You’ve Come a Long Way Baby (or not)

Back in the late 60s when the Women’s Movement was becoming an important and influential voice in American politics, life and culture, the ever opportunistic tobacco industry leaped into the fray. Philip Morris introduced a new brand of cigarettes – Virginia Slims – specifically targeted toward women. And the slogan? “You’ve come a long way baby.”

There are times when I think that the historic preservation movement has come a long way…when I hear the success stories of local Main Street programs; when I attend the awards banquet of a statewide preservation organization; and particularly when I teach my Spring semester course at the University of Pennsylvania. All those really bright and (mostly) young people preparing for careers in historic preservation. Every year I learn far more from them than they ever learn from me.But other times…well, we haven’t come so far after all.

This morning up pops this news story, headlined “Mayor rejects downtown preservation efforts“. But the headline itself wasn’t the biggest issue. While usually preservationists try to do their best, there are circumstances where the preservation proposal of the day might merit review or dissent from an elected official…it’s how democracy does and should work.

No, it wasn’t that Mike Hadick, Mayor of Albion, New York (population 7700, 1400 of them guests of a State women’s prison) didn’t like some particulars in a proposed preservation ordinance. No, it was his reasons:

1) Young people are leaving Albion because “people don’t want to live in an outdated village”

2) He didn’t like the fact that the Preservation Commission denied a Certificate of Appropriateness for a sign Verizon wanted to put in their Main Street store. So, of course, Verizon went to the Mayor and he approved the sign.

To all of this Mayor Hadick said he would “prefer the collection of historic downtown structures be leveled to make way for a new commercial district.” And as for the downtown “I can live with brand-new buildings.”

Mayor Hadick’s reasoning is, “You can’t have a [preservation] commission that’s not looking out for the businessman first. The way times are right now, do you really want to mess with a businessman?”

Well, as a private sector guy myself, I’m certainly for considering the needs of “businessmen”. But who in the hell is going to build a new downtown in Albion, New York? Where’s the debt going to come from? Where is the equity going to come from? Where are the rents to justify new construction going to come from? Where’s the pent-up demand for new commercial space when there have been 5 or 6 building permits issued in the last four years in Albion? Who are going to be starting those businesses to pay those rents in that new downtown?

Here’s an oversimplified formula for you. Let’s say you get the land for free in downtown Albion (maybe the stimulus plan will provide the local government with all the money it needs to acquire and raze every building in downtown). Now you build a new building, even one of mediocre quality – one story, concrete block, and stick on some z-brick and Styrofoam beams. What’s that going to cost? I don’t know, let’s say we can do it cheap for $125 per square foot. Now what will the rents have to be? Well, if the banks choose to lend and the investors choose to invest, and if this economic chaos is over…you’d need rents of around $20 per square foot per year. Is that what the rent levels are in downtown Albion, Mr. Mayor?

I honestly believed that the Urban Renewal approach of “Let’s tear down this old crap and the developers will be lining up for the chance to build new” having been proved such a disaster, would no longer be the vehicle of choice for any elected official. Well, once again, I was wrong.

If there were an assembly of absurd idiocies, “young people are leaving town because of these old buildings” would certainly make the collection. You don’t think that high unemployment, low wages, and limited opportunities for higher education might not have something to do with it Mr. Mayor? That is as misguided as the Virginia Slims implication that women would be independent and cool if they smoked skinny cigarettes.

I have great sympathy with small towns struggling for economic survival and have worked in probably a thousand of them in the last 25 years. But I’ll leave it at this…show me the small town that came back to prosperity by tearing down their historic downtown and someone building them a brand new one.

While we still have mayors who haven’t learned that yet, we as preservationists haven’t done our job. We haven’t come that far, baby.