Abell Salutes: Preservation Maryland making history a partner in economic development.

August 2007 / Community Development / Salutes
Preservation Maryland making history a partner in economic development.

“Historic preservation,” at least among many business development types, has a bad name — building-huggers lying in front of bulldozers, blocking progress. Preservation Maryland is doing a lot to change that perception. While the agency is in the business of saving buildings, it is also in the business of making those same buildings important factors in fostering community wealth; for starters, working to save the historic fabric of the West Side of downtown as an unprecedented $1 billion has been invested within it—making history a partner in economic development.

Long known as a caretaker of historic properties, the 75-year-old Preservation Maryland (PM) is today engaged in broad-based strategies of grassroots advocacy, outreach and funding. In 1997 PM spearheaded the creation of the Maryland Heritage Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credits, which, according to PM, is the city’s single most effective economic incentive for preserving and rehabilitating historic structures. Over $260 million in heritage tax credits has been received, leveraging over $1 billion in investment.

To help neighborhoods enjoy access to this program, PM and Maryland Historical Trust with a seed grant of $25,000 from The Abell Foundation, created the Historic Communities Investment Fund (HCIF). HCIF provided funding to help communities nominate districts to the National Register of Historic Places. Once these districts are successfully registered, the houses and structures within the districts are eligible for the state tax credits, local property tax relief and in some cases federal historic tax credits—drawing revitalization funding.

The results are dramatic. Real estate values for the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, for example, have nearly doubled since 2002. Over its five-year span from 2000 to 2005, HCIF funded nominations of seventeen historic districts in Baltimore City. Baltimore City now has over 46,000 houses and commercial buildings that are eligible to access the benefits of the Heritage Tax Credit program, in neighborhoods including Reservoir Hill, Patterson Park, and Hampden.

Despite the documented success of historic preservation as a revitalization and economic development tool, historic treasures continue to be threatened. Baltimore, so rich in historic buildings, nearly faced an unprecedented loss: the 1998 West Side Master Plan slated the demolition of 150 historic buildings. The plan threatened not only cherished structures but also local businesses and the community itself. PM partnered with Baltimore Heritage, campaigning successfully to use preservation-based revitalization instead of demolition.

Using a combination consisting of an alternate proposal highlighting the benefits of federal and state tax credits, grass roots advocacy, lobbying, a documentary short, and a National Register for Historic Places nomination, Preservation Maryland successfully challenged the demolition plan. A Memorandum of Understanding between the city and PM identified buildings of historic significance that were required to be preserved and encouraged protection of other buildings affected by the plan.

Directly across the street from the Hippodrome Theater, the neighborhood’s crown jewel, is the mixed-use Centerpoint project developed by Bank of America. The redevelopment project boasts 370 apartments and 60,000 square feet of retail space including a locally owned restaurant, Maggie Moore’s, and a Starbucks. The majority of the 17 buildings that comprise Centerpoint are historic buildings that were originally slated for demolition under the West Side Master Plan. As a result of preservation-based strategies, historic buildings have new life, the community is growing, and Baltimore serves as a national model.

These Baltimore success stories are the result of partnerships. One of Preservation Maryland’s key strengths is its ability to build coalitions which bring a variety of perspectives, needs, and leverage to any given issue. These partnerships were called on this year to help save the state Heritage Tax Credit, which was due to expire in 2008 and to eliminate a legislative cap on commercial tax credit awards to any single jurisdiction. In 2006, this limitation had prevented 30 Baltimore City commercial projects from receiving the remaining $10 million after tax credits were equitably distributed around the state. These lost opportunities for Baltimore also ultimately meant lost revenue for the state. As a result of advocacy from PM and many partners, the Heritage Tax Credit has been extended for two years to 2010 and the cap was eased to allow Baltimore commercial projects to receive up to 75 percent of the tax credits available statewide.

The Abell Foundation salutes Preservation Maryland and its executive director, Tyler Gearhart, for their role in making history a vital part of economic development.