Older Buildings, Livable Cities

By Stephanie Meeks posted 03-20-2015 10:39


National Trust President Stephanie K. Meeks gave the following remarks about livable cities on March 19, 2015, as part of the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Symposium at The Grain Exchange in Milwaukee.


I am here with you in Milwaukee because I want to talk about cities, and specifically how we can move cities forward, making them more dynamic and livable by getting the most out of historic and older buildings.

I also want to tell you about some of the recent research we have conducted to figure out why certain places work, and what can be done to improve those that do not.

It’s no secret that, all across America, cities and city living are making a comeback. Already, 80 percent of Americans live in cities, and that number is increasing. According to the latest census data, the nation’s urban population grew faster than the country as a whole between 2000 and 2010.

What’s more, those flocking to cities are disproportionately younger Americans. A recent report by the think tank City Observatory found that the number of college-educated people between the ages of 25 and 34 living within three miles of city centers has surged by nearly 40 percent over the past 15 years.

This isn’t just happening in places like New York and LA. It is a national phenomenon, happening in cities all over the country—Buffalo, Cleveland, Nashville, Portland, and right here in Milwaukee.

According to census data, eastern Milwaukee—between the river and the lake, from North Avenue south to the Historic Third Ward, including areas like Brewer’s Hill and our location today—and Walker’s Point west of the river together added 3,800 residents between 2000 and 2010. More than three-fourths of these new residents were between the ages of 20 and 34.

Another recent study by City Observatory compared job growth during the recent recession in cities and suburbs across the country, from 2007 to 2011.

It found that the city of Milwaukee grew jobs by 1.4 percent on average per year—a much stronger rate than the city average across the country, even as the four county metropolitan area lost 1.3 percent of its jobs a year.

Thankfully, that Great Recession looks to be behind us now, and newer data looks even more promising for this city.

According to a census analysis released last year based on 2010-2013 estimates: while many of Wisconsin’s rural counties are losing population, Milwaukee is growing faster than any other city in the Great Lakes region, including Chicago.

So what we are seeing in this area conforms to the national trend. But I should say, this growth and revived interest in urban living poses enormous opportunities not just for bigger cities like Milwaukee and Madison, but communities like Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, and Waukesha.

But to really take advantage of these shifts, we need to determine what, exactly, makes a city successful. Why does one neighborhood thrive while one right next door flounders?

Photo Credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Jane Jacobs | Credit: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ-62-137838.

One set of answers was posed by the great urban activist Jane Jacobs 50 years ago, in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

She wrote this book at the height of an “urban renewal” movement that was too often bulldozing richly textured historic neighborhoods to make way for highways and mega-structures, and she argued that older buildings provide critical and necessary space for entrepreneurs and local businesses.

Losing these historic buildings, she argued, meant that cities were being drained of economic opportunity, culture and life. As she put it, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

Well, over the past few years, our research arm at the Trust, the Preservation Green Lab, has been working to put Jane Jacobs’ theory to the test.

And what we have discovered—after conducting an empirical analysis of several cities across the country, block-by-block—is her argument is in fact correct: Incorporating older and historic buildings can and actually does jumpstart the revitalization of communities.

As historic preservationists, you can imagine how happy we were to find out that this is the case! Still, what we found surprised even us.

We all know and sense that people like the character and authenticity of older buildings, but their power is far more than just aesthetic. They are tremendous engines of economic growth, vitality and quality of life.

Last year, we published a report entitled Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality.


The report takes an exciting and in-depth look at three cities: our home of Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Seattle, and highlights neighborhoods in those cities—places that were not such hot spots just a few years ago, but which are working today.

In this report, we looked at the age, diversity of age and size of all buildings—not just historic buildings—in these three cities.

We then used innovative data sources, like cellphone usage patterns, and combined them with more traditional neighborhood surveying techniques, as well as GIS mapping technology to examine how each block performed, according to different economic, social, cultural and environmental performance metrics.

What we found is what Jane Jacobs predicted.

Neighborhoods with a mix of older and newer buildings are more diverse in age, race and income.

They have “hidden density”—more people and businesses per 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.

Let me briefly give you a few examples from the report. In Washington D.C., there is a neighborhood known as the H Street Corridor.

It’s in the Northeast quadrant of the city, located just behind the Union Station train depot, and it’s nationally recognized as a valuable historic place—one of the last historic “riot corridors” from the 1960s.

