Durable Growth, Government

Saving the good stuff

Historic building in Saratoga Springs, New York

Historic building in Saratoga Springs, New York

A few months back, the Petaluma Planning Commission was forced to make a regrettable decision about a building for which the community had great fondness.  The French Laundry was a well-known and photogenic landmark on the west side of town, with a history that extended far back into Petaluma’s past.

But, although the building was on a local historic list, it had remained in private ownership with little tangible community support for its restoration.  As a result, it deteriorated over time.  Eventually, there was little of the building that could be retained.  The Planning Commission was compelled into the sad duty of removing the French Laundry from the historic list and approving its demolition.

The deed done, the Commission Chair turned to the audience (all three of us) and anyone watching on television and opined that the community had to work harder and smarter to preserve historic buildings or more would be lost to the wrecking ball and bulldozer.

Since that time, Petaluma has put forth a $300 million tax increase without historic preservation anywhere close to the intended funding priorities.   It would appear that few were listening, or cared, when the Commission Chair made his plea.

This story came to mind because I’ve been part of an effort over the past few weeks to restore a fine old building in a North Bay city, a building that a city planner called the “crown jewel of the community”.

I’m not always enamored of historic preservation, finding sometimes that the needs of the city must outweigh the value of saving history.  But this isn’t one of those times.  The building with which I’ve become involved is a grand building for which new uses, fitting within the needs of the community, can be readily envisioned.

(Note: The building in the photo isn’t the building of which I’m writing.  Instead, the building in the photo is one of a number of well-preserved buildings in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York.  But it illustrates the value that historic preservation can bring to a community.)

My involvement with the North Bay building has given me new insights about what we, as represented through our government and directly, can do to help return useful older buildings to their glory.   In this case of the North Bay building, the story is fairly good, although perhaps not quite good enough

To begin, the building is on the National Historic Register, which means that tax credits are available for qualified building renovation costs.   Many historic specialists point to this provision as sufficient to ensure historic preservation.  However, the tax credits are bundled with the obligation to conform to historic preservation standards, which can sometimes add as much cost to the projects as the tax credits provide relief.  As a result, sometimes developers are thrilled to have their buildings on the Historic Register and other times they would prefer for the designation to disappear.

In this case, the tax credit is anticipated to provide a net benefit, although perhaps not a huge one.

Likely of more importance were representations made by City staff during an initial coordination meeting.  Staff suggested the possibility of an expedited entitlement process along with favorable interpretations of impact fees.  Not relief from the fees, but a willingness to interpret grey areas in favor of historic preservation.  Both suggestions were welcomed.

In a subsequent meeting with a possible financial partner, he suggested another way in which a municipality can assist in historic preservation, which is through becoming a building tenant.

One of the hurdles in historic preservation is convincing lenders that there is a market for the new and often unique space that will result.  Having a tenant committed to a lease as early as possible can provide a critical boost to construction financing.  The municipality needn’t pay a high rate for the space, but only market rate.  It’s the early commitment that can be key.

We haven’t yet pursued this possibility in regard to the North Bay building, but will be doing so.

Lastly, citizens needn’t always act through government to assist with historic preservation.  The city of Fergus Fall, Minnesota has been looking for a developer to rehabilitate Kirkbride, an enormous and abandoned state hospital.  The selected developer asked for the city to provide $700,000 of the $21 million cost, but the city balked.  (The refusal wasn’t surprising.  Few cities of 13,000 can muster a $700,000 tab, regardless of the value to the community.)

To fill the gap, a citizens group instead pledged the $700,000 and immediately began a fundraising effort, reporting within days that $500,000 had already been collected.  (Although one fundraising makes the amount look closer to $5,000.)

There is no single magic bullet for historic preservation, but there is a collection of tools that can be used in various combinations.  The proposed preservation of the North Bay building hasn’t yet come together, but we’ll continue to work to find the right combination.  The Petaluma Planning Commission Chair would be pleased.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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