An essay posted January 15, 2021 on streets.mn entitled “Preserve The Future, Not Just The Past” is a fairly typical critique of heritage preservation and the role of heritage preservation commissions (HPCs) in American cities. The article points to the frequently absurd minutia and short-sightedness of HPC meetings and staff reports, but does not fully illustrate the scope and nature of the preservation process, its various levels and its intended purposes. As is the case with many essays on this topic, preservation is illustrated as an out-of-tune anachronism that at best impedes progress and inflates property values and at worst is used as a weapon by NIMBYs. By the end of the essay, it is essentially argued that HPCs are a waste of time, effort and money and that cities would be better served by civic design review boards or “climate preservation commissions” instead of HPCs.
One of the most common arguments used against HPCs (and indeed preservation at large) is that they are trying to save places that aren’t historic or significant. The former Knutson Construction building at 21 North Washington Avenue – a building that would be hard to call significant – is the latest example of this. Citing the need for additional historical research, the Minneapolis HPC recently granted interim protection to the 1969 modern building, which was (and probably still will be) slated to be replaced by a 27-story apartment building. Arguments against this decision include mentions of the building being insignificant, aesthetically unappealing and lacking integrity, not dense enough, et cetera.
Yes, it appears that the Knutson Construction building probably isn’t significant enough to be considered historic. However, places are not simply deemed “historic” or “non-historic” haphazardly; in fact, there are rigorous standards that must be followed in order for a place to receive official historic status. These standards, which can be applied to both individual properties or entire districts, were developed as part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and are administered by the National Park Service. They are based on four criteria found in the National Register nomination process. A property only needs to meet one of these four criteria to be considered eligible for historic designation:
- Criterion A: The property must be associated with significant cultural themes or historical events.
- Criterion B: The property must be associated with a significant cultural or historical person(s).
- Criterion C: The property must display significant design and/or construction characteristics or be associated with a prominent architect or builder.
- Criterion D: There is sufficient evidence that the property could yield significant historical information (i.e., archaeological sites).
There are several types of properties that are automatically disqualified from receiving historic status. These include religious properties, cemeteries, buildings that were moved, buildings that are historical replicas, and properties that were constructed within the past 50 years. However, such properties can be deemed eligible if they meet one of these seven considerations:
- Consideration A: The property is a religious property that is architecturally or historically significant.
- Consideration B: The property no longer stands at its historical location but is architecturally significant or is connected to a significant individual.
- Consideration C: The property is the birthplace or grave of a significant individual with no other extant sites associated with his or her life.
- Consideration D: The property is a cemetery where individuals of “transcendent importance” are buried, a cemetery where significant events occurred, or a cemetery that displays significant landscape design elements.
- Consideration E: The property is a historical replica that is reconstructed accurately and in the historical or similar location.
- Consideration F: The property is a statue, sculpture, or commemorative structure that is significant in terms of design, tradition, or symbolic value.
- Consideration G: The property is less than 50 years old but is of “exceptional importance.”
The National Park Service also requires that eligible buildings retain sufficient “integrity” from a specified period of significance. The concept of integrity is somewhat subjective, but is defined through seven characteristics. A historic property needs only to retain a majority of these characteristics:
- Location: The property still stands at its historical location.
- Design: The property displays many of its historical design characteristics.
- Setting: The property is surrounded by buildings and land uses similar in size and function to those that existed during the period of significance.
- Materials: The property retains many of its historic construction materials.
- Workmanship: The property displays workmanship that cannot be reproduced today.
- Feeling: The property is recognizable from its historical appearance.
- Association: The property embodies a direct link with an important person or historic event.
It is important to note that listing on the National Register does not apply to building interiors and does not provide private properties legal protection from harm or destruction – buildings on the National Register can still be modified or torn down. The original intent of the National Register was simply to create a national list of historic properties that could receive small restoration or rehabilitation grants. After 1986, however, listing on the National Register became a requirement for income-producing properties to receive federal historic tax credits.
