April 8, 2013

By Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq.

[Author’s Note:  The following is the inaugural article for my newly-launched historic preservation-only website “Historic Preservation 2.0: Preservation For The 21st Century” at http://www.newhistoricpreservation.com/.  The article is also  published in the April 2013 print and online editions of Traditional Building Magazine.]

                                                           

“The Standards are neither technical nor prescriptive, but are intended to promote responsible preservation practices that help protect our Nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources.  For example, they cannot, in and of themselves, be used to make essential decisions about which features of the historic building should be saved and which can be changed.  But once a treatment is selected, the Standards provide philosophical consistency to the work.”  Introduction to Standards and Guidelines.  National Park Service.

On January 25, 2013, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asked the National Park Service (NPS) to conduct an internal review of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program (HTC) to “. . . make sure that we are doing everything we can to work in partnership with local communities, developers and other stakeholders to provide guidance and promote restoration efforts.”

This is welcome news, though as a former Illinois State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) staff architect charged with interpreting the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation (Standards) for the HTC and other historic rehabilitation tax-incentive programs and now as a private practice attorney, I temper expectations.  Governmental reform is rarely a swift or revolutionary process.

Many of historic preservation’s laws and programs are nearly old enough for their own historic designations and are in dire need of rehabilitation.  The public would certainly benefit from a little regulatory tinkering with the HTC program, starting with eliminating application fees and the redundant SHPO and NPS review process.

Many of historic preservation’s laws and programs are nearly old enough for their own historic designations and are in dire need of rehabilitation.

However, meaningful reform includes reforming the way historic properties and communities are able to attract reinvestment capital for business growth, job creation and local economic stability.  This should start by relegating the Standards to their intended role of simply providing philosophical consistency to historic rehabilitation efforts, and not as a de facto historic building code by historic preservation administrative entities.

Hardly changed since their inception in 1977, the Standards comprise a ten-point manifesto of historic preservation’s essential rehab doctrine as enforced by federal, state and local historic preservation regulatory entities.  While philosophical guidance can inform the development of federal regulations with high social and legal aspirations, the vague language of the Standards bars the public from any objective, plain meaning understanding of their text.  Published “Interpretations” of the Standards by the NPS have merely transformed doctrine into dogma.  Though most of the Standards have retained their relevance, some, such as the unloved Standard No. 9, is the product of an outdated 1970s Modernist architectural bias and should be eliminated.

Though most of the Standards have retained their relevance, some, such as the unloved Standard No. 9, is the product of an outdated 1970s Modernist architectural bias and should be eliminated. 

Communities seeking to redevelop their historic properties compete with other communities for a limited pool of private reinvestment capital.  When faced with choices, developers and investors will often chose the more predictable and less risky of those options.  The ambiguous Standards and their unpredictable interpretations by administrative entities can decrease the former, increase the latter and discourage reinvestment in historic properties.

But the solution is simple:  the Secretary of the Interior should support phasing out the Standards . . .


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