'Historic', Not 'Hysterical': Preservation Goes Mainstream

Historic preservation still suffers from an image problem, even in the face of all available evidence. Some critics still have the misimpression that preservationists are fussy (even fusty) antiquarians. When I hear complaints about the requirements of historic review commissions, I'm amazed that the griping is often accompanied by a crack about the local "hysterical society." Even the Wikipedia entry on "historic preservation" contains the passage, "‘historic preservation' is sometimes referred to as ‘hysterical preservation'." (And, of course, Wikipedia is ever-infallible).

Yet, despite such rhetoric, historic preservation has truly gone mainstream in recent years. Preservation has become an integral part of community policies to support economic development, housing, neighborhood revitalization, and quality of life. All across the nation, preservation is driving economic revitalization and new housing supply.

In my own city, Los Angeles, an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance passed in 1999 has become the city's most successful generator of new housing – resulting in the completion of over 4,300 units, 4,200 more units under construction, and another 3,200 in the development pipeline – mostly in significant historic structures that had sat vacant for years. New legions of preservationist developers have emerged and even the largest, established development firms have learned that preservation adds economic value.

Yet, some planners still view historic preservation as a low priority – a secondary, purely aesthetic concern that necessarily competes with other planning and policy goals. That will require a shift in mindset to understand that historic preservation plays an essential role in shaping great cities.

But perhaps some preservationists may need to change their mindset, as well. Since we've seen that even a tiny minority of nit-picky purists can perpetuate outdated perceptions and hackneyed wisecracks, preservationists must not wallow solely in nostalgia or convey an instinctual resistance to change. The preservation community should continue to articulate an expansive planning vision that embraces innovation, exciting new architecture, and the opportunities of well-managed growth, all while reminding planners and the public that we must anchor our communities firmly in their historic "sense of place."

Ken Bernstein is Manager of the Office of Historic Resources and Principal Planner of the Citywide Planning Division for the City of Los Angeles' Department of City Planning.



Good Work

This is an important message that needs to be forcefully articulated in your travels around the City of Los Angeles. You are taking the lead in building a new sense of preservation maturity and responsibility in this City and it is much appreciated.

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