Prioritizing preservation: The BPA’s Greg Galer on how Boston’s next Mayor can protect the city’s built history

Prioritizing preservation: The BPA’s Greg Galer on how Boston’s next Mayor can protect the city’s built history

Historic Boston asked Greg Galer,  Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, to share his thoughts concerning Boston’s mayoral race and how its outcome will determine policy that directly effects the city’s most endangered historic buildings and sites. Read below as he poses questions for the field of candidates and considers topics like demolition, equity, climate change, and legacy businesses. (Cover photo “Surface Tension”  by Peter Vanderwarker.)

Those of us who have daily interactions with City policy, agencies, and staff know that while the Mayor isn’t personally involved in every decision that comes out of Boston government, the Mayor certainly sets a tone that permeates the entirety of the city’s operation. The “Fifth Floor” (where the Mayor’s Office as well as the offices of City Councilors reside) exists in physical reality and in metaphor. When someone says “It came from the Fifth Floor,” everyone knows it’s something the Mayor wants.

Of course, the impact and frequency of a statement like that varies by mayor. Some were actively involved, down in the weeds, and nothing of consequence would move very far without a nod from the Mayor’s office. In other administrations the control wasn’t so tight. Regardless, the messaging that comes from the Fifth Floor as far as priorities, goals, and third rail issues is generally well-known to City Hall staff. When, for example, Mayor Walsh made it clear that building housing was a priority, that permeated all decision-making. Getting the number of new housing units up was primary. However, even though the rehabilitation and adaptive use of historic buildings for affordable housing is a proven effective tool, historic preservation was not a priority of the last administration. That was frustrating. We hope that our next Mayor recognizes the multifaceted benefits of our historic resources.

On housing, affordability, environmental, labor, resiliency, economic, and cultural grounds, a stronger emphasis of city government on preserving and creatively using the city’s historic resources benefits all Bostonians. With 78% of the city built before World War II there is simply no way the city can meet its climate goals without programs that support our existing buildings, particularly residential properties in the neighborhoods. Residents from East Boston to West Roxbury are seeing the negative impacts on their neighborhoods of a disease of demolitions, most based on a myopic and inaccurate belief that new construction is always best. The fact is, while certainly at times demolition and new construction makes sense, it is often not the best path to support environmental goals, provide more jobs, or create more affordable housing. Rehabilitating and creatively using historic resources (many times in conjunction with new) will often drive the best result for Bostonians.

Studies abound demonstrating that adaptation of historic properties for affordable housing is far more cost effective, particularly given robust programs such as the state and federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit which can reduce construction costs by up to 40%. Paired with the Low Income Historical Tax Credit the cost to build each unit of affordable housing can be far less than ground up construction. Never mind the environmental benefits of not demolishing existing buildings.  Reports such as Older, Smaller, Better demonstrate that established neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures.

So, what are we hoping to hear from the candidates looking to take that all-important seat on the Fifth Floor?

The Mayor should be clear that the multi-faceted benefits of historic preservation are a priority at the highest level of the City. They should make a specific statement that by supporting efforts to preserve and invest in historic resources of all types in all neighborhoods, City staff will be advancing the Mayor’s economic, social, environmental, and cultural goals. Additionally, it’s important that the Mayor provide clarity that preservation isn’t about freezing the city in time and stopping development, it’s about being more thoughtful in how the city grows and evolves, to support change that doesn’t blindly erase our past but better integrates it into our future.

The Mayor should recognize that our current policies, procedures, and regulations regarding historic preservation are out-of-date, of limited impact, and inequitable. The strongest way to assure historic areas of the city are preserved from rampant demolition and soulless new construction is to create a Landmark District. We haven’t had a new District established since 2009. Additionally, the places that hold stories we highlight today are more difficult to protect with our existing process. Many were not designed by famous architects, don’t survive to today unaltered, and are often connected to histories less well documented. Some of the oldest buildings in the city were only recently identified, and some were just as quickly demolished! If you don’t identify it you can’t preserve it. It’s as simple as that, and our surveys identifying the city’s historic resources are largely incomplete and out-of-date. Our understanding of what is historic, whose history places represent, and what should be preserved is inadequate. This lack of information is unfair to residents, neighborhoods, property owners, and developers. The new mayor must make investing in a comprehensive survey of historic resources a priority immediately. It will be a multi-year, significant investment but will pay clear dividends in protection of resources and predictability for the development community, city planners, and residents.

The time has come for a mayor who will support reevaluation of the entire development review process – both Article 80 Large Project Review and Small Project Review. The process is cumbersome to residents and the real estate development community, and many feel it is ineffective on both sides. Impact Advisory Groups, for example, provide some level of “community” input, but their selection and representation of resident desires are unclear. (Just take the recent debate over saving Amrheins in South Boston, where the IAG strongly pushed for its demolition but the broader Southie community wanted it preserved.)

