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Idea For Long Term Protection of Historic Buildings


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#1 Dismuke

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Posted 28 August 2010 - 07:15 PM

I am one those people who gets a bit annoyed when people say "someone ought to....." If you think something ought to be done, why not do it yourself? But the problem for me is I come up with all sorts of ideas that I think are good but simply lack the time, money or connections to implement myself. So it is in that spirit I offer the following idea - with the open admission that I am NOT in a position to follow through with it on my own.

I have noticed that a great deal of effort to preserve historic and architecturally significant buildings tends to focus either political measures such as city designations or on last minute negotiations with property owners once a building finds itself threatened. I have no problem with such negotiations - but if they end up being held at the last minute, preservationists are definitely at a major disadvantage.

My idea to is to build up a plan and a war chest to put preservationists in a far more proactive and advantageous position. My idea is to raise money for a trust fund for the sole purpose of actually acquiring potentially endangered properties for the purpose of imposing deed restrictions and/or facade easements on them and then immediately selling them to private owners who are willing to live and work with such restrictions. It would be great if the trust would be able to resell the properties it acquires at the same price or perhaps even with a small profit. But, realistically, in many instances, the sale might be at a bit of a loss.

Another way of accomplishing the same thing might be to simply PAY an existing owner to put such deed restrictions and/or facade easements in place. And, of course, one could try to persuade people who restore historic properties to simply VOLUNTEER to put such a restriction in place in the event that, after they sell or pass away, the property falls into the hands of someone less sympathetic with such concerns.

In many cases, I would think that such owners would be very sympathetic. For example, when XTO took so much care and expense to restore early 20th century downtown skyscrapers, do you think they would be especially thrilled at the prospects of ExxonMobile or some other owner having the buildings imploded a decade or two in the future to put up some commonplace modern building? How hard would it have been to persuade XTO which ALREADY spent a fortune on the buildings to put such a step in place to protect the buildings long after the XTO officials who cared enough about them to save them are no longer around?

My understanding is that there are tax breaks for people who buy and restore historic buildings. Perhaps similar tax breaks could be extended towards existing owners who volunteer to put such deed restrictions in place. Personally, I am not a fan of using the tax code to engineer outcomes, social or otherwise. But if tax breaks are already going to be used for buyers of historic properties, why not make them available to sellers?

Long term, I think deed restrictions - not historical designations - are the answer. In addition to the property rights issues that historic designations present, in the end, they ultimately rely on the mercy of politicians. Do you really wish to count on politicians year in and year out always being on your side? I would think that, properly written, a deed restriction would be MUCH more powerful and enforceable.

As an example, this could have been a way to save some of the historic homes along Samuels before the price of the land underneath them became valuable. There was a time when houses there could be bought very inexpensively.

Or, to use another example, let's suppose Bank of America can be persuaded that destroying the Ridglea Theater will irreparably damage the good will it has in this town and backs off its plans. Let's suppose a buyer can be found who wishes to preserve the building. Let's face it - any such a project has its risks. The endeavor might end up failing and the building could be once again on the block and be purchased by someone who wishes to replace it. Furthermore, chances are pretty good that whoever can be found to buy the building could use some extra pocket money to spend on restoration/ and or operating expenses. Would such an owner - who DOES care about the building - be willing to swap some immediate up front cash from a preservation trust for a deed restriction to protect the building in the event that the endeavor fails? Obviously, an owner's ability to do so might be potentially limited by whatever mortgage is on the building - which is why it might be necessary for some properties to first be "flipped" through the trust.

Obviously, all of this is MUCH easier said than done. A LOT of money would need to be raised - and right about now that is even more difficult given the economy. But my question is whether any sort of attempt to get such a fund started has ever been thought of? And even in the absence of money in the trust, perhaps at least SOME efforts can be initiated in terms of fully voluntary deed restrictions.

Somebody in another thread made the comment that, if people wish to preserve historic buildings, they need to put their money where their mouth is. I agree. Problem is that, on an individual basis, most people - including wealthy people - don't have the kind of money or experience that it takes. Such a trust fund would be a way that people COULD put their money where their mouth is towards that end to whatever degree they are able.

