OP-ED: The importance of preserving history

Washington, D.C. Published in the Austin American-Statesman

When nearly 2,000 preservationists converge on Austin for the National Preservation Conference, they'll get a firsthand look at the power of historic preservation to transform and revitalize a community. To take just one local example, as recently as 20 years ago, the city's South Congress neighborhood was mired in a decades-long decline, and some wondered if the best hope for the neighborhood's future was to tear down the rest of its buildings and start anew.

Thankfully, a committed core of business owners and residents had a different idea. Embracing the offbeat character of the neighborhood, they transformed warehouses into restaurants, flophouses into desirable rental units, and rundown motels into some of the coolest spots in town. The result, as preservationists from across the country will see this week, is a truly unique, authentic and delightful area humming with the kind of activity other cities dream of.

Fortunately, South Congress is not the city's only example of a preservation success story. East 6th Street features a vibrant, eclectic collection of businesses, including many historic buildings that have been converted into performance spaces that have made Austin an international music center. Around the corner, the Texas State Capitol is regarded as a national model for using the latest techniques to preserve iconic landmarks, while the restoration of the Governor's Mansion after a disastrous fire, and the makeover of the Driskill Hotel have ensured that some of Austin's most cherished historic structures will endure for generations to come. Tucked away from the busy thoroughfares are some of Texas' best-preserved historic neighborhoods, including Hyde Park, Old West, Judges' Hill, Clarksville and Travis Heights.

At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we know that reusing existing buildings not only retains community character, but also represents some of the greenest, most sustainable development happening today. By keeping demolition waste out of landfills and conserving the energy it takes to construct a new building, preservation is the ultimate form of recycling. Preservation is also good business. Downtown Austin , East Sixth Street and South Congress are places where people want to spend their time and money.

Austin deserves to be applauded for these successes, and also for the proactive way in which it is addressing trends such as population growth, which threaten the area's historic feeling of a laid-back government and university town set in the majestic Hill Country. Austin is transforming into a high-tech center and a global economic magnet; with so many new businesses and people comes the inevitable threat of sprawl, and the danger of seeing the unique character of Austin and its surrounding Hill Country either knocked down or paved over.

That is why the comprehensive planning process now underway is so important. It provides a tremendous tool for exploring promising ideas, such as a stronger focus on infill development and mass transit. It brings the right people together to stake out a vision that preserves Austin's historical character but recognizes the needs of a growing 21st century city. Austin's unique Hill Country heritage will serve as a catalyst for many discussions this week, as this year's conference theme —" Next American City. Next American Landscape" — focuses on the relationship between urban areas and the open spaces around them.

With more than 60 years' experience as the nation's foremost preservation organization, the National Trust has found that local preservation laws are the strongest form of legal protection for historic sites and landmarks. That is part of the reason local preservationists fought so hard to retain Austin's tax abatement program for locally landmarked properties. While the debate on this issue dwelled on upper-income homeowners taking advantage of the program, the fact is that the city's tax abatement program has benefited a wide range of properties, including modest homes, coffee shops and even the entertainment venues along 6th Street located in historic buildings. These places are the heart and soul of Austin, and we need incentives on the books to ensure that business and home-owners see historic properties as viable investments.

It matters how we build our communities and how we preserve them. Being thoughtful stewards of these places is hard work. But it is a job worth doing. We are not just hanging onto yesterday; we are building tomorrow. That is the message that conference attendees will hear over the next few days. And it is an area where we need Austin residents to continue to lead.

Meeks is president of National Trust for Historic Preservation.

 

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
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