Action Agenda: A New Approach to Preservation in Legacy Cities—and Beyond

By Special Contributor posted 03-29-2016 16:58


Originally Posted February 11, 2016
By Melissa Jest and Cara Bertron

The excitement was palpable in Newark one evening last December. Stacks of the Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities, a new report from the Preservation Rightsizing Network (PRN) and a broad array of partners, sat on a table outside the Great Hall of 15 Washington, a newly rehabilitated building owned by Rutgers University—Newark.

15 Washington itself played a strong supporting role in the release of the Action Agenda, which advocates for new strategies in reviving America’s legacy cities—older industrial cities that have lost 20 percent or more of their population. Redeveloping built assets, like 15 Washington and the long-vacant Hahne & Co. department store down the street, for housing, commercial and community uses is a cornerstone of those strategies. So, too, are the imagination and partnerships that have revived both buildings.

 Attendees tour the in-progress rehabilitation of the Hahne & Co. Building. In this image an attendee takes pictures of the renderings of the completed Hahne’s building in downtown Newark. | Credit: Anthony Alvarez

“The Action Agenda provides clear steps legacy cities can take to leverage older buildings and local heritage as powerful assets for revitalization,” said Emilie Evans, cofounder of Brick + Beam Detroit, an initiative that connects and supports building rehabbers.

More than 200 people attended the release event. Many came because they believed in the cause; others showed up because they were curious. Though more than half of attendees lived or worked in Newark or New York City, legacy cities such as Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, Buffalo, Baltimore and Philadelphia were also represented.

More than 200 people attended the Action Agenda’s public release, held in the 15 Washington building at Rutgers University—Newark. | Credit: Anthony Alvarez

Kathleen Crowther, president of the Cleveland Restoration Society, traveled east to participate in the event, joining many others from around the Rust Belt and Newark itself to celebrate the Action Agenda launch. "The Action Agenda speaks to strategies that address historically significant yet underutilized buildings in Cleveland and other important American cities," said Crowther. "More importantly, though, it includes strategies that value the social dimensions of our cities."

The Action Agenda’s nine-point framework aims to make legacy cities more equitable, prosperous and sustainable in the face of population loss, structural economic shifts and concentrated poverty. In line with the range of challenges, the Action Agenda’s intended audience goes well beyond preservation organizations. Potential partners include land banks; planners; community organizations; academics; financial institutions; and other organizations and agencies also focused on engaging communities to preserve local stories, capitalizing on existing assets and strategically using limited resources.

National experts and innovative local leaders talk about why preservation is an essential part of revitalizing legacy cities.

David Mann, president of the Lucas County Land Bank in Toledo, Ohio, is one such partner. "Faced with unprecedented economic challenges and property abandonment, legacy cities must seize new tools and new strategies in order to preserve all that makes them special. This Action Agenda is a smart step in that direction,” Mann said.

The release, which underscored the need for new strategies and a strong, multidisciplinary approach, featured five-minute lightning talks by preservationists, developers, artists and urban policy experts; a tribute to the late Dr. Clement A. Price, a preeminent Newark historian and leading national thinker; and a hard-hat tour of the historic Hahne & Co. building, which had sat vacant for more than 30 years prior to redevelopment. When completed, the building will include a full-line grocery store; affordable and market-rate housing; and Express Newark, a major arts program space and incubator conceived and implemented by Rutgers University—Newark in partnership with local arts and community organizations.

Dekonti Mends-Cole, director of policy at the Center for Community Progress, gave one of the lightning talks. | Credit: Anthony Alvarez

The Action Agenda’s key points were first articulated in a 50-person workshop of legacy city leaders and community members in Cleveland in 2014. The final product is the result of two years of collaborative work between preservationists, legacy city advocates and urban policy experts across the country; and it aligns with Managing Change: Preservation and Rightsizing in America, a 2014 report from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The Action Agenda has resonated with practitioners in booming cities and states as well. For example, preservation groups in North Carolina and Washington have contacted the PRN to discuss how the Action Agenda’s overarching ideas—broadening views of preservation, adapting existing tools and policies to meet pressing needs, and encouraging collaboration across sectors—could apply in high-growth cities or struggling rural areas.


The Preservation Rightsizing Network works with legacy cities to preserve local heritage and revitalize the built environment. It provides ways to engage, share best practices and develop new tools to strengthen communities for the future. Download a free PDF of the Action Agenda at the PRN’s website,

Melissa Jest is the manager of the Historic Properties Redevelopment Program at the National Trust and a member of the PRN’s leadership team. Cara Bertron is the chair of the PRN and Real Estate Lab coordinator at SCIDpda. For more information on current PRN projects and upcoming events, contact her at cara.bertron[at]

#ReUrbanism #legacycities #Sustainability #Rightsizing

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