Of course, this leads to the broader question if the current BPDA structure is best serving the city’s needs. Honest assessment is needed to assure that economic power of growth and development of the city is maximized to best serve the residents of Boston past, present, and future. While we often support thoughtful development and growth, we also warn of “killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” that gold being the unique historic character that drives so many residents, businesses, and tourists to the city. The creative energy that powers Boston rests upon walls, foundations (and sensitive wooden pilings), and character century’s old. When they are lost, they are lost forever.

We are looking for a mayor who recognizes that demolition is rampant across the city.  The unquestioned belief that newer is better, that older buildings should be removed to the landfill unless something or someone of regional or national historic importance happened there, and that the burden of proof should lay in the under-sourced Boston Landmarks Commission is simply a poorly framed and inaccurate representation of reality. The process needs to be changed. Article 85, our Demolition Delay Bylaw, which we’ve been pushing to modify or wholly replace for over a decade, seems to be finally finding some activity to do so in City Hall. This needs to be recognized as not simply a historic preservation issue. Demolition is certainly part of the evolution of cities. We are not looking to stop that. We want the burden of proof to be placed on those proposing demolition. They should have to demonstrate why demolition is better for the city. Demolition of the average single family house produces roughly the same amount of waste as the average person does in their entire lifetime. Never mind the carbon impact of demolition of larger, commercial properties. When a building must come down the City should insist it be deconstructed and materials re-used rather than go to the landfill. Additionally, many of the demolitions in historic neighborhoods replace naturally affordable housing in historic buildings. Instead, we get several units of market-rate housing, remove open space, and accelerate the homogenization of our neighborhoods. The current process is ineffective. Residents and we are simply tired of a process that doesn’t work.

Our new Mayor must recognize that demolition isn’t simply occurring by bulldozers and wrecking crews. Demolition by neglect and deterioration to the point of no return is actively destroying historic resources and threatening the health and safety of residents. Properties such as the Alley-Eblana Brewery, fallow in Mission Hill for decades, Mission Church buildings, or the Villa Victoria Church in the South End are just a few examples of this problem. A minimum maintenance ordinance is badly needed as well as its specific listing as a trigger for a revised Demolition Delay bylaw.

Funding for historic preservation has long been a problem in Boston. However, a Mayor who recognizes the vast benefits of historic resources should also see that investment in historic places pays huge dividends. While we are pleased that our advocacy for an increase in the Boston Landmarks Commission was successful with more funding, that office remains inadequately staffed to manage the work they should be doing. The BLC should have the ability to be pro-active rather than their current challenge to even be re-active. They should be out in the neighborhoods and with developers BEFORE proposals are filed. The BLC should be more integrated into the early part of the development process, so they can be more impactful in the forward-thinking aspects of city evolution.

We need a Mayor who recognizes that priority funding for historic resources in all aspects is a valuable investment in the city’s future. Currently historic resources are starved for funding, generally getting the lowest priority throughout the city’s funding stream. A great example of this is how the funds of the Community Preservation Act are distributed. Three funding areas: affordable housing, open space/parks, and historic preservation areas are equivalent by the state enabling legislation and the creation of Boston’s CPA. While both affordable housing and open space already have existing capital budgets in the City, historic preservation does not. Yet the focus of this program to date has largely been on affordable housing where CPA funds are far less impactful than they are for preservation projects. This is simply wrong. We need a Mayor who recognizes that CPA should be doing a better job supporting our much-needed historic resources. The Legacy Fund for Boston is another funding mechanism for which we advocated. The Mayor should insist that development projects that negatively impact historic resources make significant contributions.

Finally, we need a mayor who sees as important the re-examination of the Boston Landmarks Commission and its role in the city management and governance process. Boston so often touts itself as historic. Mayors talk about “our historic city,” but we’ve seen few support this rhetoric with action. Just look at the backlog of nearly 90 City Landmarks that remain in a “pending” status due to the inability of the BLC to complete the process. Boston was once a national leader in this work, but we’ve fallen behind. With BLC often the last to know about proposals, seeing development proposals for review after most every other agency has approved, and our one historic agency given little true role in impacting how the city moves forward, how can we expect to be leaders as we should be?

We hope our next mayor truly sees and supports “our historic city” with action. If not, we will lose our unique edge that benefits residents and brings investor and tourism dollars and is the very reason so many Bostonians love our city. Historic places don’t exist with us today due to indifference. They require investment and active efforts to assure they remain integral aspects of our lives. We can thank previous generations for stewarding the historic places we have. Let’s not give opportunity for those who come behind us to criticize us for dropping the ball. Let us be a national leader in historic preservation as we once were, not the middle of the pack where we currently seem to be.