Preservation more about the future than the past

Lexington’s historic preservation movement began in 1955. A group of citizens got together to prevent demolition of the Hunt Morgan House after The Thomas Hart/John Bradford House across the street was torn down for a parking lot.

That tragedy showed people the need to preserve buildings associated with the men and women who made Lexington an important early American city.

Lexington’s preservation movement reached another milestone three summers ago. That is when developers demolished 14 commercial buildings dating to 1826 for the CentrePointe tower that has not been built and may never be.

That tragedy showed people a different way to look at historic preservation. Saving old buildings isn’t just about preserving the past or creating museums; it is about remodeling and finding new uses for structures that contribute Lexington’s authenticity, sense of place and collective memory.

Historic preservation students at the University of Kentucky’s College of Design organized a symposium last week to discuss this growing trend in preservation, called adaptive reuse. It attracted a standing-room crowd from across the state.

The conference was held in the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, itself an example of adaptive reuse of a once-neglected building. Originally Lexington’s public library, it shares a corner with the Hunt Morgan and the 56-year-old parking lot where the Hart/Bradford House once stood.

“This is about building on existing assets, not erasing them,” said keynote speaker Roberta Gratz, a New York journalist whose books show how preservation contributes to vibrant cities.

Many of today’s zoning laws, building codes and development norms emerged after World War II. It was an era of cheap oil and automobile-centric design theories that defied all previous human experience.

“There is a lot of mind manipulation that’s gone on for 50 years that we need to undo,” Gratz said. That begins with government incentives that have encouraged demolition and subsidized new construction and sprawl.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to incent what we want,” she said, adding that it often is as much about changing perceptions as laws.

For example, tax incentives that get small businesses to locate in old urban properties would be far cheaper for taxpayers than building more roads and sewers for new suburban development. Renovating buildings is more environmentally friendly than building new structures that often won’t last as long.

Like Lexington, most cities have plenty of downtown parking. It may not be free, but drivers often end up walking shorter distances than they do in mall and strip-center parking lots.

Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C., real estate consultant, pointed out that not tearing down old buildings preserves a city’s options as the economy, people’s needs and real estate markets change. He noted that many young, educated people are moving back to the cities their parents and grandparents left. One reason is that cities’ mix of old and new buildings makes them more interesting places to live.

Part of preservation’s challenge, Rypkema said, is convincing lenders that adaptive reuse is a good investment.  But that is becoming easier, thanks to market forces in many cities. As Gratz noted, New York developers are now getting rich restoring old buildings that preservationists kept them from tearing down just a few years ago.

Other symposium participants included Matthew Kiefer, a Boston real estate lawyer and board president of Historic Boston Inc.;  Bill Weyland, a Louisville developer whose adaptive reuse projects include the Louisville Slugger factory and Glassworks building; and Holly Wiedemann, a Lexington developer who restores old buildings, including many abandoned schools, into attractive affordable housing.

“Preservation is a means to an end,” Kiefer said. “And that end is creating vibrant urban spaces where people want to live and work.”

It was a thought-provoking symposium, and it could not have been held in a more appropriate place. A half-century ago, Gratz Park was in such decline that owners were knocking down buildings like the Hart/Bradford House for parking lots. Now, these homes and commercial buildings are some of Lexington’s most desirable and valuable.

It’s worth thinking: what other future Lexington assets are in danger of being erased?