Against Historic Preservation

by on June 1, 2016 at 7:28 am in Economics, History, Law | Permalink

Larry Summers asks:

How…could our society have regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today?

As I wrote in Launching:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build the system today. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything. As I argued in Launching:

There are good regulations and bad regulations and lots of debate over which is which. From an innovation perspective, however, this debate misses a key point. Let’s assume that all regulations are good. The problem is that even if each regulation is good, the net effect of all the regulations combined may be bad. A single pebble in a big stream doesn’t do much, but throw enough pebbles and the stream of innovation is dammed.

It’s time to blow the dam. Creative destruction requires some destruction.

1 Rossle June 1, 2016 at 7:45 am

As a proponent of fiscal stimulus (in the face of “secular stagnation” a la Hansen), Larry Summers was forced to confront the incapacity of the federal government to effectively put fiscal stimulus to work. It’s nice that he acknowledges the insufficiency of new old keynesian economists’ hand-waving about spending on infrastructure. What’s the multiplier on a shambolic boondoggle? The confidence fairy and/or animal spirits are not much moved by massive roundly mocked projects, i suspect.

Summers’ call for accountability is amusing; what if anything did he do or recommend to address these issues as Director of the White House National Economic Council during his time as a key architect of the stimulus bill?

What does it say about our politico-economic mandarins that 1) these issues went unnoticed or unaddressed in connection with the post-crisis stimulus and 2) Larry Summers has so little in the way of detailed recommendations and arguments for same a half-dozen years later?

2 Gabe June 1, 2016 at 10:48 am

“a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestors ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great”

ya but the nation is in decline for a whole bunch of reasons….historical preservation laws are one miniscule part of the regulatory/mercantilist facist society that has been created. So the desire to preserve the once great past will not be fixed until the nation actually becomes not in decline….you point out one good first step, but I am afraid we are a long way off frome ven being able to accomplish the one tiny small step you suggest…therefore country is a bit f”’d for now.

3 Yancey Ward June 1, 2016 at 12:48 pm

The most glaring deficiency in Summer’s essay, as Alex alluded to, is that he defended the rationality of the individual interest groups’ actions to hinder and delay new projects. I put it down to pure cognitive dissonance on his part.

4 joe June 1, 2016 at 7:48 am

There’s a ghastly, generic pedestrian footbridge in Cambridge down the road on Memorial Drive at Magazine Beach that took over two years to put in place. The funny thing is, while they were spending all the time tearing down the old one and putting in the new monstrosity, a temporary crosswalk and red light was put in place that people liked much more. In fact, most people now ignore the footbridge anyway and cross the road without the benefit of any light or crosswalk at all because the footbridge is a pain to use.

They could have saved a lot of time and expense by just putting in a crosswalk. A pedestrian footbridge isn’t the solution to a problem it’s a symptom of one.

5 dan1111 June 1, 2016 at 8:47 am

This ignores the impact on motorists. Getting pedestrians off the road may have been intended to increase the traffic speed/capacity.

Of course it shouldn’t take 2 years to build a simple footbridge, though.

6 Hazel Meade June 1, 2016 at 11:34 am

Yeah, but the local residents might LIKE it if motorists are interfered with because then motorists will avoid the area and the neighborhood will become less congested and more pedestrian friendly.

7 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 2:00 am

In Toronto they call it “traffic calming”, by making lots of inconvenient one ways that only go half way up the road, block it in the opposite direction, etc. It works very well, and the main traffic is kept on the high volume roads.

8 Yancey Ward June 1, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Ah, but one had to be sure the Magazine Beach Footbridge Spider would not become extinct after the replacement. That takes time and money.

9 kevin June 1, 2016 at 10:40 am

Ahh, the good ‘ol ignore fat tail events analysis. Every time a pedestrian crosses the road its a little bit easier and beneficial for them… until someone gets hit and god forbid dies. Then the sum of all those slightly positive benefits are outweighed by one giant negative

10 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Natural Selection is not a giant negative.

11 mulp June 1, 2016 at 12:54 pm

But it is not the speeder ignoring the red light that dies, but law abiding pedestrian who pushed the button and waited to cross on the light.

Or is your point that law breakers are the fittest and rule followers the weak?

12 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Pedestrians should always be wary because of their vulnerability. Law abiding motorists err and the pedestrian dies.

13 Agra Brum June 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

If you think one footbridge in Cambridge has an impact on natural selection, you need some remedial evolutionary theory training.

14 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 2:08 am

I don’t imagine the ability to get through busy traffic without getting killed is very relevant to future “useful genetics”.

In fact, perhaps we could use a few more rebels who would do such things. Also, driving is much more dangerous than walking.

15 Lord Action June 3, 2016 at 9:55 am

“Also, driving is much more dangerous than walking.”

This is false. It’s the other way around. We just don’t walk much outside.

16 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 7:52 am

Preservation laws correct a market failure. Beneficiaries of historic buildings are dispersed: thousands of people who enjoy them as they walk past, tourists who come to visit, and the wider population of people who value the connection with the past. I’ve never been to Palmyra, but I used to value its existence, and I lament its destruction. Beneficiaries of their destruction are concentrated; they come to developers. And it’s hard to put the right value on something that can never be recreated. Building a copy isn’t the same as getting back the original.

Preservation laws are a blunt instrument. They sometimes fail to protect, and they often block desirable development and save buildings of little value. But a market solution would be tough to design, and would likely simply tilt the scale away from the public interest to the benefit of current property owners.

17 mavery June 1, 2016 at 8:21 am

Big beneficiaries now are adjacent property owners, whose rents/land values are inflated by artificial scarcity.

18 bob June 1, 2016 at 9:25 am

This. Everything Alex said is true and it’s why I am so happy to own property in a landmarked area.

19 Dude June 1, 2016 at 8:25 am

Came here to say basically this.

Why didn’t Alex mention Coase in this post?

20 Daniel in VA June 1, 2016 at 8:46 am

I think you should be careful with the term “market failure” here, because these laws aren’t an unambiguous “correction”. They are a tradeoff between more development and preservation, and benefit adjacent property owners at the expense of people who may want to move to the town.

Personally, I’d prefer having these laws applied to a limited fraction of the buildings in the city (I’m not sure how much), and have new development follow older architectural styles, which I do admire. As to “Building a copy isn’t the same as getting back the original.”, that’s a philosophical question that’s been around for a long time, and I don’t mind faithful copies so much (though I’d want to preserve real antiquities for as long as possible). Eventually everything will turn to dust and we will have to make do with faithful copies.

21 Steve Sailer June 2, 2016 at 12:08 am

A lot of colleges are paying to have new buildings designed in the style of their best pre-War buildings (just with bigger windows, usually).

