The Politics of Preservation

As historic preservationists move from saving old buildings to fighting sprawl, they touch off new kinds of controversy.
by | March 2002

With its 18th-century German settlements, Civil War-era downtowns, dozens of historic inns and churches, and hundreds of old barns spread across rolling farmland, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, retains more authentic examples of its heritage than most places in America. So it came as something of a surprise to officials there when the National Trust for Historic Preservation a few years ago named the whole county--all 950 square miles--to its annual list of "most endangered places."

Since 1988, the listing has mainly served the purpose of preventing homes, hotels, theaters and other landmark sites from being torn down. Indeed, only one building from the Trust's most-endangered lists, the Mapes Hotel in Reno, has fallen to a wrecking ball.

The situation in Lancaster County, however, provided an opportunity for the Trust to focus attention on an issue that threatens not just buildings but a community's identity and sense of place: suburban sprawl. For decades, the area's concentration of Amish farmers and their handicrafts have been the primary draw for curious tourists. These days, though, most visitors consider it a bonus to catch a glimpse of a horse-drawn carriage--as long as it doesn't delay their journey to the outlet-store strip malls on the east side of town. Housing developments and retail superstores are eating up more and more farmland, creating traffic jams in a place that represents the simple life to many Americans. Richard Moe, the National Trust's president, dubbed Lancaster County "the national poster child for sprawl."

The listing sparked a healthy local debate--and not a little resentment. Lancaster, it seems, already had some progressive land-use controls, including the state's only urban growth boundary and a farmland-protection program that had zoned half the county for agriculture and put 30,000 acres in reserve. "To the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we say thank you, but no thank you," read a Lancaster New Era editorial. "Lancaster County does not need your belated, uninformed bugle call to rally troops around its farmland. Where have you been? Farm and rural culture preservation have been debated and acted on here for three decades."

"To be honest," says Ronald Bailey, the county's planning director, "these things do more to draw attention to the National Trust than to issues at the local level. I don't think there's been any significant results or change because of that listing."

Although the results of such efforts may be mixed, the Trust is nevertheless keeping up the anti-sprawl drumbeat. In 2000, it listed a broad swath of New York's scenic Hudson Valley as endangered by proposals to build electric power plants there. And when the Trust listed the Stevens Creek farm settlements near Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2001, it had more in mind than saving some old barns from a proposed highway. Planners last summer re-routed the highway--sparing the settlements--but, according to Moe, that wasn't enough. "Even the new route could be a sprawl-breeder in Lincoln," Moe wrote in a letter to the Trust's 250,000 members. The citizens of Lincoln "need to ask themselves a bigger question: How do we plan for and build a livable city while protecting our historic rural setting?"

The Trust's new choices for its endangered lists underscore a quiet but significant evolution that has transformed the historic preservation movement. Preservation, it seems, is not just about saving old houses anymore. And preservationists, once seen as sentimentalists hurling themselves in the path of bulldozers, are increasingly taking a proactive approach to shaping public policy at the state level. They have a stronger presence than ever in state capitols, and in taking on controversial issues such as sprawl, have found new allies in environmentalists and conservation groups. "Preservation is no longer old ladies saving an historic home that some dead white guy lived in," says Pat Huizing, executive director of Preservation New Jersey. "It's a whole new thing."

Much of the new emphasis has come from Moe, who took over as the National Trust's president in 1993. A Minnesotan who served as Vice President Walter Mondale's chief of staff in the 1970s, Moe emerged in the 1990s as one of the nation's harshest critics of what he calls the "destructive, soulless, ugly mess called sprawl." He co-wrote a book on preservation in the age of sprawl, and in speeches and media interviews, Moe challenges Americans to think critically about the built environment and make conscious decisions about what sort of place they want their communities to be. "You'd be hard pressed to look at a strip mall and find anything appealing about it," Moe says. "Where we live and how these places are constructed is important to our quality of life."

Moe saw sprawl emerging as an important political issue long before most advocacy organizations did. The Trust positioned itself on sprawl in the early 1990s and had many of its partners at the state and local level thinking about sprawl long before the term "smart growth" came in vogue. This paid off in many state capitols. When the Wisconsin legislature took up a smart growth bill in 1999, preservationists were ready to help shape it. As a result of the law, local governments are required to develop plans for their historic and cultural resources as part of growth plans they must submit to the state. "We got in the smart-growth elevator at the bottom floor," says Philip Salkin, a Dane County supervisor and architectural preservationist by trade. "This will be the first time many of these communities have even considered preservation."