Section 101 of the National Historic Preservation Act also grants powers to the states to form their own state heritage preservation offices (SHPOs) and to Indigenous nations to form their own tribal historic preservation offices (THPOs). In many states (including Minnesota), SHPOs maintain their own registers of historic places and are granted authority to approve or reject National Register nominations so that the National Park Service doesn’t have to do work on the ground. However, the National Park Service still retains the ultimate stamp of approval for all national nominations.
Section 101 of the National Historic Preservation Act further delegates authority to SHPOs to “provide a mechanism” for local governments to form heritage preservation commissions (HPCs). HPCs are often granted legal authority to enforce local preservation ordinances. For example, in many cities, a house that has been designated as a “local historic landmark” cannot legally be torn down unless special permission is received from the city council or if a lawsuit is filed and won on the grounds that the property is not actually historic or that the listing was a “taking,” et cetera.
Like SHPOs, the historic eligibility criteria for most HPCs are very similar if not identical to the national criteria. However, some municipalities have enacted stricter preservation policies (this is especially common on the east coast). Municipalities at the other end of the spectrum have elected not to establish HPCs at all or have severely limited the power of their HPCs (think non-touristy small towns or suburbs like Maple Grove). Minneapolis is somewhere in the middle and is rather typical among mid-sized American cities. Its set of criteria closely mirrors that of the national criteria, but includes three additional criteria not found at the national level:
- The property is associated with elements of city or neighborhood identity.
- The property exemplifies a landscape design or development pattern.
- The property exemplifies the work of an architect, master builder, engineer, artist, et cetera.
Sometimes local criteria can be overly subjective and easy to abuse. Such is the case for the Minneapolis criterion that allows properties associated with “distinctive elements of city or neighborhood identity” to be considered significant. Criticisms of such criteria are totally justified as they are the most likely to be abused and weaponized by NIMBYs. The terms “character” and “identity” are shallow code words often used by NIMBYs to oppose new development, and municipalities such as Minneapolis should remove language pertaining to these ambiguous terms from their local historic eligibility criteria.
With language like this, NIMBYs can and do abuse the preservation process by creating (or at least attempting to create) historic districts for their own benefit. In many cases, this is a reaction to the increasing desirability of their neighborhoods due to transit and infrastructure improvements and/or demographic shifts. In other cases, the process has been weaponized by high-income, historically white neighborhoods to keep lower-income people out.
NIMBYism is arguably the worst abuse of historic preservation. However, it is important to remember that NIMBYism originates outside of the profession of historic preservation – neighbors protesting a new development are rarely ever the same people conducting reconnaissance surveys or writing statements of significance for national or local historic nominations. At the same time, this distinction can be blurred when HPCs are led by volunteer citizens who are not properly trained or educated in heritage preservation. Currently, the Minneapolis HPC is only required to be composed of the following representatives:
- One representative of the mayor
- Two licensed architects (if available)
- One licensed real estate agent (if available)
- One person who resides in or owns a landmark or property in a historic district (if available)
- One member of the Hennepin History Museum (if available)
- Four other residents of Minneapolis with demonstrated interest, knowledge, ability, or expertise in historic preservation, neighborhood revitalization, archaeology, urban planning, history, or architecture.
None of these members are required to have a degree in heritage preservation, which is problematic. To be clear, I am not accusing any particular members of the Minneapolis HPC of being unqualified – I know some of them to be highly qualified. However, the language leaves the door open for non-objective opinions to prevail. For example, it’s unclear what a licensed real estate agent could bring to the table in regard to making an objective decision about a property’s significance. The same holds for a random resident who simply has “demonstrated interest” in preservation. Perhaps the most problematic category, however, is the requirement for one member to be the owner or a resident of a landmark or historic district. This seems to be an explicit invitation for NIMBY representation.