22 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 9:25 am

I’m not surprised the example used is in the fertile crescent and not the United States. What may be a market failure to you is a market success to someone like me, who doesn’t think cities should be considered boutique museums and frozen in time.

DC is a great example, with its absurd height act originally created out of a concern for firefighters not be able to get water to tall buildings. Look at Cleveland Park, where one of the nation’s first “strip malls” sits. It’s a one-story structure right above a Metro station, in a safe community with desirable schools. Because of historic preservation (and NIMBYism) – it will not provide housing for hundreds of residents wanting to live there – it will be frozen in time as part as an exclusive, affluent community.

Historic preservation is not being used in this country to protect ancient sites like Palmyra, it’s used to stop new development by rent seekers and people uncomfortable with modernity.

23 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 9:55 am

We can’t judge market failure according to whether we like the outcome. My point is just that the market isn’t good at aggregating preferences when it comes to the built environment. Maybe the equilibrium is towards less preservation and more development, but my point is that it won’t be revealed by simply removing regulations. It’s hard to value the benefits of preservation, and harder still to toll beneficiaries. (Daniel raises a valid question about the term ‘market failure’ here, but I’d say the market fails to provide desired quantity of ‘nice environment’, which is a non-excludable good. That may be stretching the term too far.)

No one really thinks cities should be frozen in time. We’re not juxtaposing extreme utopias, but debating how best to negotiate trade offs. I think we often preserve the wrong things and impose inappropriate costs. But there’s plenty in DC that I’m glad is preserved.

24 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:35 am

“We can’t judge market failure according to whether we like the outcome.”

How else would we judge market failures? We determine what is a failure or a success depending on if we like the outcome. You seem to appreciate preserving historic buildings and understandably see the failure of the market to do that as a market failure, whereas I am the opposite and see it as a market success.

“No one really thinks cities should be frozen in time.”

But would you agree that people think parts of city should be frozen in time? Look at my example of Cleveland Park’s “historic” strip mall – there’s no end date on its landmark status. The current preservation regime believes it should be frozen in time. And of course people kind finding more and more things to give landmark status to – which will eventually be a problem if you’re not un-designating old landmarks.

25 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

I mean judge whether or not it is a market failure. Market failures produce outcomes that some people like.

Wanting some things preserved isn’t the same as wanting to freeze a city in time. They are totally different things. Even if you believe that literally nothing is worth preserving (a position I doubt anyone really holds), surely you can see that people who want to keep some nice old stuff aren’t all opposed to any development at all. It’s about balance. And I don’t know about the US, but in the UK listed buildings still get changed or demolished – and often are.

26 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:59 am

About 14% of the properties in DC have some sort of restriction on them derived from preservation codes. In the suburban jurisdictions (other than Alexandria), that’s going to fall into the low single digits because 85%+ of the development is post-war. 82% of the population of greater Washington lives somewhere other than DC and Alexandria.

27 mulp June 1, 2016 at 1:33 pm

And in those areas with properties without preservation status and without restrictive zoning on height, etc, how many in the greater DC area have population densities higher than DC and Alexandria? Maybe the essentially historic district of Mount Rainer?

Why isn’t the population density of the neighborhood Alex lives in at a population density higher than 10,000 per square mile? Is it a historic district where all the houses are restricted in development?

The thing is that lots of places with lots of historic preservation are places build with housing density that conservatives oppose because the living spaces are too small and there are no private land in the form of grass, gardens, patios, but instead open land is public, even if private – no backyard, but a front yard that can’t be walled in where many create nice gardens. But often convenient public parks and ways.

28 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:14 am

who doesn’t think cities should be considered boutique museums and frozen in time.

Only a tiny minority of buildings are ever landmarked. You can have a look at the small cities in the Shenandoah Valley if you want to see what developers do with the influence of us curators minimized.

29 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:40 am

“us curators”? I’m unclear what you mean – you are a curator? How exactly?

30 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

You brought up museums. It really is not my job to help you keep your metaphors straight.

31 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:52 am

I can keep my metaphor straight but I can’t keep it straight when you take it in an inexplicable direction.

And I will probably pass on the traveling to small cities in the Shenandoah valley to substantiate your point that you don’t like market-oriented development.

32 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 11:10 am

“Market oriented development”? Chum, the market’s what goes on inside the commercial buildings. The public square consists of the thoroughfares which pass in front of them and the experience of using those thoroughfares, and, no, that’s not for real estate developers to decide without public comment. Everything around Harrisonburg, Roanoke, and Winchester is constructed with the understanding that no people are to be found there, merely vehicles bearing human cargo. It does not need to be that way and did not used to be that way (see my old neighborhoods in Rochester, which adjudicate passably between pedestrians and vehicles). A great many congenial people in those towns, and passable residential districts here and again (and a great many banal ones). The whole package of residential and commericial development is godawful.

33 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 11:28 am

“Chum, the market’s what goes on inside the commercial buildings.”

So the market has no impact on the buildings themselves? I guess I really do have to visit these obscure towns you are talking about!

34 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:16 am

it’s used to stop new development by rent seekers and people uncomfortable with modernity. –

Who have much better taste than the cretins who gave you the WTC redevelopment.

35 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:39 am

“Who have much better taste than the cretins who gave you the WTC redevelopment.” Yes, some buildings won’t be pleasing to everyone, but the nice thing about moving away from knee-jerk preservation is that it’s not permanent, unless someone is paying the cost of it. Contrast this with my example of the “historic landmark” DC strip mall – which is not pleasing – but the current plan is to keep the ugly strip mall there forever, frozen in time, and making it more difficult to increase the supply of transit-oriented housing in DC.

36 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:41 am

the nice thing about moving away from knee-jerk preservation is that it’s not permanent,

Knee-jerk preservation has little existence outside the space between your ears. The work of Starchitects is everywhere out here in meat world.

37 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:55 am

I guess your right, every historic preservation effort is thoughtful and humans never have a reflex to oppose change, and that’s why there’s never been any kneejerk preservation.

38 BDK June 1, 2016 at 10:40 am

1. There are plenty of places in the US where you can tear down and rebuild to your heart’s content–in reality the portions of cities that are “frozen in time” by law are quite limited. Go for it! Even in cities with lots of protected buildings, there are plenty of areas where you can build something new and beautiful. Right now I’m looking out over Madison Square Park and I love both Cass Gilbert’s New York Life Building and One Madison ( .

