The ethics of demolishing heritage
Pictured above: The Clinton Campbell House, one of fewer than 50 remaining 19th-century homes in Phoenix, will be demolished to make way for an unspecified future development.
Recently we seem to be losing one historic building after another in Phoenix to the bulldozer for lack of regulatory protections. In a political climate that places a high value on private property rights, unless owners voluntarily protect historic buildings they control little can be done without risking huge legal bills or court judgments. But why does it so often come down to us-versus-them? In a reflection of today’s polarized political climate, the answer may illustrate two radically different worldviews about economics and our responsibilities to society.
There is a familiar pattern to many losses of historic buildings in Phoenix that reads like this: A building’s historical importance is recognized by survey, but it is not legally designated historic because of objections by the property owner. The property is put on the market. It sits with a for-sale sign in front for months, and then years, as one developer after another looks at it, evaluates the development proforma of an adaptive reuse project, and walks away because the high asking price can’t be justified. Just when it seems that the seller is going to have to lower the price, a buyer appears that negotiates a purchase close to what the seller was asking. Soon thereafter, a demolition permit is filed, the community cries out, and another piece of Arizona history disappears.
The three examples that come to mind are the Stewart Motors Studebaker building, the Clinton Campbell House, and just recently, the Melrose Drive-in Liquor building. All three of these illustrate the pattern exactly.
Why were these buildings left unprotected, if they are so worthy? Stewart and Campbell were identified by historic surveys in the 1980s, and the Melrose building was on the developer’s radar from the inception of their project. Someone could have nominated them to the National Register of Historic Places, but the documentation needed can be complex and costly to create, and listing is contingent on the consent of the property owner. In any case, National Register listing provides little to no protection except from a federal government action. Real protections are embodied in Historic Preservation overlays written into the zoning ordinance. But since 2006, when the Private Property Rights Protection Act (a.k.a. Proposition 207) was passed in Arizona, cities are more than reluctant to re-zone anything without owner consent.
It’s important to be clear on this point: although not formally listed or zoned, these buildings are unquestionably historic. Having a detailed write-up and federal recognition doesn’t make a building historic. Being zoned with an HP overlay does not make a building historic. The criteria for evaluating whether a building qualifies as historic have changed little since the 1960s. If it’s generally at least 50 years old, represents an important historical event, person, or architectural pattern, and still looks the same as it did “back then,” it’s historic. It’s what preservationists call “National Register Eligible” and it’s just a fact of a building’s existence.
The demolition of these buildings (or in the case of Stewart Motors, 2/3 of it) may be the result of a purely economic viewpoint on the part of the developers. If demolishing a building and putting something bigger and newer on the site can create more value than rehabilitating the historic building, then some people believe that our laissez-faire economic system says it must happen. It’s not me tearing down that building, it’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand!
But economics is more complex than that. There are other forces at work. In a sales transaction, there is a buyer and there is a seller. Negotiation between the two determines the true value. Because these properties sat on the market for several years, it’s apparent that the seller’s idea of their value exceeded what most buyers found to be a justifiable price. They knew that the community would want the building preserved, and that a rehabilitation project couldn’t be economic at the price being asked.
When a buyer does come along who is willing to pay the higher price, it’s often because he’s willing to go farther than everyone else. Whether through ignorance, malevolence, or indifference, they are taking advantage of the fact that there are no regulations preventing them from “maximizing the value” of the site by removing impediments such as old buildings. And this is where the two worldviews collide.
Do we have a moral obligation to preserve buildings for the good of the community? Morals and ethics are not laws, but they are part of the social contract that we live by. They are the rules of politeness, unselfishness, and humanity that lubricate our interactions with others, creating trust and harmony. In the absence of laws, ethics are the only thing preventing a “tragedy of the commons” effect, a race to the bottom, from occurring. Adherence to the ethical standards of the community is what caused these buildings to stay on the market so long.
In the cases of Stewart Motors and the Clinton Campbell House, either the new owners did not recognize that the buildings were important to the community, or they didn’t care. If the former, they are negligent in not doing the depth of research on the property they should have, and the community was negligent in not making their importance more obvious. But I fear the latter is more likely. In the absence of laws or zoning regulations to halt bad actors, it is up to the community to communicate and enforce the ethical standards we expect people to live up to.
To the development community, I say: please be aware that the set of historic buildings that the community cares about is much larger than the set of buildings that have preservation overlays on them. You should expect resistance to their destruction, even without protections being written into law. The community expects you to do right by our historic buildings because when you are doing development work in an urban context, there needs to be a cooperative process where everyone comes out a winner, as much as is possible.
And to the community, I say: we need to do a much better job of identifying, recognizing, celebrating, and publicizing all our historic building stock, whether or not formally recognized. Without such recognition, it is far too easy for developers to claim ignorance in defense of a development scheme that requires demolition of an historic building to pencil out economically.