The corridor is lined with narrow, century-old two- and three-story homes and commercial blocks housing local retailers, restaurants and bars. And, for all the reasons I just mentioned, it is really taking off.

There are a lot more new businesses, women and minority-owned businesses, creative jobs, and non-chain businesses there than in D.C. as a whole.

Forbes ranked it number six on a list of “America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods.” I’m not sure where Forbes learned anything about hipsters, but in this case they’re right!


H Street’s Walk Score—which measures proximity to basic neighborhood amenities such as stores, parks and restaurants—and its population density are also higher than the local average.

And its fine-grained blocks with buildings of various ages support people across the economic spectrum. And they accommodate the ever-changing needs of society—from clothing stores to a performing arts center.

Older, smaller buildings like the ones found on H Street house a greater concentration of creative jobs per square foot, as evidenced by the study’s linkage of business listings to specific blocks.

And according to H Street Main Street, a part of our National Main Street Center network of more than 1,000 communities across the country, the H Street Corridor actually created more than 250 new businesses, and added close to 3,000 jobs, in just over a decade.

Mid-Market in San Francisco is another neighborhood following the same pattern.

Known for many years as a down-at-the-heels area of social service delivery sites and single-room-occupancy hotels, the neighborhood, also known as Central Market, is evolving rapidly to include tech firms, arts organizations and market-rate housing.

The Mid-Market area offers a range of residential rents and is highly diverse in its racial and ethnic makeup. Many low- and mid-rise early 20th century commercial buildings—including theaters, government buildings and hotels—dot the landscape.

A year-round farmers’ market is interspersed with a gritty mix of restaurants and retailers, with a few new businesses catering to young professionals. The area is still in transition, but it is showing us some interesting ways to move neighborhoods in this direction.

Three years ago, for example, San Francisco began offering tax incentives to businesses, such as a payroll tax exemption, as a way to encourage entrepreneurs and those in the creative economy to move into Mid-Market to spur activity. The strategy is working.

Twitter, the big social networking service, fell in love with and moved into an art deco furniture mart building in the Mid-Market neighborhood.  Spotify, a digital music service, and Dolby, the audio specialist, and other creative and tech firms are also now located in historic buildings.


Together, their presence has not only sparked new, high density development on vacant parcels and surface parking lots, but it has also led to an influx of vibrant new small businesses and arts groups.

The numbers really do tell the story. Just a few years ago, Mid-Market had a vacancy rate hovering around 30 percent. This has fallen by a third, and at the same time, the area has had a 21 percent increase in sales-tax revenue.

In Seattle, a 26-square-block area called Pike-Pine is also generating a lot of buzz. In the early 20th century it was known as “auto row” because of the car dealerships and other car-oriented businesses that dominated the area.

Its pre-war buildings—made of solid concrete or masonry, standing three to four stories high and equipped with large garages and bay doors—set Pike-Pine apart from other city neighborhoods and serve as the area’s signature architectural form.

Once the setting for the growing grunge rock scene in the early 1990s, it is now a cultural hive of restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs and is the center of Seattle’s LGBTQ community.

One thing we learned from our report is that older commercial and mixed-use districts have greater population density—the number of people per square mile—than streets with large, new buildings.

This is especially true in Pike-Pine, where the population density is nearly 20,000 people per square mile. The Seattle city average is close to 12,000.


So we were very excited by these results, and what we have found in our work since is that this story is by no means confined to just these three cities. We are seeing the same dynamics at work all across America.

In places like Baltimore and Philadelphia, once vacant or underutilized buildings are now humming with activity. Scores of historic buildings are seeing new lives as brewpubs, coffee shops and offices.

In Detroit, which has been down on its luck of late, historic buildings are now being rehabilitated—a critical first step in transforming barren streets back into thriving places.

After this speech, I will be headed down to Louisville, where our Preservation Green Lab is examining the same trends at work once again. And I was in Los Angeles last month, where the transformation has been really striking.

Sixteen years ago, a partnership between neighborhood groups, city leaders, developers and preservationists led to an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance which lowered regulatory barriers and made it easier—and cheaper—for developers to convert vacant, older commercial buildings for residential use.