2. The market failure is especially problematic where you have an historic district rather than a single notable landmark. In other words, if you have a whole neighborhood of notable and cohesive architecture, it creates something special. But there is an incentive to buy one plot, tear down the buildings on that plot, and build something new. The developer gets to sell the aesthetic benefits of the neighborhood and impose the costs of fracturing the neighborhood on the other residents (and non-residents who enjoy the existence of a special place). Where there is a single special structure, there is less need to protect it from this market failure. I do not see how Prof. Tabarrok’s proposal can do anything to preserve districts as opposed to single buildings.

3. Like anything else, preservation laws and regulations can be overused and misused, including by unscrupulous politicians and developers. But it seems that one solution is to improve the rules to minimize those effects rather than throw the whole thing out like Wile E. Coyote giving up on every plan after it fails the first time instead of fixing it.

4. Perhaps the slowing effect of landmarking regulations is a feature, not a bug? Yes, I am also impressed by how fast things were built in the past. It is amazing that the Empire State Building went from excavation to lights on in 16 months! But do we really lose that much by forcing people to move a little slower when they want to tear something down and build something new?

5. To that point, we remember the great infrastructure projects fondly (the Brooklyn Bridge!), but we forget that, looking back, many projects have been abject failures that could have been avoided with some caution. For example,when we cut off all our cities from their respective waterfronts by building massive waterfront highways, we all lost something meaningful and difficult to value. Maybe you don’t care about our cultural connections to the water, but a lot of people did then and do. And we traded that so that middle management could get to and from Weschester by automobile… One day we’ll finally do away with the FDR and West Side Highway (or maybe bury them) and we’ll remember that Manhattan is an island where Herman Melville wrote sea stories for much of his life. On that score, I think Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is bringing back the waterfront, is one of the most exciting projects in a while.

39 Hazel Meade June 1, 2016 at 11:43 am

#2. Couldn’t an HOA or something to that effect handle this? If you tear down, you must rebuild in the same style, etc.

40 BDK June 1, 2016 at 11:58 am

But now we’re just discussing implementation. I’m fine for working to improve preservation regimes, but I think throwing them out wholesale is a good idea.

41 mulp June 1, 2016 at 2:51 pm

“Look at Cleveland Park, where one of the nation’s first “strip malls” sits. It’s a one-story structure right above a Metro station, in a safe community with desirable schools.”

Let’s see, first the land is valuable almost entirely because of the disasterous DC Metro station which would not be there except for big government picking that spot, and a Metro that fails to charge fares high enough to pay for building and maintaining it, and probably not high enough to pay for mere operations. In a little government model with no zoning and historic preservation, there would be no Metro station because it would be shutdown.

And the reason the schools are good is the highly desirable location which limits the population to above average incomes and drives property valuations up to increase tax revenue to pay for schools.

Many “desirable” communities exist as a result of transportation infrastructure which before 1920 were often trolley lines built by property developers. In many cases, the trolley lines were built knowing they would operate at a loss based on the high profit from real estate development. But once that developer has sold off the land, the trolley gets turned over to the public to deal with, usually by replacing it with roads that are too congested because cars require more right of way than rail.

So, why don’t developers buy cheap open land outside a highly popular area and build high speed transit to connect it to the places people need to get to, work, shopping, professional services, and then make a killing on the inflated land prices that their transit creates? And to make your development highly desirable to upper income people, place restrictive development covenants on the land to ensure it excludes undesirable people? Large lot sizes and limiting the number of units and the number of people per unit, for example. And prohibit any government backed mortgages to avoid any government basis for imposing housing rules.

42 kevin June 1, 2016 at 10:49 am

*Some* preservation laws correct a market failure. Fixed it for you. Many are used “as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents “.

In the middle of our extremely dense community rosslyn, right across the river form DC exists a historic area,,_Virginia) . 2 story garden apartment complexes surrounded by 15-20 story buildings with little green space. I’m told the gardens there are beautiful, but there are signs surrounding all the entrances saying “keep out, residents only.”. The fact that they are allowed historical status while forbidding those who subsidize them access to actually enjoy the area is symptomatic of everything wrong with these distorted laws.

43 Hazel Meade June 1, 2016 at 11:41 am

I would think that sufficiently old buildings would create their own market for preservation without the need for explicit laws. If the market value of a house is improved by it’s historic nature, why would an owner wish to tear it down and build a newer one which wouldn’t command such a premium?

Seems to me it’s probably just a matter of supply and demand and a price point at which it’s worth preserving an older building for it’s aesthetic value.

44 BDK June 1, 2016 at 11:55 am

Perhaps this is true for a single building, but not true where there are many buildings that create a cohesive district, in which case there may be an incentive to tear down one building and build something larger but that damages what makes the district special at the expense of all the other properties. In my hardcore libertarian youth I would have said that imposing involuntary preservation laws was a form of theft, but in my reformed old age I’ve come to the conclusion that where we all decide to live together in dense communities, we need stronger laws than where we choose to live far apart from our neighbors. You have every right to move to Wyoming and build whatever monstrosity you want. But if you want to come live in my landmarked neighborhood with views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, you may need to give up some freedoms. You don’t have to move here if you don’t want to. The only thing that gives me pause at all is what happens to the people who lived in my neighborhood before it was landmarked and were planning on demolishing whatever old building they owned and erecting an oil refinery. But when I see what the now landmarked property sells for, is soothes my guilt a little bit.

45 kevin June 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm

This reasoning sounds exactly what HOA’s are designed for. I don’t think historical preservation laws are needed, and I can see them being abused morseo

46 BDK June 1, 2016 at 3:52 pm

HOAs are fine for new developments, but it is difficult to get universal consent to the creation of an HOA for a pre-existing neighborhood (which is exactly where preservation laws are used). Thus it may be necessary to resort to law to solve the holdout problem. In an ideal world we could count on the good nature, taste and tact of our neighbors, but the existence of the below-mentioned Russian oligarchs (and similarly tasteless oligarchs from across the globe) may necessitate stronger medicine to protect our culture and common aesthetic wealth. Like anything else in life, the challenge is in the details: many such laws are created and used in corrupt and unfair ways. That could suggest throwing out all such laws, or it could suggest improving the way such laws are enacted and enforced.

47 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 1:12 pm

Just imagine what a Russian oligarch would pay for liberty island if they were allowed to tear down and erect their mansion.

48 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 11:55 am

I disagree. The people living or working in a historic building might enjoy very little of the benefit. The interior might have been gutted, and no longer have any historic value. You might want more space. The benefit accrues to others: people living nearby who enjoy a nice neighbourhood, and people passing through. I work in the City of London. There are still wonderful old buildings and alleyways nearby. You’d have to pay me a lot of money to move to Canary Wharf, which is only a few miles away, but has no historic buildings. So I am willing to bear considerable cost for the benefit of working here, but none of that benefits property owners who would rather tear down Georgian buildings and put up skyscrapers.

