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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

Which is “lazier” demolition or preservation?

January 31st, 2014  |  Posted by: Greg Galer


Berkshire Hathaway Mill Demolition Has Begun

Berkshire Hathaway Mill Demolition Has Begun

Two recent stories in major Boston business and real estate industry publications highlight the diverse perspectives on preservation and the fact that every historic property comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. This variety is one of the things I love about the work we do at the Alliance: every project is like its own puzzle with a unique solution and path to resolution different from any other. We draw on our cumulative experienced of many projects from the past, but no two preservation challenges are the same. That’s what excites me about coming to work every day.

The Boston Business Journal and Banker and Tradesman each recently published articles about adaptive use of historic mill buildings. Given that I entered the preservation world through an interest in old industrial sites, this coverage caught my attention. The Banker & Tradesman hails the benefits of adaptive use of industrial properties: “Converted Mills Find Second Life as Offices, Housing,” Steve Adams, 1-26-14 –   :

“The cavernous structures lend themselves to the open floor plans and flexible layouts favored among tech-oriented companies.  … Dozens of creative firms have gravitated to the distinctive brick-and-beam architecture and historic bona fides of mill properties”

On the other hand , the BBJ, heralds the decision to demolish the old Berkshire Hathaway Mill in New Bedford: “Wrecking ball is best for Berkshire Hathaway mill in New Bedford,” Matthew L. Brown, 1-14-14 — Criticizing “ those who make a fetish of historic preservation,”  Brown notes: 

“There’s something hollow, lazy and crass about preserving what was once a place of back-breaking work … For every history buff and industrial-revolution fetishist who just can’t bear to see another 150-year-old sweatshop torn down, there’s a loom operator’s son or daughter who’d be happy to demolish the place himself and spit on the rubble when he’s done.”

Brown makes a valid point that preservation doesn’t always make sense, isn’t viable in every case. Preservation isn’t always a solution, and no one is suggesting that we try to freeze our communities in time and change nothing.  The Alliance promotes and supports evolution of our communities.  But, the question is where does the default lie?  Do we assume everything we now see will be demolished except for few particularly special cases or would we rather our communities retain the essence of their character and suggest that preservation of existing building stock is the normative result?  That demolitions are the exception? That we should justify why to demolish over why to save?

Maybe the preservation of the New Bedford Mill wasn’t economically viable. I wasn’t involved and can’t say.  But to deride those who seek to preserve these buildings is simply wrong. In my decades of experience I’ve found there are more people who take pride in their family histories in these buildings, who want them preserved than those who want them destroyed.

These dramatically divergent takes on industrial sites capture one of the challenges each of us who promote the many benefits of adaptive use of historic sites face. There are two ways to look at them: as burdens or as assets.  Historic preservation is certainly not a panacea, and not the right solution all the time, but it is a route to positive outcome in far more instances than people realize, and it is important that we change that perspective because it will lead to even greater success.

Let me explain.  A property owner or developer or community who looks at an historic building and sees it as nothing but a collection of insurmountable challenges and sees none of the amazing possibilities and benefits inherent within it will have neither the focus nor fortitude to pursue a preservation alternative. They will often blind themselves to the fact that preservation projects often can drive higher revenue, avail themselves of tax credits, are environmentally friendly, and are often embraced by the community for the secondary benefits of supporting neighborhood character.  Instead, though, owners often focus on the challenges of a building that may on the surface appear run down and long past its useful life.  (Why should we be surprised that a building poorly maintained for decades if not over a century “shows” poorly?) Demolition, I would argue, is the lazy route.

We need to look past the warts and see the inner beauty that can return to an outer beauty as well.  We don’t build buildings like they used to with details, materials, and craftsmanship rarely seen in today’s production-like building systems, and far too expensive to replicate in new construction.  We need to see that the efforts put into older building stock often gives better results than new construction. Studies have clearly shown that energy-wise old buildings rehabilitated meet or surpass energy demands of today, that reuse of historic buildings is a win win for the environment (remember that embodied energy lost when a building is demolished never mind the energy required to demolish and replace it).  We need more developers to recognize that historic tax credits available on the state and federal level, literally bring millions of dollars to projects, allowing them to move forward.  Did you know that the historic portion of the downtown Millennium/Filenes project allowed the new construction to happen, that historic preservation is leveraging a skyscraper?

Let’s all get on the same page and recognize that preservationists are not radicals, fetishists or crazies who want to see every historic building stay in place.  We are people who recognize that historic character has been critical to the economic and social success of many of our communities.  We can demonstrate that preservation works socially and economically – not in every case but in far more cases than some may assume. Give preservation a try over demolition. We think you’ll be pleasantly rewarded. 

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