This city removed regulatory barriers on eligible projects, provided incentives and helped make it possible to repurpose more than 60 historic buildings as apartments, lofts, and hotels—many of these 20th century buildings which had sat vacant for decades.

As a result, the population in these neighborhoods tripled, and downtown L.A. is a thriving residential and commercial hub with an astonishing 14,000 new housing units in older buildings.

Across America, the story is the same: Old buildings help cities grow, develop and become communities. They are necessary to the civic and municipal fabric, and the key to long-term success.

And to unleash their full potential, they need to be coupled with sound and effective public policies that put vacant and underutilized buildings to work. Policies that can make the difference between stagnant, at-risk neighborhoods and thriving and growing communities.

Since publishing the Older, Smaller, Better report, we have partnered with the Urban Land Institute in many of the cities I just mentioned to help promote policies that unleash the power of historic buildings.

In each case, we are talking with developers, real estate agents, property owners, city officials and community organizations to examine specific problems and obtain specific recommendations tailored for the needs of each city.

Speaking in general terms, we believe property owners should be encouraged to maintain the unique and distinctive facets of their historic buildings, just as is happening here with the restoration of the Mackie building.

In addition, zoning and building regulations should be modernized and more flexible. Regulatory barriers to building reuse should be lifted. And building reuse should be integrated into other policy reforms, like transit guidelines, parking changes and code reforms.

Sometimes when I tell people about the work we are doing, they blink and ask me—aren’t you the preservationists? I thought you enacted codes and regulations, not relaxed them! And I know our movement sometimes has a bad reputation as “the Paint Police.” But that is not at all what we are about.

Preservation is about keeping buildings alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the people and the cities that surround them.

It is about building a bigger, better and brighter future by creating jobs, spurring revitalization and improving the economic health of the nation.

We want to help historic neighborhoods continue to thrive, in a way that includes all residents, by unleashing the power and potential of older buildings.

Downtown Milwaukee, WI |Credit: Istock Photo

When done correctly, it can elevate and accelerate a city’s effort to remake itself. And in Milwaukee, Madison, or anywhere else, we are here to work with you as you help build your future and grow your city.

With that in mind, I want to close today by talking about arguably the most powerful preservation tool in our arsenal, one that is indispensable when it comes to spurring economic growth, and one that I know the panel will be talking about as well—historic rehabilitation tax credits.

Simply put, we would not be seeing the remarkable revitalization happening in cities all across the country right now, without these critical investments.

The federal historic tax credit is the largest investment our government makes to preserve our nation’s historic properties, and since it was signed into law in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, it has been an unqualified success.

Over the past 34 years, it has created more than 2.4 million jobs, leveraged $117 billion in private investment, and transformed more than 40,000 unused or underused buildings for new and productive uses.

What’s more, over the life of the program, $24 billion in federal tax credits have generated more than $28.6 billion in federal tax revenue from historic rehabilitation projects.

Let me say that again: On top of all the other good they do revitalizing our cities, these federal credits return more to the Treasury than they cost. The Treasury makes a $1.25 on every dollar invested.

Even better, 75 percent of the economic benefits of these projects stay on the ground, in state and local communities.

That is why 34 states across the country—including, since 1990, Wisconsin—have moved to further spur private and federal investment in our communities by creating their own state historic tax credits.

In general, states with high-performing tax credit programs bring between $3 and $7 million in federal credits a year back to those states.

After Kansas passed its own state credit, for example, the number of federal credit projects a year jumped from 2.4, on average, to 68.

Quite a jump! In total, each dollar of state tax credit leverages four additional dollars. Put another way $200,000 in state tax credits creates $1 million in investment. You can’t ask for a better return than that.

Another Maryland study has found that every $1 of tax credit generates $8.53 in total economic output, including $3.30 of wages—again, a massive return on investment.

Here in Wisconsin, over the past 14 months, $35.1 million in tax credits have leveraged more than $211 million in federal and private investment expenditures toward nearly 40 historic tax credit projects.

According to the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office, 60 percent of these projects were vacant. So this credit is putting vacant historic properties back into productive use and back on the tax rolls.

And that investment figure doesn’t take into effect the jobs that will be created, the multiplier effects that follow, and the new life injected into struggling neighborhoods and buildings that have long had an impact on a given community.