49 mulp June 1, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Are you arguing that the area you work should be turned into a Canary Wharf?

Or that property owners should not be allowed to make it an undesirable Canary Wharf?

Wouldn’t it be a lot cheaper for you if it became undesirable to you?

50 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 3:52 pm

I don’t want it turned into Canary Wharf. But if we removed preservation laws it would be, because property owners would make more money; they can’t monetise the public utility of a beautiful old neighbourhood. That neighbourhood has still managed to adapt and retain its place as one of the two great financial centres in the world. So I’m arguing there’s a balance. Small steps to a better world, not solving one problem by creating myriad new problems.

51 albatross June 1, 2016 at 11:43 am

Whatever the original intentions of historic preservation laws, endangered species laws, environmental impact statements, etc., one very common use of them is to allow people opposed to some development to tangle it up in years of legal wrangling. The motives for tangling the development up can be purely mercenary (pay me to go away or I’ll obstruct you), or pretty sympathetic (not wanting my neighborhood to be wrecked so you can build a 16-lane superhighway through our back yards), but in either case, that’s a very common use of these laws.

52 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 11:57 am

I agree. I don’t have a good solution, and I’m not defending status quo. But just building the 16 lane highway isn’t the answer, either (I know that’s not what you’re advocating, but might be the consequence of Alex’s proposal).

53 Adam June 1, 2016 at 12:44 pm

“But a market solution would be tough to design”

Not really. We could just preserve stuff the way we always have (that is before the preservationist movements of the 1950s): neglect.

54 Michael Savage June 1, 2016 at 1:24 pm

That’s not a market solution to the problem posed. You seem rather to be denying there is a problem. Maybe it would be OK to replace Venice’s palazzos and canals with modern towers and highways, but a lot of people would regret that. I think their – our – concerns should be taken into account.

55 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 12:45 pm

“a copy isn’t the same as getting back the original.”….Good! I prefer my French Provincial with its central air and heat and efficient windows.

56 Chip June 1, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Visit Victoria, Canada, and see the thousands of squat, dumpy homes that are protected for their historic value, except they’re not historic apart from having been built before today. And if you want to rebuild, God forbid the inspectors find some charred wood and old seashells because you will now be deemed an archeological site.

Yes, lots of old campfire sites are somehow comparable to the ruins of a Roman villa.

57 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 2:09 am

Sometimes they are applied too broadly.

In Europe, a 100 year old house is not old. In North America, you get pretty average 100 year old houses being preserved by historical preservation laws despite having nothing of particular note about them.

58 George X June 2, 2016 at 9:32 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you—the Shotgun House!,-76.9890476,3a,77.4y,186.06h,90.07t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sih2SLB2SwGoVEFJYFSefcQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Here’s a review of the fight—from over eight years ago. Spoiler: it’s still there. And it still looks like crap. And it’s still not remotely “historic”. And it still looks nothing like the rest of the neighborhood.

59 mavery June 1, 2016 at 8:20 am

Every time I walk around Old Town Alexandria, I think its really cool that they’ve preserved all these hundreds-of-years-old buildings. Every time I look at one of these buildings on a real estate website, my mind boggles at who would pay so much money to live in such a crappy house.

60 Dude June 1, 2016 at 8:26 am

I would. I ? old houses.

61 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

I think it’s one thing to preserve a small section of town that are hundreds of years old and brings in a lot of tourism revenue. But can we agree that the DC height act – which originally intended as a fire safety law but has morphed into a form of preservation – is absurd and should be modified? I can see why there shouldn’t be a giant skyscraper right next to the White House, but why not in areas of DC away from the mall (Takoma, for example?).

62 kevin June 1, 2016 at 10:52 am

because the Capitol Building/Washington monument/lincoln memorial from the west are visable 5-20 miles away. Any skyscrapers block someone’s view. (Im not saying that outweighs the value of building higher.. but I can see a rationale for it)

63 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 10:58 am

Kevin – I see that rationale, but here’s why it’s not the real reason people are keeping the height act.

Skyscrapers in Takoma or Friendship Heights wouldn’t block anyone’s view of those monuments, meanwhile tall buildings in Arlington DO block those views, yet no one cares enough to stop that.

64 kevin June 1, 2016 at 11:49 am

@Stuart, well its a lot harder to stop the tall buildings in Arlington from being built if there’s not already a mechanism in place for doing so. Had there been similar height restrictions in Arlington 50-100 years ago we may still have that status quo. If the mechanism for limiting height wasn’t around in DC you’d surely have taller buildings there, even if today DC thinks its better off with a uniform height.

65 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:45 pm

@Kevin –

I’m in agreement that in practice, changing anything about DC’s skyline and obsolete fire safety/height act laws are pretty much impossible. DC is becoming increasingly affluent, and the affluent are not going to be upset that the height limit increases their property values and makes it much harder for less affluent residents live in the desirable parts of town. I just think it’s a terrible status quo that we should still try to change.

66 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Even after a 25% decrease in its population over six decades, DC is still more densely settled than Baltimore City (by a margin of 40%). Baltimore City is a town full of row houses.

67 mavery June 1, 2016 at 10:51 am

They’re falling apart, aren’t well-insulated, have no off-street parking, don’t necessarily have modern wiring/electric, and are often buildings that have been re-purposed and are as such not well-layed-out. Why live in one when you can live two blocks away, above a garage, with a nice deck and modern features and pay the same or less?

68 Art Deco June 1, 2016 at 12:18 pm

What? High six digits is the norm in Old Town Alexandria. Those places are NOT falling apart.

69 mavery June 1, 2016 at 12:30 pm

You pay for the plot of land, not old mess on top of it.

They’re not all falling apart but many aren’t exactly well-maintained. Others, of course, are beautiful.

70 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 1:48 pm

No, those neighborhoods very handsome, no matter how contemptuous you are of them.

You pay for the plot of land, not old mess on top of it.

No, you pay for the land, the ambiance, and for the building.

71 Dude June 1, 2016 at 12:39 pm

New homes don’t have the woodwork of 100+ year old homes. I like the aesthetics of craftsmanship that is missing from modern homes, which often feel sterile to me.

72 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:48 pm

New buildings also don’t have the lead paint. They also have functional duct work for HVAC and space designed for washer/dryers.

73 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm

You can have marvelous new woodwork in a new home if you are willing to pay for it.

74 mulp June 1, 2016 at 3:00 pm

And wait for long wait times for the craftsmen able to do the fine work to get to your job. Or wait for the next depression.

