the most vocal activists when the issues are brought forth for review, which often means that wealthy communities retain the majority of protections. Sadly, because redevelopment has been seen as urban planning salvation, many historic buildings and edifices have been demolished to make way for some of the latest “trends,” often to the chagrin of the residents.

One of the biggest barriers to preservation is the cost to bring the buildings up to current standards, and many contained lead or asbestos, which can be expensive to unburden. Public entities would do well to remember that unlike theoretical structures, older buildings have already earmarked the amount of space they take up, and their retrofitting capacities depend on the architects. Newer structures are unknown quantities, and several projects have been reported to go overbudget, meaning that developers will seek to recoup costs by charging more for their results. Even if older buildings are in poor condition, the infrastructure is frequently in place to avoid excessive costs in the long run.

While many politicians wax nostalgic about times past, one aspect of the past that is often sold to the highest bidder is the communities that have developed which compliment the structures in existence. Town squares developed in a way that centralized the local economy and opened the area to future nodes, many of which were destroyed during the rise of suburbanization. Instead of tearing down the structures that have shaped communities, it makes sense to restore the buildings and allow the neighborhoods to be reshaped by the residents, not the private entities who are often based outside the existing area. Walkable communities were in vogue, and because of the high cost of environmental degradation and vehicular ownership, many constituents long for more compact areas that encourage communication.

Finally, when new development arrives to a city or a neighborhood, one of the most obvious changes is the property tax rate, which almost never decreases in the face of new architecture. Most of the time, long-term residents are displaced to appease the development needs for new clientele, and the luxury market has been the most prevalent, morphing historic communities into “everywhere else.” Conversely, the reputation of the community changes, and the lifestyles that intrigued the previous neighbors dissipate along with the relationships. Older residents often retire, and do what they can to lower their costs, which is impossible if private entities approach the municipalities with flashy urban design instead of community enhancement.

Private builders look to cut their costs at every step of a project, and preservation costs more for them than it does for cities. Many times, there are several small entities—many of them which are local to the municipalities—who are willing and able to review structures, evaluate costs, and offer deals that retain the standard of existing communities. Cities need to work harder to build relationships with their local labor rather than working to entice those who cut costs and slash communities.

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