The wave of urban renewal as it was known during the 1950’s and 1960’s saw a lot of historic structures torn down. After the fact, many towns realized the importance of these historic structures. Out of this era of urban renewal came the evolution of the historic district. There was a handful of cities that had their own form of historic preservation districts before the 1960’s. The first one being Charleston, South Carolina in 1931. What got the ball rolling was a study done by the Providence Preservation Society that was able to partner with the Providence City Plan Commission to produce a study of the College Hill area: 318 acres and 1700 buildings, including most of the city’s original 17th-century settlement. The resulting 1959 report — College Hill: A Demonstration Study of Historic Area Renewal — forwarded a new intent: “…to develop methods and techniques for a program of preservation, rehabilitation and renewal in a historic area which can serve as a guide for other areas with similar problems.” It was one of the only areas during the urban renewal era to decide to rehabilitate areas instead of clear areas of blight.
To many urban historians, the urban renewal period is what spurred preservationist to take charge in cities and preserve the history that planners were trying to “renew.” Many counter arguments to this point are made in the short blog on this counteracts the point that planners were at fault for destroying historic structures, but they had a major role in developing historic district. Historic Preservation &Urban Renewal in Victoria and Philadelphia summarizes an article in the Journal of Urban History that brings up that point. The plan at College Park in Providence Rhode Island is also an example at how much of a part city planners played in saving large amounts of historic structures.
The quintessential historic district no doubt evolved from the work of preservationist, and was aided in the planning process. In Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States, Brian Greenfield states, “In 1956 the Providence Preservation Society (PPS) became part of a new pro-market preservation movement”. In order to save neighborhoods within College Park the PPS saved buildings by putting them on the realty market, but raised the prices by renovating the buildings back to an idealized historic time. The type of historic preservation which came out of College Hill gave the older historic districts like Boston, more power to enforce its zoning overlays, and soon the historic district was taking whole neighborhoods instead of single houses. College Hill became a blueprint for neighborhood renewal and a way to revitalize cities by both beautifying them, and creating economic development tools.
Private party investment in restoring historic buildings grew rapidly after the College Hill Plan was created. Private investors saw the benefits of historic preservation because it would create an attractive city, one that people would want to come to. Frances Gast wrote about this in A Half-Century of Change on College Hill: Institutional Growth, Historic Preservation, and the College Hill Study. He stated that, “being an attractive city enabled Brown University to recruit the best students.” This if you think about it, is an economic development strategy, especially if those students are to stay in the area after college.
Even though it was good in one way, it could not have been considered sustainable by today’s standards. This College Hill Plan had a negative effect on the African American population that were living in the area—and displaced hundreds of residents. Some see the historic preservation movement as a way to hide the unforeseen urban issues, and push these problems farther under the surface. Professor of Skidmore College, Bob Turner, talks about the dichotomy of historic preservation, is it economic development of gentrification? He talks about how some communities that use historic preservation as an economic development tool, often become “victims of their own success.”
The college hill study, was a blue print for other communities to follow—it allowed cities to identify historic structure and have a means to preserve them. It has evolved into a dichotomy between sustainable and unsustainable, understanding the dichotomy can create better management of historic districts.
The following is a list of blogs that talk about the negatives and positives of historic preservation.
Housing before history- This is an editorial from Crain’s New York Business Review about Manhattans Historic District’s and its lack of ability to provide affordable housing. An estimated 30% of Manhattan is under a historic district overlay. It’s costly to live there and develop there, as a result there has been very little affordable housing options.
Historic preservation concerns halt work on South Side School– This blog posted in the Broward Politics talks about how historic preservation can halt a lot of projects through the zoning codes.
Using historic preservation tax credits to revitalize urban communities in Rhode Island– This blog from the College Hill area is about how Providence is trying to solve the problems caused from its large historic preservation planning.
The College Hill plan taught communities how to incorporate historic preservation into a comprehensive plan. It has also taught us the negative effects of the intent to rehabilitate historic areas. From this information it is possible to create a more sustainable future. The following is a couple of blog links that show how much historic preservation has evolved since the College Hill Study.
Preserving Historic Green Neighborhoods– This blog shows how historic preservation can be directly tied to improving the environment through green buildings techniques. LEED uses historic preservation to incentivize building rehabilitation instead of demolition.
Historic Preservation: Smarter Growth and Better Affordable Housing- This blog promotes that historic preservation and affordable housing should be linked at the hip, and shows the evolution of historic preservation, from the beginnings.