The movement, however, remains fragmented and often overwhelmed by the traditional task of saving significant buildings. Preservationists at the local level still tend to operate in a crisis mode and aren't engaged in local planning and zoning matters--the mundane but important arena where the blueprints for sprawl-type development are drawn up. For that matter, not all preservationists are convinced that sprawl is something to worry about. "We shouldn't be trying to stop sprawl," says Dan Morrill, director of the local landmarks commission in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. "We should be trying to document it. Sprawl is part of history, and the job of historic preservation is to restore things that tell us about who we've been."

Ron Hamm, Virginia's former secretary of natural resources, agrees. Last August, the Trust issued a rifle-shot report blasting Virginia for having "no vision for how to handle growth." Hamm, who at the time oversaw the state's historic preservation efforts, takes issue with many of the report's findings and thinks that the Trust is playing out of its league on sprawl. "They appear to be getting into land use issues which don't have very much to do with historic buildings," Hamm says. "They're way outside their realm of expertise."

One reason that preservationists can tackle a broader agenda is that their ideas are becoming part of the mainstream. It wasn't long ago that preservationists were noisy outcasts so powerless that they couldn't even stop the demolition of New York's venerable Penn Station. The station's demise, which would be simply unthinkable today, inspired a wave of local landmarks laws and the national Historic Preservation Act. After 35 years of living with these laws, developers, planners and local officials are seeing the value in historic architecture and are as likely to propose recycling old buildings as demolishing them. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities offer degrees in historic preservation, turning out a professional class of architects and advocates for the cause.

This is a far cry from the movement's early roots. For years, historic preservation was the domain of the tea-drinking classes. In the 1850s, a wealthy ladies' club plotted the restoration of Mount Vernon, inspiring other groups of socialites to save dozens of colonial-era houses. John D. Rockefeller Jr. bankrolled the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, proving that historic preservation could be used to fix up an entire district. When Congress chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949, it followed in what was often perceived as an elitist tradition. For a while, the Trust's main activity was running house museums.

In the wake of the preservation laws of the 1960s, the Trust became more involved in public outreach. In 1980, it founded the Main Street Center, which helped thousands of towns and cities breathe life into their downtowns. The program remains the Trust's most hands-on venture into historic preservation and its greatest success. By the early 1990s, however, it found a giant obstacle to the painstaking storefront-by-storefront job of revitalizing main streets: big-box superstores, which were cropping up on the outskirts of towns across the country and taking downtown shoppers with them.

Seeking to protect its gains on Main Street, the Trust declared war on big-box retailers. It made Vermont, where preservationists were already fighting to keep Wal-Mart out of the state, its battleground. In an act that presaged Lancaster County's endangered listing, the National Trust in 1993 put the entire state of Vermont on its most endangered list. The move focused national attention on the big-box store issue, while state preservation advocates leveraged Vermont's growth-management law to force Wal-Mart to negotiate. The outcome was a mixed bag. Preservationists persuaded Wal-Mart to take the unprecedented step of re-using vacant retail space in downtown Rutland and Bennington, but Wal-Mart also opened one of its superstores on the outskirts of Williston.

For preservationists, the big-box fight provided the first real connection between the explosive growth they saw going on in the suburbs and the difficult task they faced fixing up old neighborhoods downtown. Yet it took an even bigger battle for them to take what they'd learned from Vermont and plug it into the larger puzzle of sprawl. That clash occurred in Virginia in 1994, after the Walt Disney Co. announced plans to build a theme park 30 miles west of Washington, D.C.

If Disney had picked any other location for its park, it might not have generated so much opposition. But it selected a beautiful landscape of rolling farmland, which fired up an environmental group called the Piedmont Environmental Council. It chose land close to several Civil War sites, raising the ire of the Save the Battlefield Coalition. And it picked a spot near several historic towns that the National Trust feared would become engulfed by strip-mall sprawl spreading all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. These various groups joined forces to oppose Disney's plans. To nearly everyone's surprise, Disney eventually backed down.

The Disney dispute was the Penn Station of sprawl, pointing historic preservationists in a new direction. The enemy, for one thing, now seemed more formidable than big-box stores. It was a deeper, broader and ingrained American mentality of building ever outward without stopping to ponder the consequences. More important, the Disney issue highlighted some natural allies. Preservationists, environmentalists and conservationists found common ground in protecting "historic landscapes."

It wasn't long before preservationists began applying the lessons of Disney. In 1995, Pennsylvania advocates convened a "Challenging Sprawl" conference in Lancaster, the place they viewed as most threatened by development. They invited the Trust's Moe, along with environmentalists, planners, economic developers and local government officials from around the state. Fighting sprawl, the group concluded, required a lobbying force in the state capitol to compete with homebuilders and other development interests for lawmakers' attention. Thus hatched 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a pressure group focused on land use issues and the state's loudest voice against sprawl. "We could have continued putting out fires, trying to save this or that building," says Caroline Boyce, 10,000 Friends' lobbyist in Harrisburg. "But until we looked at older communities as a whole--not just towns and cities but rural communities and rural landscapes--we'd always be fighting those individual battles and never really getting to the root of the problem."

