BY ERIC WHEELER
Nationally known historic preservation advocate Donovan Rypkema, returned to Portland for a presentation on “The Remarkable Economics of Preservation” on Wednesday, September 18 in the historic St. James Lutheran Church located in the South Park Blocks. Rypkema's talk was the first of the fall season of programs sponsored by the Architectural Heritage Center. This is the most recent of a series of Rypkema's visits to Portland; he last appeared here in May of 2008.
An unabashed partisan for historic preservation, Rypkema has been preaching his gospel of “protect, preserve and reuse” historic buildings for over thirty years. A trained economist and real estate consultant, Rypkema framed his argument for historic preservation on a variety of economic analyses. His fast paced and data laden power point presentation hammered home four main points that link preservation with economic vitality:
1) Jobs – more jobs and higher paychecks when old buildings are rehabbed as opposed to tearing down and building new.
2) Property Values – neighborhoods with historic designation, especially at the local and most restrictive level, show higher rates of appreciation than comparable historic neighborhoods that are not designated.
3) Heritage Tourism – a rather new economic driver for many cities, this initiative brings in money from out of state, encourages new businesses and adds to state and local tax bases.
4) Environmental – the “greenest” buildings are ones that already exist; it takes 10 to 80 years for energy efficient new construction to offset the “embedded energy loss” of razing an old building.
These core themes are familiar to those who have previously known of Rypkema's decades-long crusade for historic preservation. Without a doubt, Donovan was preaching to the choir at St. James Lutheran Church the other night. Perhaps that is why he felt emboldened to admit that the most important reasons for historic preservation are “cultural, community and spiritual values” and that “economics is the least important”. He knew that he was speaking to a mostly graying crowd of preservation partisans and not realtors, builders and developers. Needless to say, his candor was well received.
In addition, Rypkema waded into the topic of LEED certification, an issue that has gotten him a mixed response from architects and others in the sustainable growth community. He has strongly criticized the concept of replacing existing pre-World War II buildings with LEED certified new construction as an excuse for the destruction of historic properties. He gored another sacred cow of the New Urbanism, high density, by stating that the vigorous pursuit of high density residential construction by city governments often ignores historic preservation and may not make for a truly livable neighborhood. Rypkema declared that “density at a human scale is the REAL sustainable policy.” He also bemoaned the fact that too often historic preservation is given short shrift by urban planners, declaring that “Smart Growth without historic preservation is stupid growth.”
Rypkema noted with approval that real estate listings in many cities now identify a “walkability rating” indicating a cultural shift away from sprawl and back to higher density urban living. Noting another economic paradigm shift in employment opportunities, he stated that often “jobs follow people” to a less automobile-dependent and more culturally dynamic city, implying the attraction of a mostly intact historic architectural fabric. Another memorable quote of Rypkema’s was that one “cannot build new and rent cheap,” suggesting economic as well as community considerations for preservation. Too often, he stated, new construction drives out existing businesses and residents from historic and newly “gentrified” areas. He also emphasized the importance of designation of National Register districts and not just individual properties, thereby creating some level of recognition/protection for the entire neighborhood and not just isolated buildings.
Perhaps one of the most telling moments of the evening came with a question raised by a beleaguered city landmark commissioner from a neighboring city who wondered why all of the powerful economic arguments developed by Rypkema were not more persuasive in the debate over historic preservation. To frame Rypkema’s response, I am going to reference a comment he made last November in Spokane at the National Historic Preservation Conference and was recognized for his career-long efforts for historic preservation. He noted that the award was for his lifetime “contribution,” not his lifetime “achievement!” An important distinction, indeed, in which Rypkema recognizes the continuing challenges to the historic preservation movement. He declared that historic preservation is a long, tough fight and there are victories and defeats.
In my opinion, there are strong, imbedded and continuing economic forces, summed up in real estate economic terms as “highest and best use,” that work in opposition to historic preservation. Many times, private property rights are given more weight than community rights in conflicts over the preservation of historic buildings. Also, short-term financial considerations often trump the intrinsic “cultural, community and spiritual values” that Rypkema mentioned at the beginning of his talk, when he declared that “truthfully, economics is the least important” value in historic preservation. Recognizing that many government and private interests do not agree with that assertion, I applaud Donovan Rypkema for his candor and his many years in the trenches, fighting the good fight for our historic built environment. I only wished that Rypkema would have offered more examples of preservation successes in Portland during his talk, but his message was well received by the attentive and supportive audience.