I think in the very long run, for a historic building to be regarded as "saved" it would need to be deed restricted. Most historic buildings in this city that have been restored and are not currently endangered have merely been "saved from now." Without deed restrictions, it is entirely possible that in 20 or 30 years they may once again become endangered.

Just an idea for someone how might be in a far better position than I to implement it.
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#2 David Love

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Posted 28 August 2010 - 09:13 PM

Okay, say you're granting tax breaks with historical preservation in mind.

Who decides what's historically significant and worth preserving, who's first? Because when you hand out tax breaks, people will line up so what criteria should be used to decide what projects go first?

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#3 Dismuke

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Posted 28 August 2010 - 11:09 PM

Okay, say you're granting tax breaks with historical preservation in mind.

Who decides what's historically significant and worth preserving, who's first? Because when you hand out tax breaks, people will line up for them so what criteria should be used to decide what projects go first?



I have no particular answer for that. As I briefly indicated in my posting, I don't really believe in tax breaks for anybody. My view is the sole purpose of the tax code is to collect the revenue necessary to run the government - not to "reward" or "punish" certain behavior or certain groups of people. I think the same taxes and the same rate of taxation ought to be equally applied to everybody. I think that is the ONLY fair way to go about it.

The reason I brought the subject up in the first place is because, realistically, my view on the subject is not likely to be implemented anytime soon. The ability to punish one group of people and bestow comparative benefits on some other group of people through the tax code is a major source of power for politicians. And it is extremely rare for politicians to forfeit such power voluntarily - it has to be TAKEN back by the citizens, hopefully through peaceful means such as the ballot box. Short of a disaster such as a full fledged economic collapse, I just don't see that happening in the short term with regard to the tax code. There are too many groups that are beneficiaries of special tax treatment with enough political pull who will fight it. So the reality is that various sorts of tax breaks WILL most likely continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

My only point was that IF there are going to be tax breaks for historical preservation then giving tax breaks only to buyers who restore a property only goes so far. It offers no protection of the building in the long run if someone else comes along to buy the restored building and demolish it.

Furthermore, an existing owner of a building might WANT to see it preserved but not have the financial means to do it himself and may not be able to afford to hold out long enough for a buyer interested in preserving it to come along. A tax break might make it more attractive for such people to hang on to their buildings. And, in many cases, the owners of old buildings simply cannot afford to maintain them - especially since they recognize that a future buyer might only be interested in the land underneath. A tax break could make it easier for such owners to perform basic maintenance such as roof repairs which, if ignored, could result in the building deteriorating beyond the point of saving.

In some parts of town and in a bad economy restoration simply may not be an option at a particular point in time. In that case, the best hope for a building is an owner who is willing to "mothball" it until the day when its revival becomes more viable. The problem with a "mothballed" building is it generates no revenue - but its owner still must fork over money for taxes on it. That makes it even more difficult to justify expenditures on maintenance.

Such a tax break would ONLY be granted if the owner signs a deed restriction prohibiting the destruction of the building. Any sort of restriction placed on a property is, necessarily, going to impact its value because it limits the options available to its owner (though similar restrictions on neighboring properties might very well increase its value). So it is not like it is going to be something that people just rush out to do - there is a cost involved in getting such a tax break.

Local tax breaks could help compensate owners for the costs of keeping up with basic maintenance on historical but economically marginal buildings in areas that are not yet ripe for renewal and restorations. Exempting the profits from the sale of such properties from state and federal taxation would help compensate the seller for the possibly lower price he would realize as a result of the deed restriction.

As to how it should be determined which properties should and should not qualify for the tax break - well, how is that currently determined for the tax breaks that are given to those who purchase and restore old buildings? Presumably a similar approach could be used.
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#4 John S.

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Posted 29 August 2010 - 10:54 AM


Okay, say you're granting tax breaks with historical preservation in mind.
Who decides what's historically significant and worth preserving, who's first? Because when you hand out tax breaks, people will line up for them so what criteria should be used to decide what projects go first?

As to how it should be determined which properties should and should not qualify for the tax break - well, how is that currently determined for the tax breaks that are given to those who purchase and restore old buildings? Presumably a similar approach could be used.


