Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Sustaining Section 106 into the 21st Century: GSA’s Perspective 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 2010, the National Trust for Historic Preservation issued a Section 106 Back to Basics report which identified the General Services Administration (GSA) as setting “the gold standard” in its sophistication and commitment to preservation through staffing and planning. GSA was recognized for transforming its approach from dilatory compliance to being “exemplary in its planning to protect and maintain historic properties.”1 Yet for all of the time, effort, and resources invested in establishing effective preservation policies, processes, and personnel, GSA’s compliance workload has become, in many ways, more burdensome, as the 106 compliance net is stretched to encompass more buildings, larger contexts, and more extensive analysis at a time of increasing federal austerity and heightened concern with regulatory constraints. Many 106 stakeholders have come to assume that the federal government has deep pockets and can support mitigation measures unrelated, or disproportionate, to the impact of anticipated effects.

A risk of widening the compliance net too much is the regulatory backlash evident in recent legislative proposals that could exempt many federal activities from compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). How can federal and non-federal preservationists collaborate to be a step ahead of the changing federal environment, working together to foster effective and efficient compliance where all stakeholders are heard and the best possible preservation outcomes are achieved while preventing regulatory backlash?

Historic buildings contribute significantly to the variety of spaces and settings GSA’s Public Building Service has to offer its customers. GSA takes pride in a public building legacy that includes custom houses, courthouses, post offices, border stations, and federal agency offices across the United States and its territories. More than one-fourth of GSA’s inventory, or 478 buildings, is listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the past three decades, GSA’s stewardship program has evolved in step with a maturing preservation profession worldwide. The emergence of the profession enabled GSA to raise its professional standards as the supply of experienced preservation design, planning, and conservation specialists expanded to meet the needs of federal, state and local agencies implementing the NHPA and programs and regulations spurred by the Act. GSA project teams now benefit from direct access to a nationwide network of subject matter experts whose abilities include negotiating and problem-solving skills, as well as a sophisticated understanding of preservation theory and practice.

GSA’s federal preservation officer oversees a national preservation program that supports 11 regional preservation officers proximate to where projects and actions affecting historic properties are initiated and carried out. Through monthly conference calls, interactive annual training, and “on call” support, GSA has had an opportunity to identify emerging trends and collaborate with its regional programs on response strategies.

GSA regional preservation program staff interact regularly with project managers, facilities staff, leasing specialists, asset managers, and professionals who handle disposal of unneeded or excess federal real property, cultivating collaborative relationships and raising the expertise of employees whose work may affect historic buildings.

Leadership as well as frontline employees share an awareness of GSA’s ability to contribute to the vitality of places where it does business and its global responsibility to conserve finite natural resources. This broadened awareness and collaborative organizational philosophy have contributed to many Section 106 triumphs. By and large, the process allows community concerns to be heard and seriously considered. A recent example is GSA’s historic border inspection station in San Ysidro, Calif. In response to community interest, new inspection lanes needed to improve traffic flow were reconfigured so the picturesque Spanish Colonial Revival custom house could be reused as a welcome center.

Section 106 consultation fosters cooperative relationships that bring federal, state, and local governments together for better preservation outcomes. In Mobile, Ala., a small Greyhound bus station, the site of mob violence that galvanized the civil rights movement in 1961, is now part of GSA’s expanded federal courthouse. The station reopened to the public in 2011 as the Freedom Riders Museum, under a long-term lease to the State of Alabama.

At the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Washington, D.C., Section 106 consultation played a major part in maximizing the reuse of historic buildings in the property’s redevelopment as the consolidated headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. Aided by cooperation between GSA and the District of Columbia, along with cutting-edge technology that simulated design and mitigation alternatives, significant new construction has been carefully sited and configured to preserve a treasured cultural landscape.

In Grand Junction, Colo., Section 106 consultation led to cooperation between GSA and the city to create energy-saving opportunities enabling GSA to maintain a federal presence and preserve the historic character of the Wayne Aspinall U.S. Courthouse, with the target of becoming GSA’s first net zero building, one that generates as much energy as it uses.

