In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a tax act that retroactively eliminated tax credits to investors in historic rehabilitation projects. The results were devastating to St. Louis. Companies that had been figuring out how to rehabilitate long-standing eyesores over the past decade suddenly shut down. New projects were scuttled and companies closed. St. Louis had figured out how to create an economy for its historic architecture, and all of a sudden that economy collapsed.
The next decade was a rough one for historic preservation. We lost a slew of great buildings, and came very close to losing others. Developers and city officials gave into despair and called for removing supposed unworkable buildings.
Tearing things down didn't help, and there was no real momentum for massive new construction. St. Louis had cut its losses only to lose more. Developers actually became the leaders of a successful effort to secure a state historic rehabilitation tax credit in Missouri that has become the best in the nation. Suddenly, time ran backwards and the optimism killed in 1986 was back.
Until 2008, when even the relatively bubble-free St. Louis market has lost much of its momentum. Lending for large projects in January 2008 was at 10% of the rate in January 2007. January 2009 may be worse. We've seen the real estate boom-bust cycle repeat, and the temptation to demolish vacant historic buildings is rising.
Let's be smarter this time around. We have a great historic rehab tax credit, great buildings, imaginative and eager developers and invested city residents. The availability of financing is the problem, not the historic buildings that store wealth during tough times. Demolition of valuable buildings reinforces market pessimism. We'll pull through the current crisis quicker if we safeguard our historic buildings as future development opportunities.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Michael Allen is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant working in private practice. Most recently he served as the Assistant Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the region's historic preservation advocacy organization. He is also editor of Ecology of Absence, a website with accompanying blog that documents and analyzes changes in the built environments of St. Louis, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. His articles on architecture and policy have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Beacon, St. Louis American, Arch City Chronicle and Omnitectural Forum. In addition to his professional work, Allen has been rehabilitating a house in the city's Old North St. Louis neighborhood for the past two years.