Interior of the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a succesful historic tax credit project in Milwaukee, WI. | Credit: Matt Jarosz, Historic Tax Credit Coalition

For example, take the 26 historic buildings on the west edge of downtown Milwaukee that once made up the Pabst Brewery. Pabst was a Milwaukee fixture for 150 years, but when the storied brewery shut down in 1996, six once-vital city blocks went dark.

But I’m sure many of you know the rest of the story. Local preservationists pushed hard to protect the buildings, and, in 2006, the Brewery was purchased by the late developer and philanthropist Joseph J. Zilber.

He wanted to make it the next great Milwaukee neighborhood, with a focus on sustainability and historic preservation. Today, that vision is becoming a reality.

The Brewery now includes an apartment complex, office building, Cardinal Stritch University School of Education and Leadership, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Public Health.

And one of the complex’s most historic buildings as of May 2013 has become, through the efforts of Gorman & Company, the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, with 90 individualized and charming suites, and the appropriately named Jackson’s Blue Ribbon Pub.

Six projects in the Brewery complex have benefited from state historic tax credits, including the Brewhouse, which in turn have spurred development of neighboring Pabst buildings as well.

These vacant and underperforming buildings are now back on the property tax rolls. In fact, the assessed value of the Brewhouse has risen 907 percent!

And this isn’t just a story about Milwaukee. It’s happening across the state. One example is the Parkin Ice Cream Company building in Marshfield, Wisconsin, better known as Parkin Place.

Exterior Parkin Ice Cream Company building in Marshfield, WI. | Matt Jarosz, Historic Tax Credit Coalition

Built in 1945 by the Parkin family, who helped to expand and modernize Wisconsin’s dairy industry, it closed in 1966 when the family business was sold, and in the years after fell into disrepair and became almost abandoned.

But in June 2004, three Marshfield couples bought the Parkin building, and with the help of historic tax credits, were able to finance major renovations that retained the original industrial character of the ice cream factory it once was.

Today, Parkin Place hosts the popular Blue Heron Brewpub and the West 14th Restaurant, a commercial kitchen and business office. It has done so well that it is invigorating the entire area.

As Marshfield city planner Josh Miller put it, Parkin Place has, “basically expanded what people perceive as our downtown further to the south because of how well the renovation was done and the popularity of the business. People say this is a cool place to be.”

That is the transformative power of older buildings, once they are given the chance to work for the community again.

Yet another example is Longfellow Lofts in Madison. This architecturally striking school, complete with a crown-like tower and gargoyles, was built in 1917—but the school closed in 1997, and Meriter Hospital, who took the building over, used only portions of it fitfully.

In 2012 the Alexander Company, a nationally active development company based in Madison, bought the building, and thanks to the recent expansion of the state tax credit, was able to convert the building into 40 apartment units, while retaining the building’s original character.

This is the first project completed using Wisconsin’s recently-expanded credit, and Alexander warns that capping it unduly could prevent similar projects, and force investment into neighboring states instead.

Similar stories are unfolding all across the state. The century-old Doerflinger building, once a dry goods store, is now an office hub revitalizing downtown La Crosse.

Or the Oconomowoc School Apartments in Oconomowoc, 55 loft-style apartments for working families, carved from a middle school built in the 1920s, that honor the historical feel of the old school house. This project just won one of our Preservation Best awards.

Exterior Longfellow Lofts, Madison, WI. | Credit: Matt Jarosz, Historic Tax Credit Coalition

All across Wisconsin, these tax credits are helping to renovate and restore the older buildings that are driving economic growth and urban renewal and making city centers the places people want to live, work and play.

Despite all these many benefits I have talked about, the federal tax credit has actually come under threat in recent Congresses, particularly as the tax reform discussion has heated up.

But all the evidence suggests that cutting back the federal credit would be penny-wise and pound-foolish—the Treasury would end up losing money in the deal, to say nothing of all the damage done to our neighborhoods and communities.

If anything, we should work on expanding and improving the federal credit, to lock in greater gains. And we are working with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to help make that happen.

I hope Wisconsin will continue to invest strongly in its tax credit program. As the projects I just mentioned and many more reflect, it is making all the difference.

We have tremendous resources within our reach that will help cities grow faster and be more attractive and affordable. We should use them, to keep this revival moving forward.

Thank you all so much.

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

#ReUrbanism #Sustainability #OlderSmallerBetter #ULI #AdaptiveUse #PreservationGreenLab

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