Bringing Balance to Historic Preservation

I was talking to some folks in my condo last night about a construction project just north of our building and I asked what the deal was with an enigmatic derelict warehouse that’s adjacent to the construction site:

This, I was told, is owned by a different developer but nothing’s being done with it because the building is “for some reason” on the historic preservation list. I asked if there were something we could do to get the building taken off the list, since this listing seemed like the kind of thing that would likely be done by local NIMBY busybodies. Apparently, though, our local Advisory Neighborhood Commission has already asked for delisting but didn’t get its way. So the hope was that the construction at the adjacent site would accidentally knock the warehouse down, thus rendering the issue moot.

Relatedly, I was trying to look up more info about this and it turns out that the swathe of broken-down buildings and vacant lots across the street to the south is in fact the “Mount Vernon Triangle Historic District”:

If you say so. At any rate, the point I would make about this isn’t that historic preservation is never a good idea. All aesthetically meritorious undertakings, including art museums, parks, etc. have some kind of financial cost and it would be a shame to live in a world without aesthetically meritorious undertakings. But if a city or state wants to bear some cost in order to fund a museum, that goes through some kind of appropriation process where the cost is assessed and subject to scrutiny. Historic preservation, by contrast, tends to operate as a kind of ratchet where more and more stuff is added to the list over time and there’s little assessment of the overall impact. Then since nobody actually wants to freeze every structure in place, the key issue becomes which people have the right kind of pull or consultants or lawyers or whatever to navigate the process and get things done.

In his forthcoming book, Ed Glaeser proposes the idea of capping the overall number of landmarked buildings in any given city. That way if you want to landmark a new structure, you need to bear a cost—delisting some other structure. The cap could, of course, be raised but that would require a legislative process rather than happening on auto-pilot. I think it’s a pretty good idea.