Charlotte is having a lot of conversations lately about the fate of our historic buildings, from the fabled Excelsior Club and the locally revered Van Landingham Estate to more ordinary edifices, like the older homes in fast-changing neighborhoods such as Belmont, Cherry and Plaza Midwood.
These conversations tend to pit economic goals like development and growth against community values, such as preserving the character of our neighborhoods and protecting our city’s history. One often overlooked factor is the economic impact of historic preservation, from attracting tourism and jobs to making our city more sustainable and affordable. We must be sure to consider those benefits, as our local governments weigh policies that will affect our region’s development for years.
Experience and extensive research tell us that preserving our historic built environment brings tangible benefits, many of them economic. Most important, saving older buildings supports the growth of local businesses. A recent study that focused on San Francisco, Seattle and Washington found that areas with older, smaller buildings had 37 percent more jobs than areas with mostly newer, larger buildings. Those areas also had twice as many businesses with women and minority ownership and had more small businesses overall. That’s because older buildings usually offer lower rents, which gives start-ups, local shops and artists the spaces they need to thrive. That sort of diverse, entrepreneurial culture is something Charlotte has said it wants to nourish.
As our city grows, keeping and reusing older buildings can also help solve our housing crisis. According to the Bipartisan Millennial Housing Commission of Congress, preservation is cheaper than new construction, and rehabilitation and preservation of housing returns them to lower-income families faster than new units can be built.
Finally, preserving our historic buildings creates and supports jobs in restaurants, hotels, shops and museums. The buildings attract visitors who want to see our cultural treasures and unique neighborhoods. According to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, culture and heritage tourists spend almost twice as much per day as general visitors to our state, and 67 percent pay for lodging while they’re here.
It’s not too late to save some of Charlotte’s historic places and reap the economic benefits. No matter what Charlotteans have been conditioned to think by all the historic markers showing us where our history used to be, there are still buildings worth saving. In fact, at the start of 2018 Mecklenburg County had 106 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, and many other older buildings without historic designation also represent our collective history and give our city soul.
May is national Preservation Month, so it’s fitting that the Charlotte Museum of History is bringing back Charlotte’s Preservation Awards, formerly hosted by the nonprofit Historic Charlotte. The awards recognize local projects that, by saving historic buildings, make our region more livable and more economically vibrant. By spotlighting the people and businesses that are preserving our historic built environment, we hope to encourage more preservation in the future.