OPED: Five non-historic reasons to save a historic building

preservation specialist

When preservationists talk about the benefits of historic preservation, their arguments are often emotional and difficult to quantify. While it is true that saving historic buildings can enhance our sense of community, preserve historic architecture, and commemorate significant events from the past, these reasons often don’t hold water in the face of the practical and financial obstacles that come with rehabilitating a historic building.

Rebecca Zeller

Knowing this, preservationists have recently begun to explore the economic benefits of historic preservation. In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab published Older, Smaller, Better a study which demonstrated through statistical analysis that historic communities like York out-perform their newer counterparts in a range of economic, social and environmental measures. But what benefit does this bring to the individual building owner? Rehabilitation of a historic building can lead to real, quantifiable benefits that are rarely covered in traditional preservation-speak.

Tax benefits – The most obvious financial benefit for owners of historic buildings is the opportunity to use historic tax credits. Owners of eligible buildings can receive federal and state rehabilitation tax credits for their rehabilitation projects. These dollar for dollar credits offset the cost of rehabilitation and lower an owner’s tax liability.  Preservation consultants can help determine if a building is eligible and guide the owner through the tax credit application process.

Increased property values - Designated historic structures and buildings in historic districts have higher and more stable property values. Design and aesthetic regulations in historic districts, like York’s HARB district, increase investor confidence. Meanwhile, incentives like tax credits improve the overall economic climate of an area. Even buildings which are not historic or considered contributing to the historic district benefit.

Location – The higher cost of land in urban areas can necessitate that new construction take place outside of city limits. But historic buildings and districts are often located in well-established urban centers. These prime real estate locations offer increased visibility, pedestrian traffic, proximity to public transportation and other services.

Building Life Span – They just don’t make em’ like they used to. In recent decades, the life expectancy of buildings and building materials has decreased significantly. Historic buildings were built to last 100 years or more, with quality materials and craftsmanship that would be cost prohibitive today. A building that is considered historic has already survived for 50 years or more, while the life expectancy of new construction and materials is only 20 to 40 years.

Environmental Sustainability – The greenest building is one that already exists. Rehabilitation of a historic building uses fewer materials than new construction, conserves the embodied energy in a building, reduces sprawl and preserves open space. Buildings account for 39 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States. Renovation is proven to produce less carbon emissions and less waste than demolition or new construction.

The intangible benefits of historic preservation are numerous, but the economic, environmental and social benefits are truly critical for the health of our community. Historic York has worked to preserve historic buildings throughout York County since 1975. Help Historic York continue to bring the benefits of historic preservation to York — consider making a donation or becoming a member by visiting our membership page at www.historicyork.org/getinvolved.

— Becky Zeller is a member of Historic York’s Membership and Marketing Committee and a Preservation Specialist at LSC Design in York.