The city of Easton and the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership recently applied for a grant to study a potential historic preservation district for the West Ward.
As Ed Sieger reported, the West Ward has 18 different architectural styles, but many are covered up by aluminum siding. The neighborhood could be much more appealing to if more of these original facades were restored.
The case for incentivizing more historic facade improvements is persuasive, and many cities have had great success with historical preservation as a development tool.
Done well, preservation can , raise property values, attract more high-income residents, and boost new construction.
But a poorly designed conservation district can have the opposite effect: limiting opportunities for growth and development, pricing out middle class residents, and shackling a city to its past, preventing it from responding to changing tastes in the market.
I don't think I have to tell our conservative friends about the tendency of regulatory bureaucracies to expand their reach over time, and historic preservation districts are no different.
What starts as a list of a few special buildings could eventually end up as a very long and undistinguished list of not-so-special buildings that just happen to be old.
In the worst case, a historic preservation district can become a powerful tool for NIMBYs to block new construction and population growth. As an extreme example, NIMBYs in other cities have managed to get ugly eyesores on the preservation registry in order to prevent land parcels from being developed into housing.
It may sound a little crazy to be concerned about this now, given the current state of the West Ward neighborhood, but that's just it - unless clear limits are established at the outset, preservation will run on autopilot, piling up unseen costs.
The South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District is a good example of what not to do.
Bethlehem's biggest mistake was to include almost the entire Central Business District zone of the Southside in the historic district.
A city's central business district is where they should be adding the most residential and office square footage, but Bethlehem's historic district is a hammerlock on new construction there.
Almost anything you could want to do to a property has to be approved by an unelected preservation board, the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission.
Facade changes and new construction alike must be approved, and modern architecture is not allowed, even though the area is being billed to young people as a "funky arts district."
Worst of all, the historic district makes it unduly difficult to demolish or replace any buildings in the CBD, even though many are not especially attractive, historically important, or a good use of valuable downtown land.
There are some good reasons to believe that 2012 will see a big increase in multi-family construction starts, and Southside Bethlehem is going to miss the boat because their historic district overregulates new construction and imposes too many costs on developers.
Easton can avoid these problems by adopting a much narrower ordinance.
Instead of trying to preserve whole neighborhoods, it would be better to create a historic preservation budget.
With a historic preservation budget, neighbors would agree on a reasonable number of properties that could be on the preservation registry at any given time. Once the limit was reached, adding a new property to the list would require the removal of another property's protected status.
The city could create a formal procedure for raising the limit, like a majority vote by city council, so the limit couldn't be raised haphazardly in response to unpopular demolitions.
This would make the trade-offs between preservation and growth visible, unlike the invisible costs that Bethlehem incurs from its overly-broad ordinance.
One good idea in this vein, from Easton's planning director Becky Bradley, is to limit the district to a few key blocks, or properties by the same designer or builder.
The eventual proposal will, of course, be a compromise between those who favor more preservation and those who favor stronger property rights, but it is important for lawmakers to remember that preservation is a cost, even if they consider it a cost worth paying.