Is historic preservation just thinly veiled NIMBYism?

There’s a growing recognition that local land use controls that preclude increased density in cities are helping contribute to the shortage of affordable housing. President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers lent considerable credence to that view, and the YIMBY movement is growing. Unsophisticated and bald-faced efforts to block development are now much more likely to be called out for what they are.

But, increasingly, especially in some of the nation’s wealthiest neighborhoods, historic preservation is being wielded as a tool of NIMBYism.

The nation’s historic preservation movement, which grew out of a well-founded impulse to avoid losing the nation’s architectural patrimony (symbolized notably by the demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Staton) has grown considerably in the past half century. But there are those who have questioned the wisdom of these building restrictions.

While some, like Alex Tabarrok would do away with historic preservation restrictions altogether–if people want to preserve a historic building, then they ought to buy it–most people recognize the desirability of some form of property restrictions. Even Ed Glaeser, a strong critic of preservation laws writes: “It is wise and good to protect the most cherished parts of a city’s architectural history.”

So when it comes to preservation, the question is not “whether,” but “how much?” Which structures are truly of historic interest and which aren’t? Once a structure is built it automatically becomes a candidate for “historic” designation as it ages. In New York City, landmark preservation laws that were designed to protect the most significant architecture, have increasingly been extended to cover a significant share of the market. By constricting supply in some neighborhoods, it tends to drive up prices, and make the city less affordable.

Almost by definition, the most historic structures tend to be located in the centers of cities, where land is most valuable, and where it makes the most sense to add more density. In contrast, suburban greenfield development is never fettered by the need to protect historic structures. (And neighboring cattle or trees are unlikely to make the case that housing subdivisions are “out of character” with the pre-existing rural landscape.)

In Los Angeles, residents of one high rise building have invoked historic preservation (blocking their view of a clock on an older building) as an argument against allowing the construction of a another high rise building nearby. As Urbanize LA wrote: “How do you fight the project next door while avoiding the dreaded NIMBY label? Just call it Historic Preservation.”

While protecting a few buildings is unlikely to have much effect on a region’s housing supply, the expansion of historic preservation to a wide range of older structures (almost regardless of historic merit), and more recently the application of the historic designation to entire neighborhoods, has significantly raised the stakes.

There’s little question that the addition of historic review is likely to have a major impact on development prospects. Portland’s Irvington neighborhood was designated as part of the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. As a result, redevelopment is subject to stringent review. Very little new housing is being built in this neighborhood, despite the very strong housing demand. Just outside the historic district’s boundaries, a new apartment building has been constructed on the site of a 1920s era gas station. The project was subject to heated protests from neighbors (including those just across the street inside the Irvington historic neighborhood). But because the site was zoned for apartments and was outside the historic district, the development plan wasn’t subject to discretionary approval. Had it been inside the district, the situation would have been very different. Today, there are 68 new apartments where previously there was a decades-vacant gas station.

2015: Derelict gas station2017: 68 new apartments

Another of Portland’s tonier neighborhoods–Eastmoreland–is in the process of seeking a federal historic neighborhood designation. Doing so will enable it to impose rigid controls over demolitions, remodeling and will dramatically limit additional density and re-deveolpment.  A similar measure is being considered in another pricey Portland neighborhood (Laurelhurst). As we’ve pointed out before, there’s a kind of prisoner’s dilemma that confronts local neighborhoods:  if other neighborhoods in the city are designated as “historic” and yours isn’t, then you’re more likely to bear the brunt of development pressures. What makes sense from the standpoint of an individual neighborhood quickly leads to a situation that’s bad for a city.

The Oregon Legislature is currently considering HB 2007–supported by House Speaker Tina Kotek–which aims to expedite development review processes, especially for affordable housing projects, and also begins to rein in the widespread designation of historic areas. Portland for Everyone’s Michael Andersen describes how the legislation would work. Currently, under Oregon law, the state piggybacks on the federal National Register of Historic Places. A neighborhood can qualify for federal designation with no local government approval, with the result that all demolitions and many other land use actions become subject to a discretionary approval process.  Andersen explains:

The perverse result: Under current law, national historic districts can be initiated by landowners and approved without anyone formally considering the negative consequences. Democratically elected officials have no power to intervene.  Once that historic district is in place, any building that has been marked as “contributing” (a standard that describes most houses in any national historic district) can never be redeveloped without a direct vote of the city council.

Here’s the key thing about historic preservation: It almost invariably adds a layer of discretionary approvals on land use actions. The need to get added permits gives NIMBY opponents a powerful tool to prevent additional development. As UCLA researchers Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Lens have shown, the more local land use processes allow for discretionary review, the higher the level of economic segregation in a community.

Historic preservation is an important objective, but the more we preserve some places, the more pressure to develop others. Unless the scale of historic preservation is restricted to those buildings and areas that are of true significance, the result is likely to be an even more constrained supply of housing, which is likely to worsen affordability problems.

June 13: This post revised to acknowledge Representative Tina Kotek’s role in supporting HB 2007.