Being an effective preservation voice within a mission-focused organization requires a strong grasp of GSA’s internal business and customer agency requirements to advocate for alternatives that meet those federal needs as well as preservation goals. It requires access to expertise for generating preservation options and effective communication to build on past successes. Building internal support often requires proving that mission goals can be accomplished through preservation alternatives that may not have emerged in a project’s initial planning or may not appear realistic, compared to more familiar approaches. Sustained stewardship success depends on persistent vigilance and continual communication with agency leadership and encouraging staff and client agencies to consider flexible approaches for meeting current standards and agency space requirements. Given the constant concern with public scrutiny that is sometimes rooted in skepticism or hostility toward the federal government, GSA preservationists must negotiate solutions that are defensible both within and outside the agency, solutions that are reasonable long-term investments for American taxpayers.

For the foreseeable future, preservationists must learn to adapt to a new federal paradigm defined by economic austerity and the common goals of sustainability, wise use of resources, and streamlining work processes to do more with less. It will also require prioritizing among competing stewardship goals to make the best use of limited federal resources, working toward consensus on what matters most.

Rethinking Effects on Surrounding Buildings

One obstacle to achieving these important goals is a trend toward casting a very wide compliance net. This approach assumes that all alterations within a historic area, including changes to non-historic structures, will have adverse effects on surrounding historic buildings, whether that is the case or not. As a result, SHPOs will sometimes push for costly documentation of historic buildings even where effects are negligible. This tendency diverts limited resources to interpretation disproportionate to a project’s impact. A related source of concern is a trend toward widening the area of potential effects (APE) to include all historic buildings within sight of the government-controlled property, regardless of the type or extent of the undertaking. As responsible federal stewards, GSA needs to advocate reasonable APEs that accurately reflect anticipated effects and degrees of impact.

Assessing Mid-century Buildings

Modern-era buildings present a special challenge because major alterations are often necessary to address their performance deficiencies. Changes should be determined adverse only when they will affect character-defining qualities of a bona fide historic building or district, and mitigation should be proportionate to the project’s impact.

Another obstacle to effective compliance is widely varying professional judgment on eligibility assessments for buildings of the recent past. Increasingly, GSA is confounded by the wide range of opinions on the eligibility of its modern buildings, which run the gamut from “why would you waste my time assessing it at this young age” to rejecting findings of non-eligibility by experts grounded in the application of criteria exception G—which stipulates that a property achieving significance within the past 50 years is eligible for the National Register if it is of exceptional importance. Many of these opinions completely disregard the age of the building and broadly stretch interpretations of what constitutes the necessary threshold of exceptional significance under this criteria exception. The eligibility standards for buildings of the recent past have been widely debated for some time and the debate continues.2

Because many modern-era federal office buildings stood out at the time of their construction as the largest, most differentiated, or most incongruous building on Main Street, the factors of size and differentiation from surrounding buildings have come to be regarded as eligibility triggering values. An assumption that large, non-contextual buildings inherently had a major impact on their environments and are therefore all significant makes preservationists appear extreme and indiscriminate by taking a position in which virtually all federal buildings would be treated as historic. Ironically, when these same types of buildings were first built, they were viewed as intrusions in otherwise historic areas. Sweeping judgments of universal National Register-eligibility for modern federal buildings provide fodder to the criticism that if everything is significant, then nothing is significant. To remain credible, preservationists must be discerning in their collective significance assessments of large classes of resources within their appropriate contexts, whether national, state or local.

A byproduct of inadequate expertise and organizational support among some federal agencies has been reliance upon compliance oversight agencies, particularly state historic preservation officers (SHPOs), to direct the consultation process. In response, many SHPOs have assumed primary responsibility for making eligibility and effect determinations and for crafting agreement documents and mitigation terms. However, National Historic Preservation Act provisions clearly point to an original intent of shared federal and state responsibility.

To be proactive on evaluating its own large mid-century building inventory, in 2003 GSA commissioned a modern-era context study and developed a tool for assessing the eligibility of GSA buildings constructed during the 50s, 60s and 70s. It has nominated a substantial number of exceptionally significant modern-era buildings to the National Register and has a strong pool of internal peer professionals and consultant experts specializing in buildings of the recent past to turn to for initial and in-depth eligibility assessments.

