Saving History: States Push For Preservation Funds
When award-winning local developer Robin Miller bought the abandoned Parsons House from the Virginia Department of Corrections last year, he could see sky through holes in the roof. He could also see the structure’s future through its east-facing windows and their impressive view of the city’s skyline, less than a ten-minute walk away.
Miller, a self-described “firm advocate of the anti-sprawl, live-work-walk philosophy of New Urbanism,” knew that people are willing to pay to live in revitalized cities “where they can walk out the door and go to a coffee shop or restaurant and not have to get in a car and drive.”
More than a million dollars and countless hours of study and sweat later, a building once doomed to collapse is already the crown jewel in the ongoing renewal of Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood.
George Washington never slept here. But Samuel P. Parsons, the first warden of Thomas Jefferson’s reform-minded state penitentiary that once stood across the street, did. More importantly to historic preservationists in a preservation-happy town, the house that Parsons built is a brick gem of Federal-style architecture and one of the few buildings in Richmond to survive the Civil War. “I’m known for liking buildings that other people would be afraid to do,” Miller shouts above the grinding of a power sander and the pounding of hammers inside the 1817 structure. Workmen are busy refinishing the original heart-of-pine floorboards, hewn nearly two hundred years ago from a species of pine tree that no longer exists, and incorporating the old staircase into the home’s carefully redesigned interior. Within six weeks, tenants will move into the project’s eight new apartments.
“The level of architectural detail on the interiors of these old buildings you just cannot duplicate. You can’t find the materials, you can’t find the craftsmen. And it’s just a shame to tear them down. We lose so much of our history as we bulldoze these buildings,” says Miller, who began redeveloping historic properties in Cambridge, Mass., in 1976 and has since worked in New York, Tennessee and New Mexico.
A Great Story In Federalism?
Congress celebrated the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 by establishing the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), a million a year treasure chest for state-administered efforts to save the country’s architectural treasures. But as with most dedicated funding sources for noble-minded cultural and environmental projects, the money actually set aside has never matched the program’s grand designs.
“For about twenty years now, the Historic Preservation Fund has been running at a very minimal level. So the states look at their workload like triage,” says Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers ( NCSHPO ) in Washington, D.C.
After decades of scrounging for scraps from the appropriations table and anticipating the threat of another downward budgeting trend from the Bush administration, the states think they have a shot at 15 years of full funding under the Conservation and Reinvestment Act of 2001 (CARA).
In its current form, CARA would nearly triple the amount of money states now receive from the federal government for historic preservation — between ,000 and .4 million. California would receive the most, more than .1 million, under a formula that takes into account land mass, population and the number of old houses within a state. The legislative baby of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), CARA passed the House last spring by a vote of nearly 3 to 1, only to die at the hands of Congressional appropriators, who often balk at entitlements that prevent them from directing funds toward pressing needs in any given year.
Much of CARA’s billion annual outflow from offshore oil and gas drilling revenues would go toward coastal restoration projects. But the bill would also guarantee the fulfillment of long-standing commitments to land conservation, wildlife, urban parks and historic preservation.
Edward F. Sanderson, Rhode Island’s historic preservation chief and current president of the national group, has testified twice on Capitol Hill this year on behalf of a renewed commitment to historic preservation. He says consistent funding is essential to the states’ abilities to plan effectively.
“Large portions of many states have not been surveyed to discover and document historic properties; a CARA project could address this need. Right now there is not enough money and what little there is is totally unpredictable,” Sanderson says.
“The way in which preservation happens in America is a great story in federalism. But we’ve got to have the horsepower to do that work,” says Virginia DHR director Kathleen Kilpatrick.
But preservation groups worry that CARA’s political appeal will do little to help it become reality. Policy analyst Carl Wolf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the foremost non-profit advocate for the safekeeping of the nation’s architectural heritage, says although his organization supports CARA, it is “realistically skeptical” of the bill’s viability in light of the recently enacted tax cut.
A Shining City On Several Hills
One-hundred and fifty million dollars isn’t what it used to be, but with another quarter century under their belts since the creation of the HPF, preservationists still cling to that target. Many see Richmond as an example of what investment in preservation can accomplish.
“Anybody who knows Richmond knows that most of the economic activity and new development is historic preservation-related,” Virginia’s Kilpatrick says. She points to the restoration of riverfront tobacco warehouses and the Parsons House as well as efforts in Jackson Ward, an African-American neighborhood listed last week by the National Trust as one of the nation’s “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places.”
Kilpatrick credits the state’s cultivation of its history as the driving factor behind its billion tourism industry. In addition, tax credit rehabilitations like Miller’s residential projects generated million in private investment and created 4,000 new jobs last year, she wrote in a pro-CARA letter to the Old Dominion’s congressional delegation earlier this year.
Much of this takes place in Richmond, which once vied with cities like Detroit and Washington, D.C., for the dubious distinction of having the most murders per capita in the country each year. That number has dropped off. Residents cite several possible reasons for rapid about-face of the city’s fortunes, such as the adoption of strict anti-gun laws in the mid-1990s. But others say a city program exempting rehabilitated buildings from property taxes for ten years helped out, too.
Robin Miller came to Richmond in 1995 and in seven years has reclaimed an old hospital, a 1930s art deco furniture store, a row of mid-19th century townhouses and a medical office building and converted them into about 220 one and two-bedroom apartments. Nearly half of these are within walking distance of the James River and the city’s quickly rebounding downtown; the rest are in the city’s newly-coined Museum District west of the city center.
He says Virginia’s rehabilitation tax credit is the best in the country, but the state’s backlog of project proposals is growing.
“It’s an extremely cost-effective use of federal funds because it has such far-reaching impact and not just within the individual building. The whole tide rises. One building is done and that sparks someone else to do another building,” says Miller, a West Point graduate and former Army engineer who earned a Master’s in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1974.
Bertie Selvey, a Museum District civic leader, says her property values nearly doubled after the completion of Miller’s Kensington Court project, the restoration of a condemned hospital that for years housed a poorly-managed home for mentally ill adults. Selvey liked Miller’s plan so much, she told him he could park cars on top of her house if he agreed to restore the building, an impressive neo-classical structure across the street from the Virginia Historical Society. On the flip side, such improvements come at a price. It can cost anywhere between and per month to live in one of Miller’s apartments, many of which he plans eventually to sell off as condominiums. His niche is admittedly upscale, but he says he is fully aware of criticism that preservation can threaten old communities by making it too expensive for longtime residents to live there. So he supports neighboring projects that foster mixed-income neighborhoods.
In the traditionally blue-collar Oregon Hill that stretches alongside the Parsons House, Miller worked with the neighborhood association to gain their trust and cooperation in his project, which will include 21 new infill townhomes behind the restoration, designed and priced to fit the neighborhood.
The neighborhood has struggled, failing to block the demolition of nine homes earlier this year. But community leaders remain hopeful. As work on the Parsons House nears completion, signs advertising renovation work by the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council are almost as common as residents’ front porches.
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