Is Historic Preservation a Good Thing?

An example of a lovely home in Overbrook Farms, Philadelphia. Source: wiki/File: Overbrook_Farms _2.JPG

First, a big thumbs up to Grid Magazine. I acquired a complementary copy at my gym and was very surprised to find a variety of nice articles about preservation and sustainable living in Philadelphia, including one about historic masonry and how awesome bricks are. And, we all know how much I love bricks. Anyway, visit their website, or look for an issue to pick up. Totally worth the read.

Anytime I see an article about historic neighborhoods I’m going to read it. According to Grid, there is a battle over to designate or not to designate the Overbrook Farms neighborhood as historic. I did a little research and discovered that Overbrook Farms is full of beautiful, mansion-like, homes in various colonial-revival or tudor-revival styles, all built in the late 19th Century. Originally a very affluent area, many homes boast craftsmanship of the highest order. With so many beautiful homes, at least 100 years old, it would only seem natural that the neighborhood would want to protect it’s architectural integrity. However, not every resident is supportive.

The historic designation question is a hot topic. Both those for, and those against, have points worth considering.

Yes to Historic Designation

Homes in historic neighborhoods, especially those that are designated and protected, have higher property values than those in areas that are not designated. Historic homes tend to hold their value better than non-historic homes. Typically homeowners in historically protected areas have to adhere to a set of rules that keeps them from demolishing homes and making inappropriate improvements to their homes. This keeps the neighborhood’s character consistent and intact. A well-established historic neighborhood is very attractive to home buyers interested in the characteristics of a particular neighborhood.

For people who are appreciative of their neighborhood’s stock of architecturally interesting properties, it can be horrifying to watch a careless developer tear down 100+ years of history and put up a McMansion-esk confection iced in cantaloupe colored stucco. It’s especially horrifying if you live in a row of identical homes and that monstrosity is attached to your house (true story!).

The historic designation attracts the sort of homeowner that likely supports conversation and doesn’t mind being told what to do with their house, in the name of preservation. Chances are, they are researching on their own and looking forward to keeping things exactly how they looked when the house was built. This sort of homeowner is going to spend a little more money keeping their home in good condition because it’s not just a house; it’s a mission.

No to Historic Designation

Historic designation will raise the value of your house. Higher value  means higher property taxes. For long-time residents, especially those on fixed incomes, or people just having trouble making ends meet, a jump in the value of their home and the resulting tax increase can be devastating. For the people who may have worked very hard to change a dodgy neighborhood into a vibrant community and now find themselves priced out of their homes, this is a slap in the face.

Once a neighborhood is designated as historic you lose freedom over your house and what you can do with it. Since you paid for your home, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. If your coming into an already established area, you know what you’re getting into. But if not, it’s like having someone snatch your favorite toy away. It’s almost rude! All of a sudden, you need to check with some higher power about what windows or door you can have or what paint colors you can use. Often, maintaining a historic property to specification set by a historic commission is a lot more expensive. Constraints mean owners of inefficient relics can’t take advantage of more environmentally friendly home products and the homes people are trying to protect become drains on the owners wallets and resources.

If there isn’t room to change, then neighborhoods get stale. In urban neighborhoods where many row homes are run down or have been demolished, new row home development is often revitalizing. In our own neighborhood over the last five years we’ve seen quite a few empty lots replaced by new, energy-efficient row homes. The new homes are a vast improvement.

If you make a community too rigid  you will scare away interesting people that make a community exciting. New businesses may also be reluctant to conduct business in an area where they have to adhere to strict rules.

So, What’s Better?

The debate gets very heated. What’s certain is that unless an entire neighborhood is in support of historic designation, the approval and transition of a neighborhood from non-historic to historic won’t be successful.

From our perspective, and we’ve seen a lot of neighborhoods, just because a neighborhood lacks historic designation doesn’t mean that it’s complete chaos. Often, row house neighborhoods do just fine.

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