Although 10,000 Friends strives for a broad-based membership, it typifies the emerging bonds between preservationists and environmentalists. Joanne Denworth, president of 10,000 Friends, used to be president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. And Boyce, the lobbyist, used to be executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania. "Preservationists have begun to realize that we can accomplish a lot if we begin to look at where we can build coalitions," Boyce says. "These are very nontraditional sorts of coalitions for the historic preservation community, with environmental organizations, housing organizations, farmland groups and others. Only in the last five or six years have we begun to see that we have issues in common."

In just a few years, 10,000 Friends has scored some major wins. One came on an issue that preservationists call "school sprawl." State rules, it seems, had encouraged school districts to abandon old school buildings--which were often in walkable urban neighborhoods--and put up new ones that typically ended up in auto-dependent suburban settings. Under pressure from 10,000 Friends, Preservation Pennsylvania and local advocates in Pittsburgh, the state education department changed its rules. Maryland, Maine and Vermont have followed suit, and the National Trust has taken up the school- rehabilitation issue.

A more wide-ranging victory came in June 2000, when Pennsylvania adopted its version of smart growth. Previously, state law had created a balkanized planning process, requiring municipalities to accommodate all types of land uses. The new law, however, allows local governments to plan regionally. It envisions towns and cities banding together to make regional plans, deciding where new growth should be supported and which areas remain off limits. The scheme comes with some new planning tools. For instance, municipalities can share tax revenues with each other in order to ensure that they share in the costs and benefits of growth. And they can swap transfer-development rights across borders so that large swaths of farmland remain undeveloped.

While Pennsylvania preservationists are redefining themselves faster than their counterparts in other states, a broader agenda and new alliances are emerging elsewhere. Historic preservationists have been big supporters of passing bonds and new spending for open-space protection. In New Jersey, they got the state to tie money for historic preservation to a $1 billion fund for protecting 1 million acres of land from development. And in New York, environmental groups are throwing their support behind one of the preservation community's perennial proposals: a tax credit for historic-home buyers.

The National Trust is influencing the debate in state capitols, and not just by setting a national agenda for preservationists. In recent years, the Trust has been doling out grants to state preservation groups, with the aim of building up a stronger, more professional advocacy base at the state level. It is working. A few years ago, only 17 states had professionally staffed statewide preservation groups, while most others were run by volunteers. Today, 43 statewide groups have at least one professional staff member, giving them a greater capacity to take on public-policy issues.

At the same time, however, preservationists have been the least successful in battling sprawl where it happens: at the local level. Rather than engage in routine planning and zoning decisions, local advocates tend to join the debate only when crisis erupts. Usually, that's when an historic structure becomes threatened with imminent demolition. Or when the next big-box retailer comes to town, giving the complexities of a tricky issue such as sprawl an easy-to-hate face.

The Trust's endangered listing last year in Nebraska is a good example. Highway plans spared the Stevens Creek farm settlements near Lincoln, but the debate never struck local preservationists as anything new or unusual. "We dealt with this as a very traditional historic preservation issue," says Peter Bleed, president of the Preservation Association of Lincoln. "The questions were, how significant are those lands, farms and buildings? Are they more significant than other farms? The Trust is genuinely interested in dealing broadly with sprawl, but I don't think we moved this debate in that direction."

At the local level, it seems, preservationists look at sprawl as they have so many historic buildings. It is a piecemeal approach that has simply added farmland to the list of things worth saving. Their mindset is narrowed by tactics that work for an old house: just find the right person to buy it. Sprawl, some preservationists seem to think, would go away if all the pretty farmland could just be bought or put off limits to developers. It is an unrealistic dream.

The National Trust is hoping to change this. In the same way that it is building up statewide preservation groups, it is hoping to staff up local groups and get them turned in a proactive direction. Preservation groups in Baltimore, San Jose and Duluth, Minnesota, are among the first recipients of local partners grants. With new staff, the Trust hopes, local groups will be able to not only save more buildings but also widen their focus and become bigger players in local policy making.

Yet, when it comes to sprawl, the window of political opportunity-- one that preservationists helped to open--could be closing. Terrorism and budget woes are already replacing smart growth on state and local agendas. The new struggle is to hold the public's attention and keep that window propped open both in state houses and city halls. To prevail on this issue, preservationists will have to constantly remind Americans that more than architecture is at stake. "It's kind of meaningless to preserve a single historic building surrounded by asphalt and ugliness," says Constance Beaumont, the National Trust's director of state and local policy. "When we lose the context of these buildings, we lose a lot."