Furthermore, I am surprised that there is still no mention of race, diversity, equity or inclusion on the Heritage Preservation Commission webpage or in the city’s Heritage Preservation Ordinance. Perhaps I missed it, but this would seem to be important when dealing with representation and whose heritage is being preserved. Historically, HPCs (as well as the entire preservation profession) have been overwhelmingly white. This has resulted in disproportionate protections for historically white spaces of significance and a lack of protections for historically non-white spaces of significance. Ironically, the same urban renewal projects that catalyzed the preservation movement into being disproportionately affected people of color. It hardly seems right that there is not yet a published statement (at least that I can find) that affirms or at least aspires towards better representation of people of color and Indigenous communities on the HPC.
Another issue that should be addressed is the idea that historic properties and districts inherently increase property value. Although historic properties and districts often go hand-in-hand with gentrification, it is likely more of a symptom than a cause. One of the most public critics of preservation, Ed Glaeser, argues that historic districts are largely responsible for gentrification because they restrict the amount of residential and commercial supply needed to keep real estate affordable. Glaeser’s now-pervasive thought process seems to suggest that new or dense construction is not allowed in historic districts, which is not even remotely true except for in rare instances, and that this is single-handedly the reason why real estate in historic districts is often expensive.
As cliché as it sounds, the main factor in determining property value is really location. Whether historic or not, locations and spaces that mainstream society deems “desirable” have higher demand, which leads to increased property values. Before the signing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, “desirability” was explicitly tied to race and was used for the purposes of redlining. However, desirability can also be tied to geographical proximity to amenities, infrastructure, commerce, and jobs. This is true of both historic and non-historic districts.
That said, it cannot be denied that historic districts are often located in “trendy” areas with locally hot real estate markets. For some districts, it is possible that they were created at the urging of NIMBYs who were reacting to the increasing accessibility or desirability of their neighborhoods for whatever reason (meaning the land value would have increased anyway). A different explanation for high land value in other historic districts is that mainstream society is psychologically attracted to buildings and spaces from certain time periods. I’m no psychologist, but there have been many books written on this specific topic (remember The Architecture of Happiness?).
On the flip side, many affordable dwelling units would not be possible to develop without the combined use of federal historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits. When put together, these tax credit programs can provide up to a 40% credit on income taxes for certain affordable housing developments (each respective program allows up to a 20% credit). These credits are typically sold to investors and reimbursed as raw financing to fund said developments. But in order for historic tax credits to be utilized, the property in question must be listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Some states have also launched their own historic tax credit programs that can provide additional financing. In Minnesota, an additional 20% credit can be provided to properties that are listed in the NRHP or are certified as “contributing” to a registered historic district. That means affordable housing projects in Minnesota can receive financing worth up to 60% of their total generated income tax if the property is listed in the NRHP or is located within a historic district.
What role can local HPCs play in this process? Sometimes, properties and districts end up being listed in the State and/or National Register after they have received historic status from a local HPC. At the very least, local HPCs can and do conduct much of the research required to evaluate and list properties on the State and National registers (the SHPO and National Park Service usually stay out of this part of the process unless they actually own the property – it’s a very “bottom-up” process). However, the focus of HPCs can shift away from this if their attention is turned towards more minute details like lighting, building materials, or massing within local historic districts – things that HPCs are notorious for focusing too much on.
So how does this all relate to the former Knutson Construction building? It appears that the building does not meet the criteria for historic designation, but the Minneapolis HPC wants to study it further before a final decision is made (assuming the City Council doesn’t revoke the building’s interim protection, which it very well could). Yes, it is unlikely that further research would yield sufficient information to make the building “significant,” but it is due diligence on the city’s part to complete a non-biased study (the only study conducted so far was completed on behalf of the applicant). The stay on demolition is only temporary, so if the building doesn’t meet the criteria for historic eligibility, then by all means replace it.
