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The future of historic preservation is about much more than old buildings

The president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation discusses her forthcoming book and the changes shaping the preservation movement

If you thought historic preservation was just about saving grand, classic structures from the wrecking ball, you would be wrong. According to The Past and Future City, a new book by Stephanie Meeks (October 4, Island Press), the President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the role of historic preservation is evolving, touching not just the buildings that many consider some of the best parts of their cities, but the cities themselves.

"It’s a manifesto, of sorts," Meeks says about the book. "It’s my Jerry Maguire Moment."

Meeks takes full advantage of the platform, outlining the accomplishments of a half-century of work and the opportunities available in the next 50 years. As the nation’s urban renaissance continues, the book argues, preservationists aren’t just saving the stories and structures of the past, but increasingly writing the future, as well. Curbed spoke with Meeks, who outlined the main issues and changes facing the preservation movement, and where focus should be applied.

Retain and expand historic tax credits

This vital tool for redeveloping historic properties has helped our urban centers rebound, argues Meeks, having been used to renovate more than 40,000 structures and channel leveraged $117 billion in private investment. But some lawmakers want to restrict or remove this credit from the tax code.

"Our primary concern has been making sure the credits don’t go away," she says. "We also have legislation we’ve been supporting that would make these credits easier to use for small businesses. It’s a complex credit, and oftentimes, it takes teams of experts to use, which makes it hard for Main Street owners to use. We think expanding the credit is an important fix, one that can help save a lot of smaller buildings."

Focus on showcasing our diverse and evolving history

The numbers are telling: Of the 86,000 places listed on the National Register, fewer than 8 percent represent women or people of color. Meeks believes that over the next 50 years of historic preservation, that has to change. She says the National Trust has invested significant resources in this issue, and plans to continue to do so in the future.

"One of the things we need to do as a country is identify the sites that still remain, and even those that don’t," she says. "For instance, in Richmond, Virginia, Shockoe Bottom, which was one of the largest slave trading markets in the nation, was buried by I-95. There’s little physical evidence left. But it’s a place that’s incredibly important to American history, so we’ve been working with community groups to create a public park and memorial."

Of the 86,000 places listed on the National Register, less than 8 percent represent women or people of color. Meeks wants that to change.

Meeks also says there should be a focus on stories that aren’t recognized or commonly told, drawn from the nation's diverse ethnic groups and traditions. For instance, Pauli Murray was a African-American civil rights scholar, Episcopal bishop, and a founder of the National Organization of Women, yet few have heard of her. The Trust is working with a local group in North Carolina to rectify that by turning her childhood home into a research center, telling her story and in effect, continuing her work.

Use preservation as a tool to solve the affordability crisis

"Preservation isn’t just about grand buildings," says Meeks. "Affordability is part of an evolving part of preservation, and what it can stand for."

As Jane Jacobs famously pointed out, cities need older buildings, which help streets thrive and offer hidden density and multiple uses. Saving these buildings can help make older neighborhoods more vital and active. In white-hot markets such as New York City, historic districts only make up a small percentage of the building stock, leading Meeks to dismiss the argument that they’re hurting efforts to diversify the housing stock.

Older buildings are adaptable, and can be turned into mixed-use space that increases density; the solution to affordable housing doesn't necessarily mean demolishing older structures and putting up towers.

"Preservation and gentrification don’t necessarily go hand in hand," says Meeks. "If cities set out with the objective to not displace people, there are all kinds of tools available to guarantee the rising tide lifts all boats."

Living history, and small businesses, also need preservation

The National Trust has also supported initiatives such as the Legacy Business Registry in San Francisco, which helps support small, historic businesses. Meeks believes these businesses are key parts in defining the character of a city, yet often, they get threatened when real estate prices and rent skyrocket in developing neighborhoods.

"Many of us want to live in cities with businesses like this," says Meeks. "Duane Reade and CVS certainly have their place, but so does the independent pharmacy, the corner grocery market, and the bodega. Again, I believe tools are available for city leaders to create the kinds of cities that we want. But we need to be deliberate about it."