“Oh, I cannot disapprove! I can only deplore it.” Leslie Howard, portraying “Pimpernel Smith.”
"Oh, I cannot disapprove! I can only deplore it." Leslie Howard, portraying "Pimpernel Smith."
The Kansas Legislature is currently in session, as if we didn't have enough to fret over. Two bills are being considered early on, aimed at elements of the state historic preservation law. I have made a career out of reinventing historic buildings, of course, so I think that is something to fret over!
The first proposal (HB 2118) would repeal the state "environs" review process, which currently enables the community and the state to jointly review changes to buildings within 5,000 feet of registered historic properties. The reasoning is that it protects the historic character of the historic building. The reality is that it also protects the investment of the historic property owner.
When you invest scads of money into repairing a building you want to protect that investment, and it isn't like investing in gold or stocks. If you and your neighbor each had a pound of gold (and I wish you did, too!), the value of the gold depends on the marketplace, and what either of you does with your pound of gold won't change the world market price.
On the other hand, if you sell your gold and spend it fixing up your house, and your neighbor decides to sell his gold and spend the money breeding pot-bellied pigs, the local real estate market will squeal! That is why we have zoning laws.
The other proposal (HB 2089) would allow municipalities to opt-out of the environs review process and set up its own, parallel programs. The intention is to keep historic buildings from impeding economic development, as if Old Town in Wichita and Downtown Lawrence are horribly impeded.
This proposal has come up before, but always died in Committee. Small wonder. Cities can overrule historic board determinations now, through a process that ends with a vote of the City Council. It's much easier than setting up a whole separate system, and then managing it. The outcome of the vote upholds the proposed demolition (or whatever) as often as not, so why reinvent the wheel?
The recent decision by Leavenworth's governing bodies to demolish the old jail is a case in point. A regrettable point, in my opinion, but that's life. Inasmuch as the building itself looks to be structurally sound, resigning all that masonry to the landfill is a likely due to a lack of planning, or foresight or both. And once a historic building is gone, it's gone forever.
Demolition will give a few people jobs for a couple of weeks, if that. Redeveloping a property employs professional craftspeople for weeks. Rehabbing will also spend two-thirds of the money on wages, while replacing it somewhere will spend two-thirds of the money on materials, imported from somewhere else. I'd rather keep the money at home.
Marrying historic preservation and economic development takes both vision and careful planning. It takes an economic development vision to create the grand plan and marketing strategy. It also takes urban planning techniques to translate that plan into reality. And it all takes cooperation.
The state legislature will make an attempt to repeal parts of the historic preservation statute this session. And they may succeed. They can't repeal the laws of economics, however, and that's something to fret over.
Robert L. Beardsley is the Cultural Resources Management, Planning & Development, Preservation Alliance of Leavenworth.