Forum Journal & Forum Focus

In Historic Boston, Preservation Is a Way of Life 

12-09-2015 17:35

In some places historic preservation is a passing fad. Old buildings are trendy for a while and then they`re replaced with more contemporary styles of architecture and design.

But that`s not the case in Boston. For us, preservation is a way of life.

Boston is a 400-year-old city that`s rich in history. It`s one of our greatest assets, and we know that the best way to keep our city growing is to preserve the best of the old and blend it with the new.

In Boston, our martyr for preservation was an entire neighborhood - a place of old brick buildings that people would love to be in today. Boston demolished the old West End neighborhood next to downtown in 1959. They cleared out the low-income people who called it home and erased that part of the city`s history forever. They saw the old buildings as problems and not possibilities. They thought that creating bigger modern buildings would make Boston a better place. And so the West End was cleared for a new sterile collection of towers in a brick park.

Boston`s preservation movement organized so that other historic neighborhoods wouldn`t come down. It`s no accident that Boston looks and feels the way it does. We protect our past and reuse historic buildings because we`re proud of them. We value them. We`re not willing to let them go if we can avoid it, and those values translate into policy decisions at City Hall. The City Landmarks Commission and seven historic district commissions are vigilant in their protection of our historic resources.

City`s Preservation Strategy Shows Results

When it comes to managing development, a city has two kinds of tools: the carrot and the stick. The carrot represents all the incentives we can dangle out there to get the private sector interested - from offering tax incentives and other kinds of gap financing, to maintaining infrastructure and increasing city services to reduce the amount of risk in a location.

But government has to lay down the rules, too. Public powers must be used to set priorities. In order to tap a city`s history to its fullest potential, investors must be steered down that road, and cities should forego demolition schemes or less desirable new projects that compete for the same investment dollars.

A couple of years ago, a prominent business leader in Boston came to me because he wanted to tear down a handsome and fully occupied century-old office building in the heart of our historic financial district. In its place, he wanted to put up a brand new office tower. I told him, "No thank you."

Boston`s downtown has one of the lowest office vacancy rates of any downtown in America. We could use the extra square footage, but there are ways to make room for economic growth without letting go of our history. I have instead channeled new development to areas of the city like South Boston with its vast empty lots. In fact, putting a city`s history to productive use is a smart economic development strategy.

Boston`s neighborhoods are healthier today because of historic preservation. Healthy neighborhoods are what attract investment to our city. We`ve created 120,000 new jobs between 1992 and 2000. Our quality of life is getting better. Our unemployment rate continues to be one of the lowest in the nation. And our crime rate is at the lowest level in decades.

But things weren`t always so good.

"Main Street" Successes

Back in the 1970s, you would have seen a different story: the effect of competition from the malls, the impact of the riots in the 1960s, the fear and flight of urban residents to the suburbs, disinvestments from redlining and arson, and the long-term effects of urban renewal disasters like highway projects that demolished cities in order to save them.

Five years ago, the National Trust and I launched the first citywide Main Streets Program. As a city councilor in the 1980s, I saw how small towns were using preservation to jump-start their local economies. They used the National Trust`s Main Street Program to save their old buildings, preserve their local economies, and build up a stronger sense of community. I saw what the program could do for one of our neighborhoods, Roslindale Village.

Today Boston`s Main Streets Program is thriving in 19 local business districts. As of summer 2001, we had restored or renovated 217 storefronts, creating 357 new businesses and more than 2,500 jobs. We restored historic buildings like Palladio Hall in Roxbury and Minot Hall in the South End Main Streets district. Those projects helped encourage more residents to live in those districts, and restored neighborhood pride and hope.

When we preserve and invest in a Main Street district, we need to think about the long-term effects. Preservation has a domino effect that can improve employment, housing, schools, and the quality of life in a neighborhood. The skeptics said we couldn`t bring change to certain parts of the city. But we are proving them wrong. All over Boston, we are rebuilding our neighborhoods.

Over a year ago, nearly 1,600 people from across the country came to Boston for the National Town Meeting on Main Street. Boston was the perfect backdrop for this conference. Everyone wanted to know about Boston`s success stories. I hope that each participant learned that every city in America has the opportunity and choice to preserve its own Main Streets. It`s not a matter of getting more money. It`s about investing those dollars in a smart, creative way.

For every dollar spent in a Main Streets district, 60 cents is reinvested in that neighborhood. Compare that to a big-box retailer like Wal-Mart, which invests only six cents for every dollar back into the neighborhood. So when we preserve the best of our past and hold on to our neighborhood character, we can create new opportunities for an entire community.

Making Urban Living Desirable and Affordable

As many of you know, urban renewal created some of our nation`s ugliest housing developments, and Boston was no exception. But we`re getting rid of those housing complexes and replacing them with new townhouses that fit the traditional scale and feel of the neighborhood. One is Orchard Gardens, and another is Mission Main. By getting rid of those neighborhood eyesores and creating buildings that people want to live in, we are generating new growth and neighborhood pride.

Housing is a top priority. One of Boston`s biggest problems is that we are land starved. So we have to be very careful about how we fill in vacant lots and how we rehab our buildings. In Boston, we are using preservation to help create more homes that working people can afford. We`ve cut the number of abandoned houses in half by working with property owners to get them going.

All across the city we are saving older building so that hard-working families can live in Boston during the good times. We turned a 1921 office building in Chinatown into affordable housing using a preservation grant and an $800,000 historic tax credit. We converted a 1904 red brick school building in the Italian North End into affordable housing for seniors. We restored the old piano factory for artist studios. We created the Grandfamilies House in Dorchester.

We have to use creative ways to keep urban living desirable without pricing people out. We don`t want cities for only the very rich and very poor, with no middle class. To help maintain the income diversity in our neighborhoods, we have many different Home Owners Assistance Programs: Home Center, Homebuyers Programs, and we have a list of city-owned property for sale.

The residency requirement for Boston`s city employees has helped stabilize our neighborhoods. More than 18,000 people work for the city. And even when they leave their jobs at City Hall, they remain in their neighborhoods. They know that Boston is a great place to work, live, and raise a family.

We dangle a carrot to get property owners to help stabilize their neighborhoods and preserve our city`s aging housing stock. Boston`s Historic HomeWorks Program does a great job helping people rehab homes that are 50 years old and older. We provide grants of up to $7,500 for income-eligible residents who repair the exterior of their homes in historically sensitive ways.

Since October 1998, 165 houses have been restored, and another 20 are expected to be completed this fall. Every project inspires neighbors to do their part too. It creates a domino effect across the entire neighborhood and house-by-house a neighborhood begins to shine. Every renovated house reduces crime, improves an entire block, and provides a much needed home to another family. A little preservation can bring new life and investment into a neighborhood.

A Long-Term Vision

We`ve learned our lessons from urban renewal. We know that we can`t just demolish our history and then put something up that doesn`t help our city. And today, Boston is still trying to stitch our city back together. We`re tearing down the old highway that cuts through six neighborhoods and cuts downtown off from Boston Harbor. It is the most exciting urban redevelopment project happening in any American city today. When it`s completed in 2005, for the first time in over 50 years, Boston will once again be connected to the water`s edge.

If we`ve learned anything over the last century, it`s that quick fixes to complex urban problems cause more harm than good. If we want to do what`s best for our city`s future, then we have to think long-term. We have to save our history for the people who will come after us, and we have to have the patience and the humility to work toward our goals one building, one block, one neighborhood at a time.

Publication Date: Fall 2001



#SustainableCommunities #taxincentives #ForumJournal #MainStreet

Author(s):Thomas Menino
Volume:16
Issue:1