Has Historic Preservation Gone Too Far?

San Antonio now has 27 historic districts and over 2,000 individually designated landmarks.  The first historic district in Texas is also the oldest in our city: the King William Historic District, dating from 1967.  The idea of these districts is that we should protect historic structures and that makes sense.  There are hundreds of structures in our city that warrant protection due to their history or unique character.  

Preservationists have been fighting to save historic buildings for decades.  Inarguably, the loss of many classic buildings that are now ugly downtown parking lots is a tragedy.  But, in our remorse for past wrongs, have we swung too far in the opposite direction?  At what point is our zeal to protect every old structure through the proliferation of historic districts costing more than it benefits?  Would it really be a loss to give up on some of those when circumstances warrant?

If you drive through San Antonio’s historic districts there are countless structures in these districts that are, in reality, nothing special.  No famous people stayed in them.  They have little to no architectural significance.  No one includes them in books on the greats of architecture.  One old house looks much the same as the next thirty on the same block — all built in Queen Anne or Victorian or Edwardian or some mix of these styles.  

In our historic districts, every property is considered “conforming.”  This means that they are all presumed to have sufficient integrity and features the contribute to the overall character of the district.  A structure can be called non-conforming but that requires review and approval of the 11-member Historic Design Review Commission (HDRC).  De facto, if you own an “old” structure inside of one of the multitude of historic districts, the property is “historic” no matter its true contribution to our community or cultural significance until you prove otherwise. 

For those of us who have lived in or near old buildings, it’s clear that they were designed for people in a world that has changed.  For example, the plumbing in many of them was built when cast-iron was the only option.  The breeze was the only air conditioning available, so we have homes filled with often giant sized, inefficient single-pane wood windows.  Many old homes have exterior wood or porches.  At best, exposed wood requires frequent repainting.  At worst, homeowners have to continually deal with wood rot in our humid climate.

The most recent example of preservation that hurts the broader community is my former next-door house at 118 Cedar.  Yes, the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) should never have purchased that home without a removal or demolition plan that had buy-in from the HDRC.  However, in an era when modern middle/elementary schools have 20+ acre campuses to support modern needs like computer labs or up-to-date kitchens, the greater good is for Bonham Academy to have enough room to grow.  This would mean either moving or demolishing this structure.  Yet preservationists are attempting to shoehorn this dilapidated home into a use that is hugely more expensive than relocation.  We should spend that money on improvements to the Bonham campus for the benefit of our children.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Chicago is a city long unhindered by protecting structures not adequate to serve the needs of the residents.  Instead of forcing people into 1880s era buildings, often those structures have been replaced with modern architecture that is amazing and also functional for the residents.  Yes, there are examples of preserved historic architecture around in Chicago but there are a multitude of structures that better support modern life and ambitions efficiently.  Many 1890s buildings were demolished in Chicago were replaced by the modern architectural masterpieces cherished today in the decades since.

Locally, we can look at the hottest area for development in San Antonio, River North.  There, the Pearl has sparked redevelopment of this area where developers can choose to renovate historic structures where it makes sense and start anew where it doesn’t.  The Pearl’s buildings work for people today.  The contrast of River North to the commercial area around King William is stark: While dozens of restaurants and shops are sprouting up in or near the Pearl, innovation has been a trickle in the Southtown area.  If you’re a shop owner or entrepreneur, you follow the customers and they are voting in favor of River North, which isn’t slowed by the hassle and risk of dealing with preservation efforts.

Ultimately, this discussion moves to the most common misconception regarding development: that structures and buildings are what makes a “community.”  We continue to build theaters, performing arts centers or stadiums in order to make culture.  We build “technology incubators” to enable business much like we build birdhouses to attract birds.  Libraries presuming that will educate our population.  But, people don’t act like birds.  On the contrary, buildings are a second or third order component in building community.   

It is people and their relationships that are the only true critical path to the creation of a vibrant community.  A mental experiment can help test this: what happens to a community if you remove the people?  No community.  Take away the buildings?  Communities can still exist.  It’s not the existence of lovely antique structures that will fosters great communities but the development of structures that serve modern needs and facilitate the types of activities and interpersonal connections that modern people enjoy.

But, historic districts have proliferated for a misguided economic incentive:  it is perceived to increase property values.  But at what true cost?   If you ask people who’ve remodeled historic structures, the ugly truth emerges: it’s more expensive to renovate than build anew.  This difference can be 50% or even 100% more.  The reason is there are always unknown problems once you dig into an old house.  One historic property I own has had three different plumbing systems cobbled together.  In renovating, you’re forced to work around relatively inefficient and possibly ancient household technology.  So, the argument that historic preservation is more “green” is often not true.  

In addition, the higher cost of too much preservation pushes out precisely the type of creating/innovating/artistic folks that the districts supposedly attract.  How many full-time artists or entrepreneurs can afford to move to their efforts to King William now?  They can’t.  As evidenced by the work of people like Richard Florida and repeated by the leadership of our City, those are precisely the type of people that drive vibrant communities and we need to attract to make San Antonio a top tier city.

Ultimately, we must look at what’s paramount when approaching preservation:  The maximum happiness of our people and community.  Let’s not hold back progress to save structures just because they’re old and from a time that we now find fashionable.  Life changed from decades ago.  Just as we rid ourselves of dirt roads in favor of asphalt, we shouldn’t let force ourselves into saving every structure just because it’s old and could be beautiful provided we dump enough money into them.  

Michael Girdley