GSA’s mid-century modern federal office buildings also present major sustainability and investment challenges. On one hand, because of their large amount of square footage and workspace layout flexibility, modern-era buildings are inherently favored for retention and reinvestment. But improving their performance to meet current standards can require disproportionate investment that limits the availability of reinvestment funds for GSA’s smaller monumental historic buildings. The tradeoff of setting a high preservation standard for modern-era buildings is above-market reinvestment costs that reduce the pool of funding for needed rehabilitation and restoration of character-defining features in GSA’s older historic buildings—buildings already at a disadvantage competing for project funds because they cannot generate the rental revenues of the larger more modern buildings. Practical solutions for improving the performance of GSA’s mid-century federal buildings will help to ensure that reinvestment funds are also available to keep the government’s monumental public building legacy viable.

Rewarding Strong Compliance Records

A third obstacle to cost-conscious compliance is the insufficient benefits for agencies who strive to comply with the spirit, not just the letter, of the law. Rather than simplifying compliance by the book for agencies with strong compliance track records, increasing emphasis is placed on programmatic agreements, program alternatives, and other special procedures requiring extensive negotiation and administrative effort. It is difficult for federal agencies to justify an investment in expertise, research, or design alternatives on the basis that proactive compliance saves time and money, if it isn’t necessarily so. An alternative is an increase in agencies seeking legislative exemptions for individual federal actions, and, in time, for broader categories of federal actions, as pressure to seek legislative relief continues.

For Section 106 to endure as a meaningful federal process, agencies need incentives other than the threat of litigation to invest agency resources in compliance programs, education, and expertise. Above all, the consultation process needs to benefit agencies that go the extra mile to integrate stewardship into their business practices. The 106 process should be streamlined to allow federal agency personnel, federal preservation officers, and others meeting DOI professional criteria to make appropriate professional judgments on eligibility and effect. The level of effort required for routine compliance should reflect an agency’s compliance track record.

Federal and nonfederal preservationists have a shared interest in a 106 process that promotes preservation. Toward that end, GSA has made an earnest effort to build and sustain a well-integrated preservation program. GSA invites fellow preservationists in state programs and communities across the nation to participate in the process and work with it to bring about positive preservation outcomes. American taxpayers and communities large and small benefit when consulting parties come to the table in good faith to help the government meet all of its obligations. FJ'


1 National awards recognizing GSA policy and process achievements include the 2002 National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Leadership Award for Civic Leadership; the 2003 National Trust for Historic Preservation John H. Chafee Trustee’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Policy, for GSA’s Legacy Vision; a 2004 Presidential Citation from the Association for Preservation Technology International for GSA’s wise management and the encouragement of creative design that retains the historic character of the nation’s built heritage while meeting contemporary codes and standards and creating exemplary workplaces;” the 2008 National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award for GSA’s Modern-Era Buildings Initiative; the 2010 American Institute of Architects Thomas Jefferson Award to Chief Architect Les. Shepherd for Design Excellence in Public and Government Architecture; and the 2011 University of Notre Dame School of Architecture Henry Hope Reed Award to GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert A. Peck for Commitment to creating and preserving public architecture.

2 In 1995, the National Park Service hosted its first Preserving the Recent Past conference, followed by Preserving the Recent Past II in 2000, the Fall 2005 issue of Forum Journal, Preservationists Debate the Recent Past, and this issue on Section 106.

Section 106 Uncensored:The Insider’s Perspective
Table of Contents

Introduction by Stephanie Meeks
Section 106: Responding Successfully to New Challenges by Milford Wayne Donaldson, FAIA
Returning Section 106 to Its Populist Roots by Don Klima
The Decision Maker’s Guide to Section 106 by Amos J. Loveday, Jr.
Sustaining Section 106 into the 21st Century: GSA’s Perspective by Beth L. Savage
Anticipatory Demolition: Tool for Protection or Paper Tiger? by Andrea C. Ferster
Statewide Organizations’ Involvement in Section 106 by Kiersten Faulkner
Section 106 from the SHPO Perspective by Craig Potts
Section 106 in Indian Country by Alan Downer
Wilson Bridge—A Section 106 Adventure in Saving Indiana’s Historic Bridges by Paul Brandenburg
Back to Basics—Directions for Change in Implementation of Section 106 by Leslie E. Barras

Publication Date: Winter 2012


Author(s):Beth L. Savage