Book Report: The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks

By Lauren Patterson

Berry, Patterson, Shupe, Fry 4.jpg

This blog post was written in Summer 2018 by Graduate-Level Intern, Lauren Patterson, a master’s student in Historic Preservation at the University of Georgia. She is currently working on her thesis focusing on analyzing mid-century commercial architecture in Athens, Georgia to better understand its evolution and how it can be preserved.  She wants to specialize in community advocacy and sustainability. Lauren Patterson is pictured to the left in the front with fellow interns, Madeline Berry, Sam Shupe, and Rosa Frye behind her.  

Stephanie Meeks announced this summer that she will be stepping down as President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation next month. Ms. Meeks became the eighth president and first woman chief executive officer in the nearly 70-year history of the National Trust, the nation’s leading nonprofit for the preservation of America’s most historic places, when she joined the organization in July 2010.

Book Report: The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks

I optimistically checked out a fat stack of preservation-related books at the University of Georgia library and lugged them up to Maine for self-assigned summer reading. The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks (Island Press, 2016) has been on my list for quite some time.

The president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since 2010, Meeks echoes ideas that are buzzing in the preservation world and support the message of Max Page’s lecture. That preservation is much more than house museums, it’s an evolving field that should play an important role in addressing some of our most hot-button issues such as affordable housing and climate change. To do this, she outlines 10 steps communities can take to harness the power of their existing building stock and protect historic resources. Here is my summary through a Portland lens:

1.      Make data-driven decisions. Preservationists are often accused of being everything from nostalgic to downright hysterical (I can’t take any more “hysterical preservation” jokes).  It’s hard to not be emotional when you care about your community and its future. To communicate to a broad audience and understand where and how to concentrate efforts, start with the facts. This summer, the intern team has been conducting architectural surveys throughout Portland so that future advocacy is based on an empirical inventory of resources. GIS mapping, traffic studies, and growth projections are other tools that can be used to identify areas with the most potential and focus resources.

492_Congress_St_July_2012_02_appropriate_infill_Max Yeston.jpg

2.      Pursue regulatory solutions, not obstacles. Just this past week, we attended the Historic Preservation Board workshop to discuss alternative design review and how demolition delays will function on Munjoy Hill. Providing collaborative alternatives for home owners and incentivizing reuse over demolition makes preservation the carrot rather than the stick.

3.      Ensure that old and new construction are compatible. Preservation shouldn’t be anti-development, but rather pro-smart development. As an outsider coming to Portland for the first time, it is powerful to see how energized local residents are to have a say in the future of their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this partially stems from the feeling that current infill development isn’t respectful of the existing historic fabric. Meeks specifically notes conservation overlays, just like what was recently passed on Munjoy Hill, as tools to provide guidelines and thoughtful development. The new development of today should contribute to the existing community, and be of a quality build and design that we will want to protect in the future. 

4.      Make streets for people first. It’s not surprising that pedestrians and cyclists feel more comfortable on streets with limited vehicle traffic, and ground-level businesses and homes that interact with the sidewalk (think Congress Street vs. Morrill’s Corner). As Jane Jacobs argued, the more pedestrian traffic present on a street, the more social connections will be built, businesses will thrive, and crime will be deterred. Major components of this include prioritizing public transit and the pedestrian experience over vehicle traffic, and incentivizing new development with ground floors that interact with the streetscape.       

5.      Invest in Main Street. When I was driving down Congress Street last Friday night, I turned off my radio and rolled my windows down because I knew that I’d be able to hear multiple outdoor performers as I drove through. Meeks points to a study performed by developer Joseph Minicozzi in multiple cities around the United States that found when comparing jobs and income generated per acre, downtowns consistently outperform big-box stores found outside the city center. Investing in Main Street (er, Congress Street) and its small-business owners is key to supporting the local economy, walkability, and Portland’s authenticity. 


6.      Take advantage of historic tax credits. As we saw when touring the Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse on Washington Avenue, sometimes it takes some creative math to make adaptive reuse feasible. Federal and local tax credits are critical to historic preservation and should be protected. Not only because they encourage reuse, but they also bring in more to the economy than they cost. Meeks notes that through 2014, the federal tax credit has “created 2.5 million jobs, leveraged $117 billion in private investment, resulted in more than 260,000 renovated housing units, and transformed more than 40,000 unused or underused buildings for new and productive uses.”

7.      Find and support other funding methods. Back to the Motherhouse, tax credits aren’t the only way to leverage investment and lower costs for reuse projects. This project also benefitted from a tax break for creating affordable apartment units. Community grants, revolving funds, and partnerships are also methods that can be explored to offset costs. With the proper legwork up front, reuse can prove to be both a win for the community and profitable for the developer.

129_Morning_St_Aug_2012_portico_02_Max Yeston.jpg

8.      Try new things. Communities evolve through trial and error, and often to get attention, you’ve got to shake things up. Historic districts and conventional messaging aren’t the only routes to protecting historic resources. An example of this that I love is the 2016 Breathing Lights art installation in upstate New York (Link To draw visitors to divested neighborhoods, lights inside vacant buildings were turned on 6-10pm each night and oscillated at the same pace as a beating heart.

9.      Be okay with starting small. I think this speaks for itself. Perhaps not everything can or should be saved, but by following the above steps, you’re off to a good start!