We already have a historic property "Dean's List" of significant historic properties within the City. Back in the 1980's and 1990's, the now defunct Historic Preservation Council for Tarrant County hired at considerable expense outside professional preservation survey consultants and paid them to drive block-by-block to make note of all properties worthy of inclusion in the surveys. Local historian Carol Roark and others then took the lists and conducted exhuastive research based on city-county records as well as including any previously conducted research available on any given property. The results of this comprehensive survey were published by the Council in several survey books divided into specific geographical regions of the city, i.e. Southside, Northside, Central Business District, and others. These survey books are unfortunately out of print and difficult to find.

The City of Fort Worth subsequently relied heavily on these surveys to determine which properties to place into the "demolition delay" category. As for tax breaks, there is already a city program for a specific time period providing a "tax freeze" for certain properties but, as I understand it, it further requires re-zoning a property to include an "H & C" (historic and cultural) overlay which adds some future use restrictions. (which are logically based on preserving the historic character/qualities of the property)

As for the need to find additional ways to protect Fort Worth's dwindling supply of historic properties, (especially early ones before 1910) obviously, some kind of revolving purchase fund (which buys and then markets a historic property along with preservation covenants to new preservation-minded owners) would help save some structures which are now being lost, but saving other properties is far more challenging. The most difficult properties to save are those with owners who are either indifferent or even hostile towards historic perservation. In cases where the owners are either indifferent or uneducated about preserving the historic qualities of their property(ies), an opportunity exists to educate and guide them towards doing the right thing. If any persuasive economic incentive could be added, then it would certainly make "selling" the concept of preservation much easier. As we all know, few things motivate better than money.

As for dealing with hostile property owners, in most cases, any efforts to move them towards a perservation positive or neutral position only makes their anti-preservation position more intractable. These are the "angry", often staunch private property rights folks who would actually burn down their own house if doing so became necessary to prevent a historic designation. Property owners of this uncooperative mindset are fortunately few and far between in the general population, but their numbers seem to be particularly well represented in Fort Worth. I've personally known some of them. Perhaps the only effective way to deal with anti-preservation minded individuals is to simply buy them out. Attempting to convince them that historic preservation does not necessarily conflict with their private property rights is an exercise in futility, in my personal experience.

Fort Worth is a modern city and evidence of the city's earlier built past pales in comparison with the wealth of late 20th and early 21st century architecture. 100 years from now, we may become a textbook city of architecture from this modern period but if past behavior provides any clues, a lot of our currently modern architecture will have long been replaced by even newer edifices and styles. Few buildings are designed and constructed today to last for the ages as buildings were in the past. Such is how we define modern architecture today it seems. When comparing Fort Worth with older cities to the east that have retained much of their historic architecture, a common denominator among the older cities almost always seems to be a chronically weak and lagging local economy. It seems a maxim that a vibrant economy coupled with expansive new development/building activity (often at the expense of older architecture) is mutually exclusive from the aims of historic preservation. The only real encouraging current trend seems to be towards a more energy efficient, "Green" approach in development circles. One of the Green maxims states that the "greenest structure is one that is already built". It remains to be seen how Texas, and Fort Worth specifically, take this new philosophy to heart. Green ecology and historic preservation have common goals.

Last, just to provide a real world example, I sat in on a meeting a few years ago with noted national "Preservation" economist and development authority, Don Rypkema, together with a local developer. The local developer patiently listened to Mr. Rypkema's well-reasoned arguments in favor of historic preservation; how they could be utilized for real economic advantages. However, shortly thereafter, the developer proceeded to put up new projects with little consideration evident for historic perservation. I think profit and monetary gain will almost always trump the less obvious positive intangibles of historic preservation even when a there's a clearly beneficial connection between the latter and the former. In my 25+ years of personal experience, historic preservation is a pretty hard sell in Fort Worth. It's accepted better here than in some places, but still has lots of room for improvement.

#5 David Love

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Posted 29 August 2010 - 02:25 PM

I've looked at a few buildings under demolition delay, if I remember correctly that lasts about 6 months and I think it's the lowest level of historic preservation, net result is it costs the owner 6 months of payments until they can move forward with their plans.