75 prior_test2 June 1, 2016 at 8:22 am

‘It would be almost impossible to build the system today’

In America, which is no longer even that representative of its industrial past, in much the same fashion as the UK. There is a 4.2 km long rail tunnel being built under Rastatt in Germany – cost of the tunnel and rail being around 700 million euros.

Industrial countries generally don’t find it all that hard or expensive to build things, though admittedly, this tunnel is supposed to be part of a broader HSR passenger/freight tunnel. One may have heard of the opening of the this? – ‘The Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) is a railway tunnel through the Alps in Switzerland, which opened on 1 June 2016, with scheduled commercial services from December 2016. With a route length of 57.09 km (35.5 mi) and a total of 151.84 km (94.3 mi) of tunnels, shafts and passages,[3] it is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first flat low-level route through the Alps.


The main purpose of the Gotthard Base Tunnel is to increase total transport capacity across the Alps, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam-Basel-Genoa corridor, and more particularly to shift freight volumes from road to rail to reduce fatal crashes and environmental damage caused by ever-increasing numbers of heavy lorries.’

Countries that dismiss industrial activity as being far less important than something like Uber, Facebook, or Google should not be surprised when they discover there is no bridge maintenance app available for $4 from Apple.

76 Daniel in VA June 1, 2016 at 8:55 am

You know, if there weren’t demand for the USD and Pound Sterling coming from net exporters, the amount of industrial activity in anglophone countries would be self regulating, as we couldn’t afford your exports. Why do the smart residents of industrial countries love the currencies and government debt of foolish, service besotted anglophone countries so much?

77 Jeff R. June 1, 2016 at 9:17 am

Passenger rail? What is this, 1890? Hardly very forward looking, blowing billions on transportation systems that have been in decline since WWII.

78 Dude June 1, 2016 at 10:17 am

What? In what universe has passenger rail been on a decline?

Take a trip outside the US perhaps.

Although hyperloop will make point to point long distance rail less important in the USA.

79 TMC June 1, 2016 at 1:11 pm

The only places it’s on the upswing is where it’s replacing animal based transportation. Just like the US in 1890.

80 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:22 am

The decline was in part induced by a tangle of regulations and subventions which constrained rail and not competing forms. Also, passenger rail has been a public monopoly since 1971. Strip away residual disabilities, put Amtrak on the auction bloc, finance the maintenance of Interstates with road tolls, finance the maintenance of U.S. Routes with fuel excises, and finance airport maintenance and air traffic control with capitations on flights, and you might see agreeable and viable passenger rail here, there and the next place (say, the BosWash corridor, or perhaps in spokes extending from Chicago to Detroit & Cleveland, to Minneapolis, to St. Louis and Kansas City, to Indianapolis and Louisville, and to Indianapolis and Cincy.

81 mulp June 1, 2016 at 3:15 pm

The rail line will be carrying more cargo and passenger traffic in a century without as much maintenance as roads over the Alps in 20 years.

But that’s the nature of capitalism – pay workers lots and lots of money to build capital assets that will be more productive in a century than they will be when first completed.

A long rail tunnel in the Baltimore area is critical to the east coast economy and was opened June 29, 1873. It does need to be replaced for its primary purpose, but that is opposed by many people because it would create too many middle class jobs in a time of slack labor market and conservatives see jobs as way too costly to profits and rent seekers.

82 Enquiring Mind June 1, 2016 at 11:21 am

Watching the progress and completion of the very impressive GBT progress reminded me of the contrast with Boston’s Big Dig. In the former, I didn’t have the impression that there were lines of people with their hands out for graft, corruption, shoddy workmanship and the like as became so apparent in Boston. Too many hands means too little accountability, and variations on tragedies of the (underground) commons.

83 Pshrnk June 1, 2016 at 1:21 pm

Every regulation or ordinance creates more hands out for graft.

84 Scott Mauldin June 1, 2016 at 8:28 am

Who’s to determine where to draw the line between “marvel[ing] at their ancestors ingenuity and aesthetic vision” and “look[ing] to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great”? It seems that no matter the situation there will be advocates of both attitudes.

85 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 9:09 am

Right but the choice isn’t between forcing all historic building owners to maintain their historic buildings and forcing the same to destroy them. It is between the former and a policy of neutrality which allows historic buildings to be eithet maintained or destroyed.

If it is really in the public interest to maintain these properties, the government should purchsse them.

86 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:40 am

You’re only forcing the person who was the property holder when the regulation was enacted. Subsequent owners purchase knowing the restrictions.

87 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 10:23 pm

Proves too much. All laws effect only actions that take place after their passing. Your argument justifies abortion bans, chopping off hands of thieves, and banning all muslims from praying.

88 Banned Guy June 2, 2016 at 8:49 am

Utter non sequitur.

No decent society permits abortion.

89 rayward June 1, 2016 at 8:35 am

Urban renewal, combined with freeways and white flight, was devastating to many cities. My great uncle was a pioneer in landscape architecture, practicing long before urban renewal spread across the country. He spent most of his career working for a city in California planning, designing, and constructing parks and gardens, his legacy to the city now known for those parks and gardens. It seems inconceivable that today a city would employ a full-time landscape architect to plan, design, and build parks and gardens. Of course, markets have no use for parks and gardens, or historic buildings, but lots of use for freeways to the suburbs and exurbs and cheap houses that can be constructed quickly but fall apart after only a few years. I’ve commented before about the irony of the popularity of “town center” shopping malls, designed to look like the real town centers from a hundred years ago but located in the burbs. They might be called virtual town centers. My favorite small city is Charleston, whose historic district has been mostly preserved because of historic preservation laws. It’s a beautiful place, rated as the number one tourist destination by many. The streets are narrow, the buildings old and expensive to maintain, yet there is no shortage of potential buyers who pay enormous sums to own one of the historic homes in that historic city. Would you prefer to visit the beautiful and historic Charleston or the tacky but new Myrtle Beach? Parks and gardens, planned, designed, and constructed by a full-time landscape architect who works for the city, all paid for with taxes, how ridiculous. About as ridiculous as historic preservation laws.

90 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 9:13 am

For every Charleston, there are a thousand places you have never heard of, whose population your yearning for Charleston history is impoverishing. But, at least you have Charleston.

91 Agra Brum June 1, 2016 at 8:09 pm

I’ll take Charleston over Myrtle Beach!
The entire argument is about seeing one mistaken application and then doing away with an entire regime that is clearly beneficial and valuable. If a preservation district law is too restrictive, then amend it. There’s a great eagerness to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

92 Bill June 1, 2016 at 8:42 am

Re: Preservation rights can be bought or paid for

What this ignores is that property owners often place their properties on historic registries to increase their properties value. Similarly, a city may seek to preserve a bridge design or feature to maintain the value of the adjoining property and its property tax base.

