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Making the Case for Historic Preservation 

12-09-2015 17:35

Preservation is something I`m becoming extremely comfortable with, and I`ve come to think of it as a sort of journey. For instance when I go to New York, I plan very carefully and get all my things packed, and I have an itinerary. I take a plane trip, and then I`m on my way to the hotel.

But there`s this one little link in the middle, and that`s the cab ride. At some moment I`ve got to get into a cab and entrust my life to a guy who`s been in the city of New York for about three months, barely speaks my language, and really doesn`t know where he`s going.

And I realize that is a metaphor for development; that I am, in effect, a cabby in the preservation movement.

It`s amazing how true it is. The path to preservation is full of the same kind of horrors that cabbies go through, particularly those who don`t know exactly where they`re going. It`s full of wrong turns and potholes and bad traffic. It`s full of every conceivable obstacle you can run into. And you have to pray every time you enter one of those cabs that you`ve got the smart cabby, the guy who can find his way around, who can find the shortcuts, and who can get you there.

The process of working on historic properties in downtown Los Angeles truly has been full of potholes. We always knew it would be. I can tell you this is the hardest thing I`ve ever done, times ten. It is incredibly rewarding, but unfortunately anything that is going to be rewarding, is also going to be very difficult.

That was certainly the case with the St. Vibiana`s Cathedral. As I became involved, St. Vibiana`s was truly on the ropes. It was physically being torn down on he day that the Los Angeles Conservancy stopped its demolition. We ended up jumping off the cliff on this one and taking it on without a real business plan. But we did know that it would be a crime for it to be torn down and that there had to be a way to save it.

You know, as developers, bankers, and preservationists, we sometimes get caught up in a situation before there is any plan. Some of these projects are true leaps of faith.

You have to believe enough in these buildings to recognize that while you may not be the right person to do it, while you may not have the business community supporting you the way you`d like, and while you may not have all the pieces in place, sometimes you`ve got to jump off that cliff. Sometimes you`ve got to get out there, throw a couple of bucks at something, and pray that after you land the project, then you`ll use your good common sense, your entrepreneurial spirit, and your creativity to make something good happen.

In the case of St. Vibiana`s, that happened. St. Vibiana`s will truly, when we`re done, be the best project I`ve ever done. The California State University, Los Angeles, will be holding performances there, adjacent to it there will be a small hotel, a branch of the Los Angeles public library, and 200 units of mixed-income housing.

So the loss of St. Vibiana`s could have been one of the great bad days in Los Angeles`s history, not unlike how the loss of Penn Station was one of the great bad days in New York`s history. But that day has not only been delayed, but it`s been delayed indefinitely.

I`m constantly surprised by the people who don`t understand how vital preservation is to the ultimate economic health of the city. And yet this city has passed up on the opportunity to save notable buildings a number of times.

In order to change that, you have to convince a group of people-people who really don`t get it-that preservation is about more than good intentions. You must convince them that preservation is part of the economic engine that drives cities, because inner cities are all about architecture. I`m always amazed that people manage to pass that fact by somehow.

You have to put together an extraordinarily complex group of people to make preservation happen. We need to partner with other people continually to begin to get out a message that this isn`t only doable, but it`s vital.

The Los Angeles Conservancy has been an incredible partner in this work. I think it began to change its mode of operation when it finally had a developer that it could count on to work with it. So instead of just trying to stop the demolition of buildings, which is clearly vital, what the Conservancy did was find methods to encourage developers who were of a mind to do this sort of work, and to figure out ways to help them directly.

I already know who the enemies are-the people you have to get through to make this all happen, the people who don`t care about historic preservation. Unfortunately, most of them are developers, and that doesn`t make it very easy.

But it`s the people in the middle, "the undecideds," who are really going to drive this engine. In most situations, for instance, I`m going to make a case for saving a building, someone`s going to make a case for tearing down a building, and it`s going to be someone in the middle who doesn`t have an opinion that we`re going to have to rely on.

And in order to succeed, through our partnerships with the Conservancy and the National Trust, we`re going to have to put together convincing arguments to show people not only that preservation is right, but that it`s economically feasible and that it`s in their best interest. I think it is pretty clear that preservation is right, but just because it`s right doesn`t mean it`s going to happen.

We`re going to keep doing preservation projects because we love what we do, and we`re totally committed to it.

But when I go to a bank, when I go to another developer looking to do a joint venture, when I`m looking for funding, I`m talking to the most cynical human beings on the planet earth. If I don`t show on the bottom line of the document I bring them that this project will make money, make money all day long, and make money better than anything else you could do in that spot, they`re not going to pay attention to me.

So what I must do is prove to them that this is about money ultimately. And while that may be distasteful to you and me, the reality is that we have to win them over. So we`ve got to show them that the economics of the project really works.

Those are the realities that confront us every single day. And they`re incredibly difficult to deal with. I think we`re the right people to do it. But we need more of our kind. We can`t just be concerned with the individuals who care about preservation. We`ve got to be concerned about the people who couldn`t care less.

Working together with local and state preservation groups and dedicated individuals, as well as utilizing the federal government`s tax credit programs, are what will make preservation happen on a regular basis.

And when it does, then one day it will be no big deal to say, "Oh, my goodness. We`ve saved something." That shouldn`t be the big surprise. It should be a big surprise when we haven`t saved something.

Publication Date: Winter 2001


Author(s):Tom Gilmore

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