An article in CityLab on (local) historic districts and efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures to restrict designations has made for some interesting public debate about the local designation of historic districts.
[Note: This debate is NOT about listing historic districts in the National Register of Historic Places, which doesn’t carry the same regulatory review power that local districts might]
This article in New York Magazine by Justin Davidson makes a balanced counter-argument–If you’re looking at economics or social equity, historic districts have mixed results, just like many other urban planning / real estate tools. But, he goes on to say this, which I LOVE (In all seriousness, I’m tearing up):
“What I get from all this contradictory evidence is this: Tearing down fine old buildings doesn’t always, or even often, lead to greater equity or civic virtue. But it always leads to the obliteration of memory. Sacrificing gracious old residential districts to the unfeeling predations of the market is an act of willful amnesia….
History can’t always defend itself against momentary desires or the indifferent marketplace. That’s why we need to protect it with laws and a culture of respect. We will always have to keep debating where the proper boundaries lie between preservation and change, between cultivating the past and living in the present. But abandoning historic districts to the whims of buyers, sellers, and developers would be a form of cultural vandalism we would quickly come to regret.”
There have also been a few blog posts that take up the counter-argument with less formality than the news, and with satisfying sarcasm. PlaceEconomics had a few of the links on their Facebook page, and I’d bet that they’ll continue to follow the discussion, so check them out. From those links, I really liked Vince Michael’s response on his blog, Time Tells:
“This is one of those tricky issues – like gentrification – where you want to have a neat and clean reaction but you can’t. Because it is messy. I would like to have everyone who lives here stay here. I would like to protect my property’s value. I don’t want to be told what to do, but I REALLY want to tell my neighbor what to do. Also, a pony would be nice….
The left and the right should both stop using historic districts as a whipping post. These are tools that communities use to help determine their destiny in a more precise and individual way than is possible for most communities. Also they save precious resources from filling landfills. And grant a bit of beauty, grace and depth to our lives.”
In South Dakota, we don’t have many cities with local designation procedures. Deadwood has a strong historic preservation program– most of the city is a National Historic Landmark–so new designations aren’t common and their local economy allows for several grant programs to help owners with some kinds of restoration costs. Sioux Falls’ new zoning codes have an option for a Historic Preservation zone, but no neighborhoods have been zoned that way yet.
We do have many National Register-listed historic districts. By state law (SDCL 1-19A-11.1), if a body of state, county, or city government is going to take an action (fund a project, issue a permit, etc.) that might “damage, destroy, or encroach upon” a National Register-listed property (individual or district), then they need to let the State Historic Preservation Office review, investigate, and comment on the project before they make a decision. No outcomes are dictated by the legislation. In some cities/counties with local preservation boards/commissions, those folks usually get to comment too before the city makes a decision whether or not to proceed with the action. If you’re interested in more about this process, check out the state SHPO’s website, here.