Remarks by Stephanie Meeks at the PastForward 2016 Preservation Conference

By Stephanie Meeks posted 11-16-2016 19:15

  


[See the rest of the [opening plenary here.]

Thank you, everyone. It is great to be with you.

This is one of my favorite events of the year. It gives us a chance to come together, see old friends and make new ones, take stock of our work, and plan for the road ahead.

And it’s great to be here in Houston, America’s fourth-biggest city with so many fascinating layers of history. From its early days as a port city, to the oil boom, to the Space Age, Houston has always kept its eye on the future. And today, from Market Square to the Astrodome, Houston is connecting with its vibrant and diverse past as never before.

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Houston, Texas | Credit: Lanier

That’s why there’s no better place for us to convene as we embark on the next 50 years of preservation in our country. We began this conversation last year in Washington, D.C., and in talks and roundtables all over the country. And it will continue here this week. I hope you can take part in tomorrow’s World Café on the Future of Preservation and share your own thoughts and vision for how we can continue moving forward.As my own contribution to this discussion, I wrote a book this year with Kevin Murphy called The Past and Future City. It lays out the case I believe we need to make going forward.

In short: Preservation is not just important for all the ways it keeps the past alive; it is also the gateway to tomorrow. Our work helps cities grapple with the problems of our present and lays the foundation for a stronger future. Taken to scale, it can create jobs, reinvigorate local economies, and help small businesses come to life. It can make neighborhoods healthier and more sustainable; it can help us address pressing problems like affordability, displacement, and climate change; and it can bring communities together. So tonight I want to make that case to you through the stories of some remarkable women and men who’ve shaped the past, present, and future of historic preservation.

Jane Jacobs

Let me start with an amazing urban activist who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year and whose writings have molded our field from the start: the one and only Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was a journalist with no formal training in urban planning, but she was a keen observer of the world around her. She cut a fierce figure with her trademark cats-eye glasses and no-nonsense bob. And she was fearless. Just take a listen:

The kind of planning that we ought to have should not be planning that begins with what is nasty here, what do we take out, but rather what is missing here, which of the conditions that are needed to make this a lively and convenient place that works. Why, for instance, weren’t people walking in the areas that all the artists conceptions had shown full of happy promenaders. They weren’t there.

Her directness angered a lot of people, and no one was more angry than the Goliath to her David, New York City’s master builder Robert Moses, an unstoppable force in his own right.

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Over his career, he built more than 600 miles of highways, 13 bridges, and two tunnels all over New York. Moses believed, in his words, “cities are created by and for traffic.” To accomplish his vision, he often ripped out entire blocks and neighborhoods.

But Jacobs observed a different rhythm of the city—what she called the "sidewalk ballet." She believed cities are created by and for people. So when Moses tried to run a highway through Greenwich Village—where Jane Jacobs lived—she helped form and lead a community coalition to stop him. She later prevented Moses from tearing down her block and from running an expressway through Lower Manhattan that would have destroyed much of SoHo, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. (It’s hard to believe this wasn’t getting personal!)

Now Jacobs didn’t win every battle. She was among those who tried—and failed—to save New York’s historic Penn Station, which helped make the National Preservation Act a reality. But she won more than she lost. And, over the years of fighting against her nemesis, she helped articulate and then promote a vision that put front and center the many benefits that older places bring to cities.

In her most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued that older buildings are a critical and necessary feature of thriving neighborhoods. She wrote, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” They provide character and help ensure mixed use. They offer space for entrepreneurs and local businesses, artists and innovators.

Preservation Green Lab and Benefits of Preservation to Cities

Today, 55 years after she wrote those words, we now know she was absolutely right. We’ve seen it in downtowns and Main Streets all over the country. And while her intuition has always seemed right to us, we also have tools today that Jane Jacobs could only dream of. Using those tools, we at the Trust have been putting her theories to the test. Two years ago, we published our report, Older, Smaller, Better, which took a look at the age, diversity, and size of all buildings—not just historic buildings—in three cities: Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Seattle.

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Atlantic County Teen Arts Festival in Hammonton, New Jersey

Using GIS mapping technology and innovative data sources like cellphone usage patterns, we examined how each block in these cities performed according to different economic, social, cultural, and environmental performance metrics. What we found is exactly what Jane Jacobs predicted: neighborhoods with a mix of older and newer buildings tend to have more small business jobs and more diversity in housing costs, meaning more opportunities for families of all incomes. They have “hidden density”—more people and businesses per commercial square foot than areas with just new buildings. They are more walkable and have more creative jobs. They have more new—and women- and minority-owned—businesses. And they show more activity on evenings and weekends. 