Again, the building probably won’t be deemed “significant” when (or if) further research is completed, but this raises the point that important facets of history can sometimes exist in the most unsuspecting of places – preservation does not and should not only apply to the “low-hanging fruit.” Two local examples that I can think of off the top of my head are the Southside Nightclub (212 11th Avenue South) and the Arthur and Edith Lee house (4600 Columbus Avenue South). The former is an unassuming, quasi-Romanesque commercial structure associated with the surprisingly fascinating history of sex work in 19th century Minneapolis and also with prohibition in the 20th century. The latter is a seemingly insignificant bungalow (if it can even be called that) in South Minneapolis, but was the site of one of the worst white mob intimidation campaigns in Minnesota history. Again, it’s unlikely that a study of the Knutson Construction building would yield anything close to these examples, but these examples do demonstrate the importance of historical research and due diligence as it relates to urban development.
That said, I think it is a fair argument to say “the ship has already sailed” since the building was not protected before the applicant submitted their proposal. Furthermore, this limbo period could have been avoided if the HPC had been more proactive and evaluated the structure ahead of time. The result probably would have been the same and time would not have been wasted. Why weren’t they proactive on this project? Perhaps it was the result of staffing shortages. If that was the case, then the city should direct more CPED staff to coordinate with the HPC. Presently, city code only calls for two staff members – a planning director and a building official – to advise the HPC through reports and recommendations.
Finally, I was particularly intrigued by two ideas that the author mused about in Alex Schieferdecker’s January 15, 2021 post. One was the idea of forming a civic design review board (CDR), which would take on more of the minute details that the HPC currently deals with but shouldn’t be tasked with. The other was the idea of forming a climate preservation commission (CPC) to regulate climatic impacts of new development. The author seemed to suggest that these bodies would replace the HPC, but I would argue that all three could exist together. Their roles would not be redundant if the HPC directed more focus towards proactive evaluation and technical assistance instead of design review.
In particular regard to the CPC idea, this could theoretically serve as a mechanism for administering a pro-climate tax credit program to further reward or incentivize LEED-certified construction projects. It is worth mentioning that this could include adaptive reuse projects of historic properties listed in the National, State, and local registers. It would also serve to highlight the climatic impact of concrete and steel currently used in new construction, which together account for somewhere between 10 and 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions during production. 
Because of these emissions, it might appear that our strategies for sustainable development moving forward include density-positive adaptive reuse (to reduce waste) and employment of renewable construction materials for new buildings. Yes, this is idealistic since not everything can or should be adaptively reused and renewable construction methods have yet to take off in a meaningful way in the United States. However, we are fortunate to have one significant example of renewable construction in our vicinity: the T3 office building in the North Loop. Completed in 2016, it is considered the first major timber-built structure of its type in the United States. Interestingly, the building is located within the Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District. I would not be surprised if it is evaluated for historic eligibility at some point in the future.
So, in conclusion, I’ll provide some bullet points with ideas for improving the HPC and urban heritage preservation in general (because I know some of you stopped reading after the first paragraph and scrolled down to here).
- Municipalities such as Minneapolis should remove ambiguous and/or subjective language alluding to “character” or “identity” from their local historic eligibility criteria.
- At least some HPC members should be required to have a master’s degree or higher in heritage preservation.
- The requirement that one member of the HPC be the owner or a resident of a landmark or historic district should be eliminated.
- At least one member of the HPC should be a representative of the Planning Commission in order to promote better cooperation between these governing bodies.
- Diverse representation on the HPC should be an explicit goal. Indigenous communities and communities of color should have better representation on the HPC.
- Language alluding to Indigenous sacred sites should be added to the local historic eligibility criteria (and also the national criteria).
- The city should direct more CPED staff to coordinate with the HPC so that the HPC can operate in a more proactive manner.
- The HPC should focus less on design review and more on proactive surveys and evaluations based on the objective criteria. Ideally, this would lead to better coordination between the HPC and developers/property owners as well as other stakeholders.
- Decisions related to minute details such as lighting, building materials, or massing for non-landmark properties within historic districts and other areas of the city could be delegated to a civic design review board (CDR) if deemed necessary.
- Building height restrictions for new construction within local historic districts, where they exist, should be loosened to comply with the city’s comprehensive plan.
What are your thoughts?
