In a city like Provo, historic preservation seems like a no-brainer.
But historic preservation is a complicated issue, as this May article from City Journal explains. The article notes that when balancing old and new buildings, there are always tradeoffs:
Historic preservation represents a tradeoff between saving old buildings and making way for new ones. This tradeoff carries economic consequences. By limiting a city’s available square footage, preservation restricts supply. As demand for space increases with a growing population, the limited supply sends prices up.
Of course, that in turn can drive people, businesses, shops, and others into outlying developments where prices are cheaper. Most importantly, the article also points out that citys with no new development become museums.
That phenomenon is especially true in certain European cities. The ones with unified and historic architectural landscapes usually ended up that way because they experienced prolonged recessions where nothing new was built. Later, those cities were discovered by tourists, who now support the local economies. That’s a simplistic explanation, but is visible in small towns like Cesky Krumlov and Rothenburg, as well as large cities like Venice, the quintessential struggling museum city.
By contrast, wealthier and more dynamic cities like London happen to have more architectural diversity and haven’t been afraid to tear down an old building from time to time to make room for a new one.
The City Journal article suggests a cost-benefit analysis when determining if a historic building is worth preserving. That makes sense, though I’d stipulate that there seems to be little value in demolishing old buildings and replacing them with nothing — as happened in Provo with St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church and Hotel Roberts. (Ironically, city leaders are now trying to get a new hotel in downtown. Too bad there isn’t a historic space that could be revitalized for that purpose…) The article notes that a cost-benefit would also have positive and negative tradeoffs:
Cost-benefit analysis may lead to fewer landmarks, but the value of the remaining historic buildings will rise.
This is an important topic for Provo because historic preservation is a hot issue that will likely only get more controversial in the future as revitalization increases property values in the areas with the most old buildings. As that happens, we should remember that we need to preserve our heritage, but we also don’t want to live in a museum.