93 dan1111 June 1, 2016 at 8:52 am

In Alex’s proposal, the people who want to preserve the property are the ones who have to bear the cost. In the current system, costs are born by “losers” of the regulatory system in a fairly arbitrary manner.

94 Bill June 1, 2016 at 9:23 am

In Bill’s system, if you read the comment, he said the city bore the cost and recouped from the property taxes of those nearby residents.

I think this post points out that some folks have a problem with identifying externalities and the way that governments or others correct for them or pay for them.

Visit a national park, a historic city district.

95 TMC June 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm

” he said the city bore the cost and recouped from the property taxes of those nearby residents.”

So the nearby residents bore the cost then.

96 Bill June 1, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Those who bore the benefits bore the costs through their taxes…preserving their property values and that base was taxed.

Also, when you live in a community, I may benefit from a park; you may benefit from a library. We all benefit from being in a community with diverse public assets.

And, speaking of “me”, “you” or “I”, no one speaks for the persons of tomorrow. I benefit today from an investment in a park 100 years ago. If the persons 100 years ago looked out only for themselves, and not either their future selves or others, you wouldn’t have an interstate highway system or national parks…all of which were built a long time ago.

97 prior_test2 June 1, 2016 at 8:48 am

‘Repeal all historic preservation laws.’

Honestly, at the same time, one should also get rid of all those pesky certification rules too – after all, civil engineers have to be licensed, just think of the cost savings in a system where anyone can call themselves a civil engineer.

‘Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestors ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great.’

‘if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all’

Wow man, that is really deep, uh .. yeah .. wow.

‘A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve.’

Every amusing post here requires a tautology, apparently.

‘It’s time to blow the dam. Creative destruction requires some destruction.’

A swing and a miss – it would have been ever so much more clever to have written it is time to blow the bridge.

See above about the build out of a European high speed passenger/cargo infrastructure. In major part, such tunnels are being built as much to preserve as to impress the future – ‘The goal of both the laws (and the goal of the GBT, which is one of the means by which the law will achieve its objective) is to transport trucks, trailers and freight containers between southern Germany and northern Italy by rail to relieve the overused roads (intermodal freight transport and so-called rolling highway where the entire truck is transported) and to meet the political requirement of shifting as much tonnage as possible from truck transport to train transport, as required by the ‘Alpine Protection Act’ of 1994.’

Some countries apparently see no contradiction between preserving their past and building projects that future generations are likely to be impressed by.

98 Psmith June 1, 2016 at 9:30 am

“Honestly, at the same time, one should also get rid of all those pesky certification rules too – after all, civil engineers have to be licensed, just think of the cost savings in a system where anyone can call themselves a civil engineer.”

Well, yeah.

99 MOFO June 1, 2016 at 10:28 am

“Honestly, at the same time, one should also get rid of all those pesky certification rules too – after all, civil engineers have to be licensed, just think of the cost savings in a system where anyone can call themselves a civil engineer.”

The OP explicitly excluded that sort of thing: “It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit.”

100 Enquiring Mind June 1, 2016 at 11:45 am

Blowing the dam is so 20th century. Nowadays, Silverstein and the gang would “pull it”.

101 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 9:04 am

I have to hand it to you. You have not one good idea. No one looking at an ordinary cityscape would get the idea that we’re excessive about preserving landmarks or insisting on aesthetic standards in construction and land development.

102 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 9:16 am

Entire sections of places you’ve never heard of, force maintainence of inefficient properties.

103 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:24 am

I’ve heard of them and the codes are put in place by local governments pursuant to the enabling legislation of state governments.

104 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 10:29 am

“It’s legal so it’s right”

105 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:33 am

Your complaint was that I’d never seen the protected neighborhoods. The local governments who put the codes in certainly have seen them. Now your complaint is something else. Why not quit playing games and say what irritates you to begin with?

106 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing toolbags like yourself who presume the superiority of your own aesthetic and violently enforce it on others.

107 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 7:03 am

People who respect locally-determined decisions are sooo self-aggrandized.

What a tool.

108 mikea June 1, 2016 at 11:12 am

I don’t know. Almost all of San Francisco has been placed under a defacto moratorium on development for the past 20 years?

It’s a total disaster

109 Art Deco June 1, 2016 at 12:10 pm

98% of the population does not live in the Bay Area and 85% of those who do are not in San Francisco. While we’re at it, San Francisco’s density, at more than 18,000 people per sq mile, is more than 10x that of San Mateo County and more than 60x that of Marin County. Seems like you could spread out some ‘ere plunging full steam ahead toward Manhattanization, given that Frisco is currently more densely settled than Hong Kong.

110 Ricardo June 1, 2016 at 10:35 pm

Hong Kong versus San Francisco is a pretty misleading comparison. The vast majority of Hong Kong’s territory consists of forests, parks and fishing villages that make up the so-called New Territories. The area covered by Hong Kong Island and Kowloon — which is what most people think of when they think of “Hong Kong” — is about equal to that of San Francisco and population density is considerably greater.

111 Banned Guy June 2, 2016 at 8:57 am

The New Territories are divided in to 9 districts. None of the districts have a population density under 2,000 persons per sq. mile and the density of the whole set is 9,800 persons per sq. mile.

112 Axa June 1, 2016 at 9:06 am

Complex systems and infrastructure need constant maintenance, live with it. The fairy tale expectation that life can be simpler comes from people that left for the suburbs and never worried about repairs for the old infrastructure. The bubble to never face costly repairs is: 1) live somewhere else while the “new” is being built, 2) move to the “new” area, 3) plan to abandon it before repairs are needed, 4) move to a “new new” area…..rinse and repeat.

Mr. Summers blamed regulations while acknowledges in a single line that an “unknown” water pipe delayed the job for a year. The unknown water pipe looks more like bad planning. In general, it’s not possible to make good planning when there’s a hurry and Mr. Summers is not helping by describing the situation as desperate. That’s politics, not engineering.

113 JMCSF June 1, 2016 at 9:13 am

Every year I read about buildings that have obtained a historic preservation status in NYC. It makes me wonder, why are these buildings just obtaining status? Historic preservation laws have been in place for at least half a century. Sure, some buildings which were new then are now deemed historic. But I really wonder, haven’t all worthy buildings achieved protection? And if not, why? Is the government body failing to do its job? Or, have all the top tier buildings already been protected and they need a reason for their existence?

114 Thomas June 1, 2016 at 9:21 am

To get the liberal SWPLs on board with allowing owners to tear down the historical (legacy of slavery) and carbon-spewing (global warming), homes of white plutocrats (umbridled white capitalism) will require attacking them on the virtues they signal. Liberals are impervious to logic.