With that time frame in mind, I'd think any list of what's considered historically significant more than 5 years old, ironically, could be considered of little value today. Then in today’s economy, many structures worthy of preservation fall onto the “not economically feasible” list for a multitude of reasons

I realize some structures automatically top any list of preservation, Frank Lloyd Wright structures would garner universal agreement yet even FLW creations are not immune to the march of progress, but once the easy choices are made, then what... Texan experts may have a different order in their list of significance than say experts from New York or Los Angeles.

I find it depressing to think how easy it is erase part of a city’s history and then factor money, economy, politics and city government into the equation the good intentions of the preservationists are often easily erased with it.

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#6 Dismuke

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Posted 29 August 2010 - 06:45 PM

The most difficult properties to save are those with owners who are either indifferent or even hostile towards historic perservation. In cases where the owners are either indifferent or uneducated about preserving the historic qualities of their property(ies), an opportunity exists to educate and guide them towards doing the right thing. If any persuasive economic incentive could be added, then it would certainly make "selling" the concept of preservation much easier. As we all know, few things motivate better than money.


And those situations are where tax breaks and/or cash payments in return for deed restrictions might end up being persuasive.

How many houses worthy of preservation exist in a neighborhood such as Grand Avenue in the North Side are owned by people who simply see their property as just another building - and perhaps a less-than-desirable building because they have been brought up to believe that new is automatically better? How many of these people see their house as merely something that serves a utilitarian purpose for their family to live in long term verses a speculative investment as might be the case in a more trendy part of town? Tax breaks in exchange for a deed restriction would give such people extra cash in their pockets year in and year out. So would a cash payment if the house is worthy enough to justify such a payment. If a person plans on living in the house long term, that might be tempting.

It probably would not be as tempting for the remaining houses along Samuels Avenue right now simply because such a restriction might dash people's hopes of having a tidy nest egg once they sell their property. But imagine if such incentives for deed restrictions had been made available to select homes in that neighborhood in the mid 1980s long before anybody through the neighborhood would someday become "hot. If that had happened then those houses would be protected today. The best time to protect such properties is to deed restrict them BEFORE they come under developmental pressure.


As for dealing with hostile property owners, in most cases, any efforts to move them towards a perservation positive or neutral position only makes their anti-preservation position more intractable. These are the "angry", often staunch private property rights folks who would actually burn down their own house if doing so became necessary to prevent a historic designation.


One of the sad things about historically significant and/or vintage buildings is they are VERY expensive to maintain. Very rare is the person who can afford to own a building that does not, in some way, justify itself economically. Few people can afford to collect and preserve buildings as an end in itself the way they do vintage automobiles, vintage postcards or 78 rpm records. Thus old buildings just can't be collectibles - they usually have to serve some economic and utilitarian function.

If I went to some random person and told him that a 78 rpm that he found in the attic and carelessly tossed in an unsafe place just happens to be rare and worth $1,000 or even $10 and that he needs to take steps to protect it from damage, I would not get a lecture that the record is his private property and that I need to butt out. Such a person would thank me for the advice. You don't find somebody who owns a vintage car from the 1930s adamantly maintaining that it is nothing more than a "used car" of no significance and good for nothing but the scrap yard. People treat such things differently because they recognize that it is not in their financial interest to do otherwise.

The problem for buildings is that the fact that the real estate they sit on is often worth more than the building. Thus owners are hostile towards such buildings because they don't WANT to see the property as anything other than either a utilitarian object or a potential nest egg.

Obviously, one thing that would help is if old buildings with great architecture were so widely admired that they actually commanded a premium BECAUSE they are old and cool looking. The problem today is that so many people are utterly indifferent to architecture. Ask someone what the outside of a hotel they recently stayed in looked like and what decade it was build it - a great many people simply could not tell you at all. It could have been a beautiful 1920s masterpiece or a tacky piece of trash from the 1970s and they wouldn't notice one way or another so long as it had the amenities expected for the price range and was not filthy or run down. It is not like today's pop culture celebrates qualities such as beauty or grandeur - such things are, in fact, nihilistically sneered at as "trite" and somehow "un-hip." It is not like the typical modern day education is likely to provide young people with a context to enable them to discover and appreciate the art, music and architecture of the past. I can't tell you how many times people have told me: "gee, I never noticed or paid attention to these buildings until you just pointed all that out."

