Downtown and Historic Preservation

by Mike Hahn, President/CEO
Downtown Community Partnership

As many of you know, the Downtown Community Partnership recently moved our offices into the Loretta Building at 210 Broadway, N.

We are proud of our new space because it reflects what we believe in, promoting the use of existing historic resources. The proprietor of our building, the Kilbourne Group, has done an excellent job in re-purposing this structure built from 1909 to 1912. The building is actually named after the daughter of one of Fargo’s early mayors, Peter Elliott.

Since being located on the “50 yard line” of downtown, we already have had hundreds of visitors who appreciate the craftsmanship that are inherent in historic buildings, like exposed brick, original wood floors, tin ceilings, natural lighting, etc.  However, on a few occasions, we have had a person or two commented, “Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to tear this down and build new?”

We challenge those comments with the following, based on data from Donovan D. Rypkema, Main Street Guru and author of the book, “The Economics of Historic Preservation”:

  • Historic preservation is the best form of recycling.  Almost 24% of the USA’s total municipal solid waste is made up of demolished buildings.  The cost to demolish a typical two-story brick mercantile is equal to the entire environmental benefit of recycling 1,344,000 aluminum cans.
  • When it comes to life expectancy, OLD is better than NEW. Materials in new construction are built to last for decades while the craftsmanship in historic buildings are built to last for centuries.
  • Historic preservation creates higher paying jobs. Due to the craftsmanship involved in historic buildings, preservation requires specialized construction with skills that demand higher wages.

Yes, it takes a special developer–some even with deep pockets–to do historic rehabilitation   They must be knowledgeable in financing such projects using specialized incentives like federal tax credits and/or the North Dakota Renaissance Zone.  Also, they must be passionate about a vision that goes beyond the traditional ROI, knowing their investment reestablishes a sense of place.

In downtown Fargo, we are blessed with many of these visionary developers both small and large who are making significant investments back into our city core.

Downtown Mason City, Iowa circa 1980s. Courtesy of the Lee P. Loomis Archives, Mason City Public Library

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, my hometown of Mason City, Iowa lost a good portion of their sense of place.  Mason City, like many cities, tried rejuvenating their downtown through urban renewal by demolishing blocks and blocks of historic buildings. In place of these buildings, they constructed a suburban designed enclosed shopping mall complete with lots and lots of surface parking (of course, where historic buildings once stood).

Frank Lloyd Wright Park Inn Hotel, Mason City, Iowa circa 2010

The provided photo gives a dark contrast on what losing a historic sense of place is all about; this was the downtown I grew up with! Over 25 years later, the mall is struggling.  My hometown is making great strides in downtown revitalization, but it’s not centered on the shopping mall.  Ironically, they are rebuilding their sense of place around historic preservation. Specifically, the last remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world, the Park Inn.

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