115 Benjamin Cole June 1, 2016 at 9:30 am

Why dilly-dally around? Nearly the entire West Coast and large parts of New York City and Boston are suffocating under extremely stipulative property zoning.

Let’s just get rid of property zoning.

116 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:27 am

You won’t mind if I build my lead smelter next door to your house, will you?

Your problem is that public thoroughfares are a commons and the commons requires management. You have traffic, noise, loads on infrastructure and aesthetics to consider. Zoning which requires minimum lot sizes and debars non-residential development is de trop, but you still need attention to the contours and features of the public space.

117 Bob from Ohio June 1, 2016 at 11:17 am

“You won’t mind if I build my lead smelter next door to your house, will you?”

You are going to spend all that excess money to buy residential property for the smelter? Not very likely.

Industrial uses like smelters congregated together well before zoning laws. Because it made economic sense.

118 Bill June 1, 2016 at 4:22 pm

Guess you’ve never been to Houston.

119 Jay June 2, 2016 at 12:39 pm

I lived there 18 years and never once did I fear they’d build a refinery near me since it wouldn’t make any sense to do so out in the woods. If you buy a property near the ship channel, you have to be able to look forward to the day where a refinery or smelter is built somewhat nearby and that fact is built into the cost of the land/house. If you don’t want it to be built, then the development usually buys up a bunch of green belt surrounding the neighborhood/town turning it into a park/nature trail, happens all the time.

120 mikea June 1, 2016 at 11:20 am

I think Seattle is largely getting it right. Having recently traveled to SF and Seattle in the past month, the differences in stances toward residential development couldn’t be more stark.

121 extensive June 1, 2016 at 9:31 am

Well said, Professor Tabarrok, well said. Bravo. May the world listen.

122 Vivian Darkbloom June 1, 2016 at 9:33 am
123 MC June 1, 2016 at 3:54 pm

LOL. It’s stuff like this that makes conservatives mistrust libertarians.

124 Quite Likely June 1, 2016 at 9:46 am

Hmm, I’m not sure if I buy historic preservation laws as a reason why it’s difficult to repair or construct a bridge these days. Even historic bridges need repairs, and most new bridges having always been built in unused space above bodies of water, not on existing historic sites.

125 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:28 am

Of course it’s largely irrelevant, but it’s a bugaboo of his so he’ll shoehorn it in.

126 Albigensian June 1, 2016 at 10:00 am

The Empire State building went from groundbreaking to grand opening in 18 months, yet it’s difficult to imagine such a thing getting built in NYC in less than a decade now.

More likely it would not get built at all; after all, building the Empire State bldg required demolishing the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel that formerly stood on the site.

But it’s less than obvious that historical preservation is entirely to blame: perhaps we just no longer have the talent and skill to build anything in a reasonable period of time and on a reasonable budget?

For example, the original IRT subway in NYC was built in about four years, yet today’s small-in-comparison Second Avenue Subway is scheduled for 17 years (and it will probably be late and over-budget), even though far better equipment is available to build such things today.

Perhaps future Americans will look at works such as the Hoover Dam, or the moon rockets, and wonder if perhaps extraterrestrial aliens built them?

127 bellisaurius June 1, 2016 at 10:21 am

It’s not always the historical stuff that causes delays. Sometimes, like say with Trump tower in Chicago which took five years, you just hit something like water and it slows things down (it did have nimby stuff too, but that was in the planning phase mostly). Or like another nearby construction site, you find it used to be a watch factory, which mean radium contamination. There are more things to stop construction, and a lot of them really come up to be externalities that regulations force someone to pay as opposed to just living/working around them.

128 Agra Brum June 1, 2016 at 8:20 pm

The original IRT was built in an era of general ignorance of soil mechanics and a major disregard for worker safety and the safety of the buildings above it, And, most of the initial IRT was done in cut and cover, and freely closed off street traffic, while only very limited traffic disruptions are available now.

129 peri June 3, 2016 at 11:19 pm

I’ve wondered if skills are eroding too. Road construction = the thing we’re supposed to be good at in Texas.
Yet every trip up I35, is an occasion for this road game: think up new explanations for why they can’t finish the expansion that was first set in motion twenty years ago (a plot to force us to love toll roads more, or loss of productivity due to time spent looking at phones?). They’ve worked on one 3-mile stretch near relatives for at least five years. Last year, they said it had a May 2016 completion date. Today I noticed only heaps of rubble where one side of the road will eventually be. “I guess they missed it …”
And this is central Texas – not challenging terrain.
Oh, and as to the original topic – now that I think about it, Texas interstates are a great place for y’all blue-state preservation-haters to get a look at your future in an America indifferent to both preservation and aesthetics. This is Tomorrowland down here.

130 BBurke June 1, 2016 at 10:24 am

With the exception of the old colonial towns on the east coast, I don’t think historic preservation laws have anything to do with repairing bridges. The major delays cited in that article have to do with re-routing water and utility lines that for whatever reason the planners don’t seem to have been aware of. That has nothing to do with historic preservation, and my guess is that the reason why 98% of the failing bridges in this country remain in disrepair has nothing to do with it either.

131 FUBAR007 June 1, 2016 at 10:25 am

Tyler: It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created.

True. In theory.

Thing is, most contemporary architecture is ugly. Either because it’s excessively avant garde and weird (e.g. whatever the hell that spiky, white thing down by the WTC memorial in Lower Manhattan is supposed to be) or, conversely, because it’s flat, utilitarian, and dull e.g. strip malls and most post-WWII high-rises.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m all for loosening historical preservation regulations–even though I think environmental impact studies are the greater stumbling block/bureaucratic time-suck–as long as the future is more aesthetically appealing than the past. 🙂

132 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:31 am

Nearly all contemporary commercial architecture is banal or ugly. For the commissioning party, it’s commonly just space. As for the peer culture of architects (and people who write criticism), it’s godawful.

133 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 11:08 am

Should the government intervene in the free market to obstruct buildings some people don’t think are visually attractive? If so, how do they decide what’s sufficiently “ugly” enough to require intervention?

I can’t tell if you are just venting about modern architecture or think this is a government failure.

134 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 11:13 am

Should the government intervene in the free market to obstruct buildings some people don’t think are visually attractive?

Yes, the streets and the vistas on them are common property.

135 Bob from Ohio June 1, 2016 at 11:27 am

“vistas on them are common property”

Why should the owners pay property taxes on common property?

136 Art Deco June 1, 2016 at 12:12 pm

They do not. They pay taxes on the resale value of their property.