So it is up to people such as ourselves who DO appreciate and admire such things to spread the word and educate and enable others to take notice of and appreciate such things. And education certainly has to be a part of any long term strategy. It is urgent to teach people look past the commonplace and trashy stuff and to be able to see and appreciate what makes older buildings so unique and special. If more people were capable of regarding such buildings as treasures in the way that you and I do, they would stand a far better chance of finding someone willing to save them and be a less risky financial proposition.
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#7 John S.

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Posted 30 August 2010 - 02:06 PM



The period from 1980 to around 1995 was the "Golden Age" of historic preservation in Fort Worth from my personal perspective. Not only were the aforementioned comprehensive historic resources inventory surveys completed but the City's own historic preservation ordinances were strengthened and codified. New Historic districts such as the Southside-Fairmount were established during this active period. The prominent Bass family provided the momentum for wider downtown renewal by starting on Main Street and Sundance Square. That process of remaking downtown continues to this day albeit with more emphasis currently on new construction rather than renovation or restoration.

However, since that seemingly more enlightened time, some key influential individuals who were well connected politically and who helped bring about this period of historic preservation prominence in Fort Worth, have either departed the local scene entirely or have greatly reduced their active roles in such endeavors. As a result, many controversial changes in the downtown streetscape in recent years are quite evident. While few would lament the loss of the Ripley Arnold (mostly governmentally subsidized) Apartments, the short-lived Radio Shack corporate campus is now in its second reincarnation as a college campus. Most of the new construction in the wake of the downtown tornado are positively received. However, a large gash was sliced into our famous Bluff so close to our historic Courthouse that the modernist style buildings being completed now would have likely been vigorously opposed and rejected during the so-called "golden era" of historic preservation activism. So many downtown projects are underway or have recently been completed that our downtown identity is definitely changing. In this transforming process, historic resources are being impacted either by being demolished or by sharing space with new neighbors that esthetically clash with them. The controversial building on the Bluff is but one example.

Our present city government collectively seems far more biased in favor of new development at any cost than in supporting historic preservatation goals. Obviously, we need a stronger voice at the City government level in favor of historic preservation, but I don't know how we can get there currently. Entire potential national register eligible districts in Fort Worth have been entirely wiped out in recent years (The once proposed East First St. H.D. and the proposed Mark Evans H.D. on East Bluff immediately come to mind) due to redevelopment. Others, like the remaining historic properties on Samuels Avenue, are now highly endangered. When taken as a whole, these situations make it obvious we are facing challenging times for historic preservation in our city. I would like to also include the Ridglea Theater in this endangered list and undoubtedly, there are many others worthy of inclusion. In summary, no matter what incentives might be proposed to stimulate and encourage preservation, a change in City government culture seems to hold the key to more historic structures being saved here. Our present City government appears to give historic preservation goals only lip service and a low priority. Until the carte blanche style, almost rabidly pro-development culture within our City government changes, I don't see much hope or cause for optimism here. Sorry, but that's the way I see it...

#8 unknowntbone

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Posted 07 September 2010 - 04:46 PM

I wish I still had my first Lionel train set, or my steel Tonka Toys. I wish my mom had kept that '57 Chevy Two-Ten. But I seem to remember all of them wearing out, rusting, and becoming increasingly dangerous to own--no longer useful. So now they're all gone.

As much as we may love an old building--or natural space, for that matter--we have to weigh its usefulness to us as well as its effectiveness to its intended purpose. The OLD library downtown was a great building, but it was no longer useful as a library. The same is true of the old City Hall--(and the new City Hall, but that's a different topic). Historians lament the loss of Hell's Half Acre, but it had become an urban blight. Now, we can argue the architectural merits of their replacements, but there's no denying that the Convention Center and the Main Library are effective in their intended use. There's no doubt that we lost some historically significant buildings, but I believe it was necessary for this city in it's development. There's also no doubt that we will lose OTHER historic buildings in the future. But it may be necessary for this city to grow and remain vibrant into the future.

Don't get me wrong--I LOVE the old buildings and admire the work of the preservationists--but sometimes we have to choose our fights and let the others go the historical archives. After all, that old '57 Chevy never had seat belts or airbags. No power steering. It had drum brakes. And the radio was crappy.




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