The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported on Salt Lake City’s struggles to balance historic preservation with development. Apparently, the issue came up when homes in the Yalecrest neighborhood were being torn down and neighbors tried to halt the process by obtaining a historic designation.
When the Yalecrest community council sought in 2009 to create a new historic district, it was as though the Hatfields and McCoys had invaded the quaint neighborhoods of tudors and bungalows. What began as a heartfelt effort to save the ambiance of Yalecrest in the wake of a spate of tear-downs and ensuing monster houses escalated into a nasty feud pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Whatever happens, the situation illustrates the challenge many cities, including Provo, face as they try to balance the old and the new.
It also illustrates one major problem with the debate over historic structures: we’re mostly concerned with preserving existing buildings, when instead we should be equally interested in erecting potential new ones. Or said another way, we should be as outraged when someone throws up a cheap, shoddily designed building as we are when a beautiful old building comes down. Development is ultimately inevitable but horrible buildings are not.
Consider: if a neighborhood functions properly — attracting new residents, increasing property values, etc. — the pressure to replace old buildings increases. Take, for example, Provo’s pioneer neighborhoods; as they gentrify and acquire more monetary value, more people will want to build more structures in them. The demand for land increases while the supply is used up.
That means losing buildings, like this old-but-not-officially-historic one on University Ave in Provo. And as I indicated here, stalled redevelopment prices people out of neighborhoods and drives investment elsewhere.
I love old buildings, but considering the challenging economics of historic preservation — as well as the need to improve many neighborhoods by adding density — I don’t expect every old building in Provo to be around forever. In other words, we should expect to lose some older buildings because if we don’t it means the demand for local real estate is low.
However, there are a couple of up sides to this process. First, cities can be judicious in choosing which structures to preserve. I can think of several properties in Provo that are either so run down or so poorly located that despite their age and apparent charm they’d represent the wrong battles to choose in the struggle over historic preservation.
The second ray of light is that the process of building historic structures doesn’t have to be over. It shouldn’t be over. Though many buildings erected today are lightweight and won’t last, there’s no reason historic neighborhoods can’t replace crumbling, less-than-historic structures with ones that will survive for hundreds of years.