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Livable Cities and Towns Are Key to Iowa’s Future 

12-09-2015 17:35

In many communities they’re seen as white elephants. Eye sores. Big old buildings that have outlived their usefulness. They’re in the way of progress.

But in Iowa, they are spurring progress. They drive economic development, create jobs, provide affordable housing, contribute to an interesting and diverse building landscape, and attract and keep people downtown. They define and contribute to the identity of communities in a way that only a unique heritage can.

In the Mississippi River town of Burlington, the 1920s Hotel Burlington was past its heyday. The inside looked like demolition had already begun. Falling plaster. Decay. Rot. Rubbish. But walk through the building today and this Mississippi River community anchor is gleaming. If downtown housing is essential to downtown revitalization, Burlington has a new foothold on the future. The Hotel Burlington is now home to 74 housing units, more than half of those designated for low-income residents.

In Bloomfield, a two-story commercial building in a National Register district was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s. Only the walls remained. The city wanted to bulldoze it and build a parking lot. But members of the community stepped forward and fought to save the building. It has now been rehabilitated and is an important anchor on the town square.

In Cedar Rapids, walk into the atrium of the old Witwer Grocery Company Building and you’ll think you’re in an art gallery. This 1945 canned goods factory has been converted to apartments with 67 housing units.

And in Sioux City, the old 4th Street red light district is now an attractive destination. The renaissance began when Aalf’s Manufacturing, maker of blue jeans, decided to restore its five-story warehouse building. This included the reconstruction of its two-story glass storefront. In 1995 the area was placed in the National Register of Historic Places, and with incentives from the city, one by one buildings on the block were restored. Valuations have risen more than 100 percent. Today the district is a popular entertainment area and considered one of Sioux City’s historical and architectural treasures.

Iowa’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit

Iowa lawmakers understood the power of historic preservation when they offered a new resource and incentive in the Historic Preservation Tax Credit. The first 28 projects are expected to produce an increase in local property tax revenues of more than $862,000. Fourteen of these projects are to create 343 housing units.

Consider the Bennett Building in Council Bluffs. Built in 1923, this seven-story building was for many years the largest building in the city. But while its historic facade stood the test of time, its original use as a professional office building did not. It sat empty for years, deteriorated, and became a white elephant.

But as the local newspaper put it, “Something special happened in downtown Council Bluffs.” And that “something special” was driven by Iowa’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit. The Bennett Building is once again a contributing member of the community. Its old offices have been transformed into 30 affordable one- and two-bed-room apartments for senior citizens, with high efficiency furnaces, air conditioning, and modern appliances. The apartments were virtually all leased before renovation was even complete.

Historic preservation has an impressive track record for downtown revitalization, in Iowa and across the country. Commerce Department data compares $1 million spent on rehabilitation and $1 million spent on new construction. It finds rehabilitation:

  • Creates five more construction jobs and three more permanent jobs
  • Keeps $120,000 more in the community
  • Increases household incomes by an additional $107,000
  • Increases retail sales by $142,000, 20 percent more than with new construction.

Rehabilitation and reuse of older buildings allows for growth without pollution and growth without consumption of valuable land. This is also called smart growth, and it favors density and diversity of buildings.

Attracting a New Generation of City Dwellers

Historic preservation is also a catalyst for creating livable cities. Livability may sound like the newest buzzword, but it is increasingly recognized as a factor that will determine which cities will thrive and which ones won’t. As Robert Solow, Nobel Prize-winning economist at MIT, put it: Livability is not some middle-class luxury. It is an economic imperative.

It’s also a hallmark of a Des Moines preservation project, which not only delivered much-needed downtown housing, but also became a learning environment for single moms and young workers seeking employable skills.

The Arlington & Hallett Buildings came within inches of the wrecking ball. But less than a year after their near-demise, a new generation of downtown dwellers is moving into rejuvenated apartments with the smell of fresh paint and the character of age. The project is proof that historic preservation is about the future. In an innovative part-nership between the builder and the trade unions, the crew of carpenters and electricians were young and nontraditional apprentices who will take their new skills to new jobs. The new occupants of the apartments are young Iowans looking for urban living, the very people Iowa is struggling to keep at home.

Economic vitality, attracting and keeping people in Iowa. These are three of Iowa’s priorities, and three priorities in which historic preservation has a powerful role. Our older buildings provide not just affordable housing, but affordable space for the unique, street-level, boutique businesses that are attractive to the highly sought talent of creative workers. These workers rank “authenticity” high among location decision factors.

Just down the street from the Arlington & Hallett Buildings, a National Register building faced an uncertain future just a year ago. The Masonic Temple sat in the path of an important downtown gateway project, designed to lure business investment and compete with suburban office parks. This white elephant, while still in use by the Masons, looked haggard and ugly next to the gleaming new office buildings around it. The city made it clear that its days were numbered. Preservation advocates launched a campaign to save it, with help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest Regional Office.

A year later, with the help of Historic Preservation Tax Credits, the Masonic Temple is being restored to its original beauty, and it has been given a new, important role in the community. It is becoming a cultural center, home to the city’s youth orchestra and other performing groups, while providing boutique retail space for the trendy food and coffee merchants that attract a downtown crowd.

Promoting Economic Vitality in Rural Areas

Historic preservation is not just a tool of Iowa cities. Towns with just a few hundred people are putting preservation to work through Iowa’s nationally recognized Rural Main Street program. Of the 48 communities that have participated in Main Street Iowa since 1986, 19 have populations under 5,000.

Elkader, population 1,465, earned the 2001 Great American Main Street award with an impressive list of economic development accomplishments driven by a historic preservation approach:

  • 39 new businesses and 82 new jobs
  • 99.9 percent occupancy on Main Street
  • 86 building improvement projects
  • 19 building purchases
  • $2.1 million private sector investment in downtown buildings
  • 21,339 volunteer hours

Main Street Iowa has delivered measurable economic impact across Iowa. Since 1986 it has been responsible for 2,221 new businesses, 6,640 new jobs, the renovation of more than 5,000 buildings, and leveraged more than $345 million in downtown investment.

Cities and towns across Iowa are turning to their unique history and historic buildings to create new economy communities, communities attractive to young creative workers, families, retirees, and visitors. In our large downtowns and our small towns, historic preservation is a vital strategy for building a prosperous future.

Publication Date: Fall 2002


Author(s):Tom Vilsack