Since publishing that report, we have documented the same benefits at work all across America. In Baltimore and Philadelphia, Louisville and Chicago, Tucson and right here in Houston. This week, our Preservation Green Lab will be releasing the Atlas of ReUrbanism, which applies the Older Smaller Better methodology to 50 more cities. This Atlas, and our ReUrbanism work in general, will help more cities unleash the remarkable powers of older buildings on behalf of their streets and neighborhoods. It is something we are very excited about. So Jane Jacobs’ arguments are no longer just theoretical. We now have hard data, and case studies all over America, that prove preservation is the path to a richer urban future.

Dana Crawford

One case that I know very well is Denver, Colorado. When I was growing up in Loveland, 70 miles to the north, Denver was my first “big city.” Today, Denver is a national leader in almost every way that counts. Its population has been growing at double the national rate. Its unemployment rate is only around 3 percent. And, thanks to its thoughtful infrastructure, Denver is continually named as one of America’s Fittest Cities.

So, how has Denver become such an urban powerhouse? One big reason is another fearless and visionary woman: Dana Crawford. Here she is:

I don’t know whether it is genetic or not but I’m attracted to beautiful places and a lot of times they happen to be places that have become ignored. When I go around the country on consulting jobs and I get to the towns I always say, “Take me to your pigeons and your pensioners" and then I find the beautiful buildings.

Around the same time Jane Jacobs was going toe-to-toe with Robert Moses in New York, Crawford was giving Denver a head start in using preservation to remake cities for the better.

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Dana Crawford | Credit: Getty Images

She began her work in the Larimer Square neighborhood, which at the time was a pretty scary place. As with so many other “urban renewal” plans of the 1960s, Denver was planning to revitalize Larimer Square by tearing it down. Already, nearly 30 blocks of the historic downtown had been destroyed. Keep your eye on this bell tower behind me. This is Denver’s downtown before “urban renewal”—and here it is after. Larimer Square, in the top right corner of this picture, is one of the few places that survived the wrecking ball. [See video at the top of this post for images.] That’s because Crawford had a different vision: she believed people would much rather live in a Larimer Square that kept its historic character.

Well I’ve been looking for quite some time since I had moved to Denver for an area where I might bring the affection that I had developed for the city of Boston to Denver. A place where we could mark the history of the community and would be a wonderful gathering place for a lot of people from all walks of life, all incomes, and all backgrounds. So then when I was shopping at Goodwill Industries on Larimer Street I did drive by the 1400 block, and I was quite fascinated by the architecture. So then I began to do research about and found that it was in fact the block where everything started.

So, with her friends and neighbors, she began buying older buildings in the Square, often for little more than the price of land they were on. By 1965 her company had acquired most of the buildings on the 1400 block. To give you a sense of how she operated, she announced a press conference for the mayor to endorse her vision—and then she invited the mayor.

It was not always an easy lift, but she was right. By the 1980s Larimer Square was on its way back and a powerful example of what could be accomplished elsewhere. With important advocacy and assistance from our Denver field office, the city then created a Lower Downtown Historic District, put a moratorium on the demolition of historic buildings, and pushed Colorado to pass the third state historic tax credit in the nation. Lightning struck twice. Today, LoDo, as it is now known, is considered the heart of the city, with the lowest commercial vacancy rates around.

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 Union Station in Denver, Colorado | Credit: Shutterstock


Union Station, one of Dana’s more recent projects, has been a centerpiece of LoDo’s revitalization. One of the many business owners who flocked to the area was John Hickenlooper. Before he was Denver’s mayor and Colorado’s governor, he opened up a brewery in LoDo with three friends. They bought space in the historic Mercantile Building in 1988 for just $6 a foot. Within 10 years, their investment was already worth 100 times that.

Today the same preservation-minded spirit is remaking Denver neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Uptown, Highland, and River North. We now have the tools and the data to replicate Denver’s success all over America. And we have an amazing opportunity because preservation isn’t just for grand mansions—it can benefit most every neighborhood. No matter how modest, every community has places that define them and stories to tell. And every city’s future is connected to its past. You can see it right here in Houston.

Annise Parker

For a long time, Houston was known as a “Wild West” of sorts—it avoided municipal zoning plans and grew as happenstance dictated. But that approach has caused some headaches, particularly as this region has continued to grow. The nine counties that make up the Greater Houston area have nearly doubled in population over the past 35 years. Last year the Houston area gained 160,000 new residents—that’s about 6 percent of the total American growth rate. Another 1.5 million are expected just in Harris County over the next two-and-a-half decades. All those people mean more traffic, more infrastructure needs, more environmental and sanitation concerns. To grapple with these issues and many others, Houston’s leadership has embraced preservation’s remarkable potential to remake our neighborhoods.