 Roper, Eric. “Minneapolis planners say 1969 modernist building downtown shouldn’t be wrecked.” Star Tribune, January 4, 2021. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-planners-say-1969-modernist-building-downtown-shouldn-t-be-wrecked/600006606/.
 “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation: National Register Criteria for Evaluation.” Pg. 2. National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/upload/NRB-15_web508.pdf
 “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation: How to Apply the Criteria Considerations.” Pg. 25-43. National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/upload/NRB-15_web508.pdf
 “How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation: How to Evaluate the Integrity of a Property.” Pg. 44-49. National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/upload/NRB-15_web508.pdf
 “National Register of Historic Places FAQs.” National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/faqs.htm
 “Historic Tax Credit Resource Center: About the Historic Tax Credit.” Novogradac. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.novoco.com/resource-centers/historic-tax-credits/htc-basics/about-historic-tax-credit
 “Criteria for Evaluation.” Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://mn.gov/admin/shpo/registration/nrhp/review-board/criteria/
 “National Historic Preservation Act of 1966: Title I, Section 101.” National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/nhpa1966.htm
 “A Guide to Heritage Preservation in Minneapolis.” City of Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development. Accessed January 16, 2021. http://www2.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/wcmsp-194035.pdf
 Melo, Frederick. “Are historic districts racist, classist and exclusionary?” Pioneer Press, October 2, 2020. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.twincities.com/2020/10/02/are-historic-districts-racist-classist-and-exclusionary-oct-6-listening-session-seeks-public-input-on-st-paul-heritage-preservation-commission/
 “About the Commission: Heritage Preservation Commission Members.” Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. Accessed January 16, 2021. http://www2.minneapolismn.gov/hpc/Heritage%20Preservation%20Commission
 “Minneapolis, Minnesota – Code of Ordinances, Title 23: Heritage Preservation.” City of Minneapolis. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://library.municode.com/mn/minneapolis/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=MICOOR_TIT23HEPR
 Glaeser, Edward. “What’s So Great About Skyscrapers.” In Triumph of the City. 1st Ed. London: Penguin Group, 2011.
 The Federal Historic Tax Credit was increased to 30% for smaller projects in 2020.
 “Historic Tax Credit Resource Center: About the Historic Tax Credit.” Novogradac. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.novoco.com/resource-centers/historic-tax-credits/htc-basics/about-historic-tax-credit
 “Minnesota Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit.” State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Department of Administration. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://mn.gov/admin/shpo/incentives/state/
 “Buzza Company Building.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buzza_Company_Building
 “Minneapolis, MN Rent Prices: Average Rent in Minneapolis – Uptown (Studio).” Zumper. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.zumper.com/rent-research/minneapolis-mn
 The cheapest studios were listed in the range of $800 and were predominantly located in less schnazzy NOAH complexes.
 “Minneapolis Madams by Penny Petersen.” Hennepin County Library Special Collections. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://hclib.tumblr.com/post/47886675477/minneapolis-madams-by-penny-petersen-longtime
 “Lee, Arthur and Edith, House.” National Park Service. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/14000391.htm
 “Minneapolis, Minnesota – Code of Ordinances, Title 23: Heritage Preservation.” City of Minneapolis. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://library.municode.com/mn/minneapolis/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=MICOOR_TIT23HEPR_CH599HEPRRE_ARTIIDUDEMABOOF_599.130PLDI
 Rodgers, Lucy. “Climate change: The massive CO2 emitter you may not know about.” BBC News, December 17, 2018. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46455844
 Chandler, David L. “One order of steel; hold the greenhouse gases.” MIT News, May 8, 2013. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://news.mit.edu/2013/steel-without-greenhouse-gas-emissions-0508
 “Sustainable Management of Construction and Demolition Materials.” Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-management-construction-and-demolition-materials
 Brownell, Blaine. “T3 Becomes the First Modern Tall Wood Building in the U.S.” Architect Magazine, November 8, 2016. Accessed January 16, 2021. https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/t3-becomes-the-first-modern-tall-wood-building-in-the-us_o