Revitalizing historic properties revitalizes cities

There are more National Register-listed properties in Baltimore than in any other city in America.

Though he was a critic of a great many things, H.L. Mencken was unabashed about his love for his home in Union Square, where he lived almost his entire life: "It is as much a part of me as my two hands. If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg."

For Mencken, historic buildings like his family manse were the source of Baltimore's strength and inspiration, and tearing them down threatened the fabric of the city itself. "The old charm, in truth, still survives, in this town," he once wrote, "despite the frantic efforts of boosters and boomers who, in late years, have replaced all its ancient cobblestones with asphalt."

Today, there are more National Register-listed properties in Baltimore than in any other city in America. And Mencken was right; they are helping to power the resurgence of neighborhoods across the city. Anyone who has spent time in Fells Point, Federal Hill or Hampden in the past few years has seen the remarkable transformation: Once vacant or underutilized buildings are now humming with activity. Scores of historic buildings are seeing new lives as brewpubs, coffee shops and offices. The efforts of private developers, public agencies and nonprofit organizations to repurpose the city's remarkable architectural heritage has earned Baltimore a well-deserved national reputation as a leader in the creative reuse of older buildings.

While these successes are worth celebrating, we also know that not all historic neighborhoods have shared in this revitalization and that too many buildings continue to sit vacant and underused. The question for all of us is: How can we extend the benefits of revitalization to more neighborhoods and citizens of Baltimore?

To find an answer, the Partnership for Building Reuse, an alliance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Baltimore District Council of the Urban Land Institute, has just issued a report called "Building on Baltimore's History" to explore how repurposing older buildings could be made easier for property owners and investors. For our research, the partnership engaged key local stakeholders in Baltimore, including over 90 local real estate developers, preservation advocates, government agency staff, land use professionals and community leaders.

Our report recommends three key strategies for city leaders to optimize the market-driven reuse of vacant and underused buildings over the next one to three years.

First, they should work to improve and promote historic rehab incentives, such as state and federal tax credit programs like the Maryland Sustainable Communities Tax Credit. Second, adopting key provisions of the city's proposed new zoning code, Transform Baltimore — such as streamlining processes and replacing outdated zoning districts — will allow developers to rehab vacant historic buildings more quickly for a more diverse mix of uses that are compatible with Baltimore's unique neighborhoods. And third, establishing a "Code Solutions Database," a one-stop shop for common energy-code compliance challenges, could promote creative building and energy code solutions that will facilitate and accelerate reuse. Finally, the report recommends testing these and other new tools in areas of the city that are poised for successful revitalization, including Main Street and Arts and Entertainment districts.

The National Trust has long believed that older buildings have a unique ability to knit a community together — reminding residents of a shared history and contributing to the rich fabric of our cities. And a look around certain Baltimore neighborhoods can confirm that they also serve as economic engines, attracting new businesses and residents and contributing to the economic vitality of the entire city.

As Mencken put it decades ago, the "feeling for the hearth" — the deep and abiding affection for Baltimore's historic homes — "has better survived [here] than in any other large city in America. … Its persistence accounts for the superior charm of the town." Our research shows that many residents agree. Neighborhoods characterized by older, smaller, mixed-vintage blocks see more small businesses open and more young people move in. By acting on these recommendations, we are confident that Baltimore can build on its national reputation for adaptive reuse and see a continuing economic revitalization expand to more historic neighborhoods.

Stephanie Meeks is president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; her email is smeeks@savingplaces.org.

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