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Opinion: The False Choices of Preservation

Josh Lapp Josh Lapp Opinion: The False Choices of PreservationSeveral buildings being proposed for demolition — Photo by Walker Evans.
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When we hear of development in Columbus we are often presented with a choice: no development or no preservation. These stark alternatives are difficult for those who wish to see continued growth, development, and retention of character in the central city. The choice though is false. There is a middle ground that is possible in Columbus and by following it we can further advance as a city.

In order to find a balance that retains our historic assets and aids growth, it helps to revisit why we need to preserve in the first place. Today in Columbus preservation is not about nostalgia. In a city lacking in natural resources, preservation for us is about competiveness, economic development, and retaining the character that has helped to bring about an urban renaissance. Preservation cannot be about making our neighborhoods museums of the past; it must be about using our historic character as an economic driver for the next generation.

By preserving, we can grow but that does not mean that we must stifle new development. It’s more than possible to retain the character setting features of our buildings as part of new developments. There are great examples of this practice in Columbus and around the country. Whether through innovative integration of existing buildings into the new, creative site planning, or other methods, our developers can achieve better results and garner more community support by preserving some or all of our historic buildings.

Though voicing our support for preservation is important, our actions must speak louder. ‘Money talks’ is never truer than with development and preservation. As a city we have the potential to offer regulatory and financial incentives to encourage the conservation of our historic character. Some options come at little to no financial cost.

Density bonuses and parking reductions can be given in exchange for preserving buildings. City income and property tax incentives can be used to preserve our community’s character. State and federal grants can be used to add properties to the National Register allowing for the use of State and Federal Historic Tax Credits. Many more tools exist.

In order to add to and enhance our civic toolkit for preservation, we must renew our commitment. This means reexamining and refining our current strategies and adding new ones. We currently have strong protections for historic buildings in place for some neighborhoods, and none at all for others. This results in unfettered demolition in some places and strict restrictions in others. A balanced approach could help spread economic growth around our neighborhoods.

The incentives above coupled with streamlined reviews and policies can bring about a new era of preservation in Columbus. By incentivizing preservation we can help to change our current culture of development that all too often jumps quickly to demolition. As a city, we can ensure that we preserve our character and enhance our economy for the next generation.

Josh Lapp is a Principal of Designing Local, an urban planning firm that specializes in Historic Preservation, Community Character, and Public Art. He also services on the Italian Village Commission and as Vice-Chair of Transit Columbus.

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