Much of that is due to the wisdom of Annise Parker, who helped give historic preservation a much stronger footing in the Bayou City. It used to be that, while Houston had historic districts, none of the buildings in them were actually protected in any way. It only meant that 90 days had to pass before they could be torn down. But Annise, who lives in an historic home in the old Sixth Ward, believed more could be done to make preservation work for Houston.

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Children's Museum of Houston

As a city council member, she fought to strengthen protections in the Sixth, and as mayor, she did the same for the rest of the city. Here she is in her own words:

In the midst of a recession we had a lower jobless rate than any other region in America—in fact, we have recovered the jobs that were lost since 2008. We’re the fastest job-creating city in America. We continue to grow. We have the best quality of life. Frankly, we are the best place in America to live, to work, to raise a family. And we’re going to remain that way. We are a well-run city.

As a result of her work, the properties and city landmarks in Houston’s 22 diverse historic districts are now truly protected. Last September, just before Annise left office, the city council adopted Plan Houston, a comprehensive vision for the city’s future that incorporates historic preservation as a key tool. Her successor, Mayor Turner, has continued moving the Bayou City forward.

Millenials

As a result, Houston is poised for even greater success because, right now, the largest and most diverse generation in American history is leading a drive back into cities.

One of the main reasons people are coming back is historic buildings. As one young engineer in Baltimore said: “People want a lot more authenticity—in what they wear, in what they eat, in where they live.” Or, in the words of Houston’s Anne Olson, president of the local Buffalo Bayou Partnership, “Young millennials … don’t come to cities necessarily for jobs anymore. They come for quality of life”—the quality of life older places provide.

And it’s not just about young new arrivals. Preservation is also helping to rejuvenate existing urban communities as well: providing affordable housing, fighting displacement, bringing people together.

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Rick Lowe

You can see it in the inspiring work of Rick Lowe, who you will hear from at our preservationLivability TrustLive tomorrow. Working with other local artists and members of the community, he formed Project Row Houses to renovate and transform 22 shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward so that they could better meet the needs of the neighborhood.

Rick has since brought the same model—fusing historic preservation, art, community service, and revitalization—to North Dallas, to Watts, to New Orleans after Katrina. His work demonstrates how the best preservation projects create opportunities for community residents at all income levels while retaining the local history that ties generations together.

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Project Row Houses | Credit: Associated Press

As we move into the next 50 years of preservation, our focus will be solution-oriented preservation that transforms people’s lives. Lives like Erin Losie, a Marine vet who recently opened a gym with her brother on H Street in Washington, D.C., and saw it become an immediate success. Through the power of preservation, that historic corridor has seen 250 new businesses and more than 3,000 jobs in just over a decade.

Or Elizabeth, a formerly homeless Detroit resident who has found a home in the old Michigan Bell building—an office complex recently reconverted into apartments and a resource center for those in need. Elizabeth is taking GED classes at the Bell to acquire the skills to get back on her feet. “I thank God every day for this place,” she says. “It’s a blessing for me—a roof over my head where I have the opportunity to achieve.”

Solving Problems

There are hundreds of stories like these—people whose lives have been positively transformed by our work. I know you encounter them every day. Preservation is for people, and these stories demonstrate that it is a tool for positive change that our cities desperately need. The beauty of preservation is that one small change can set off a ripple that helps to revitalize an entire neighborhood or city. And one person’s actions can improve the lives of countless American families.

Just look at Jane Jacobs, who stood up against very powerful people to save Lower Manhattan and recalibrated our understanding of what a city should be. She encouraged us to put people first again. Look at Dana Crawford in Denver. Annise Parker, Judge Emmett, Phoebe Tudor, and Rick Lowe in Houston. Tonight’s Crowninshield Award winners, Paula Wallace, in Savannah and Knox Mellon in California. And nearby, longtime preservationist Betty Massey, who’s helped to reshape Galveston. The Dallas Mexican-American Historical League, who are working to save the stories and culture of Pike Park in Dallas’s Little Mexico. Mtamanika Youngblood’s work to revitalize Martin Luther King’s neighborhood of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta.

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The Dallas Mexican-American Historical League

In all of these cases, you can see that the vision of one dedicated person, or group of people, is transforming a city for the better. They are doing it. We all can do it. We can unlock the potential of historic buildings, and, through them, help solve the problems of the present. We can create the foundation for a better future. We can transform people’s lives and enrich our cities as never before. We can make a difference. Thank you.

Stephanie K. Meeks is the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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