137 eric June 1, 2016 at 10:28 am

It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created

People look back to the urban renewal of the 60s-70s when truly remarkable buildings were replaced by awful buildings. Think of the Garrick theatre in Chicago or Penn station in New York.

138 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 10:36 am

Creative destruction requires some destruction.

You’ve plenty of strip malls constructed ca. 1970 to raze.

139 Alain June 1, 2016 at 11:00 am

We are all so very happy that you are here to impose your preferences on us.

140 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

Real estate developers impose their preferences as a matter of course.

141 JK Brown June 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

As my post below indicates, there are those seeking to preserve strip malls now.

142 Alain June 1, 2016 at 11:01 am

“There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for.”

The heart of the matter. Absolutely correct Alex. Very strong post.

143 Benny Lava June 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

Fubar, Eric, and banned guy hit the mark. Historic preservation was created because post war architecture is terrible. I don’t see any way of fixing that.

Also just last week this very blog showed that old buildings in New York are denser than new ones because of zoning laws. Seems contradictory to Larry’s thesis.

144 JK Brown June 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

Post-WWII architecture is terrible because of its socialist influences. I call it mid-century Soviet.

145 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 11:18 am

It’s terrible because perversity is a form of status signaling. So, you have the likes of Scott Sumner singing the praises of junk art because it allows him to establish himself as superior to those of us who do not ‘understand’ junk art. So, you have rich and influential people pretending to fancy Frank Gehry’s work.

146 FUBAR007 June 1, 2016 at 12:02 pm

The technical term is, entirely appropriately IMO, “Brutalism”:

It gained momentum after WWII because it was cheap.

The flip-side of the coin, as I discussed above, is the really bizarre, post-modern stuff. Fine for contemporary art museums, an eye sore for everything else.

147 Adrian Ratnapala June 2, 2016 at 12:28 am

Historic preservation was created because post war architecture is terrible. I don’t see any way of fixing that.

The way to fix it is to raze a lot of old builds buildings.

Anyway, saying “post war” is too sweeping. Now that I live in Germany, I rather like the way they build lots of 4-5 story apartment blocks producing neighbouhoods with lots of parks, playgrounds and gardens, as well as the conveniences of high(ish) density living.

While not stunning, these buildings mostly look pretty good. They are built for a large numbers of people who vote and pay rent and are therefore hard to treat as lab-rats in some socialist experiment.

All this is a point in favour of Alex’ creative destruction. It is easier to build such things in cities taht were turned into rubble during WWII.

148 JK Brown June 1, 2016 at 11:12 am

I realized that historical preservation had become absurd in the early 2000s in Silver Spring, MD’s renewal. There was much effort to save a dilapidated concrete block building and fenced asphalt as the old cola plant, I forget which brand.

But the ultimate was the efforts to protect and rebuild some abandoned shops on Georgia Ave, that had some Art Deco tin on the facade. I looked it up, apparently it was unique as one of the first shopping locations with off street parking. Or as we would call it in the modern vernacular, the first strip mall. Yes, the historic preservationist had react the point of trying to preserve strip malls.

From a google search, it doesn’t look like these places were preserved or perhaps they are still awaiting a decision?

149 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 11:16 am

It’s not that presevation is absurd, It’s that professional preservationists have been buffaloed by architectural historians. See the amount the National Trust paid for a hunk of junk in exurban Chicago designed by Mies van der Rohe.

150 JK Brown June 1, 2016 at 11:41 am

I found some info at the Art Deco Society of Washington website.

” At its opening in 1938, this complex represented a milestone in commercial architecture — an early example of a suburban shopping center designed for the automobile era. It was the first shopping center designed by a nationally prominent architect, John Eberson of New York, who was already an accomplished designer of movie theaters. It was also the largest shopping center that had been built in the Washington area at that time, …”

“These streamlined forms were continued in the shopping center, as seen in photographs from the 1970s. But, of course, no one wanted to know about this in the 1980s, and the owners of the theater and shopping center were ready to demolish – and they almost got there way.

The Art Deco Society and a coalition of neighborhood groups stopped the wreckage, got the structures landmarked, and insisted on a thoughtful plan for the rehabilitation of downtown Silver Spring. ”

Oh no! The owners almost got their way? But instead of working to fund the preservation, the groups decided to use government violence.

151 Bill Reeves June 1, 2016 at 11:24 am

Amen. And crush most zoning law as well. I defy you to demonstrate that zoning law leads to better results (as opposed to private Planned Unit Developments where avarice controls or sign and building standards). Texas is flourishing in part because of the lack of much ‘historic’ infrastructure and limited zoning. Property rights have always been the key to wealth accumulation and progress. More property rights, more wealth creation.

152 FUBAR007 June 1, 2016 at 12:09 pm

Let’s talk again in a few decades if/when the green, easily habitable eastern portion of Texas is as developed and dense as the urban coastal areas.

If not actively prevented, NIMBYism and plodding regulatory bureaucracy are an inevitable outcome of increasing population density.

Learn from California’s mistakes!

153 John L June 1, 2016 at 11:25 am This has a nice case study of building BRT in SF. At least in the Bay Area, the main things that slow down construction seem to be environmental review (which ironically generally means traffic, and prioritizes cars, requiring buildings to have lots of parking and making building public transit difficult), public protest of new construction, and zoning codes, in that order.

154 anon June 1, 2016 at 11:34 am

“Historic Preservation” is a pretty big catch-all, as are “Laws” supporting it.

It might be reasonable that government buildings (and infrastructure) be considered for their historic significance. I don’t know of any rule that requires private property to be judged that way. Isn’t making a private property a “landmark” always at the request of the owner, or the purchasing group?

155 Agra Brum June 1, 2016 at 8:47 pm

There are many specific laws forbidding changes to certain structures in Historic Preservation Zones or any significant modifications to particular structures.
Sometimes these designations are more advisory than anything; sometimes they are mandatory.
The first laws came about after the destruction of (the nice) Penn Station in New York, which was then replaced with the current station.

156 CrisisStudent June 1, 2016 at 11:41 am

Just to put this laws in non-US perspective – down here in Czech Republic, when reconstructing old buildings you cannot replace old wooden windows for new plastic ones due to historic preservation laws, even in fourth floor of regular building. That’s how absurd these laws can be.

157 Chris Wegener June 1, 2016 at 11:46 am

While I agree with the sentiment, and in principle feel that preservation as a whole stands in the way of higher density housing which urban areas desperately need I think that some preservation is required.

Allowing developers to handle preservation is asking the fox to guard the hen house. Unrestrained development is a recipe for disaster. Allowing developers buy, raze and rebuild without restraint is asking for neighborhoods where no one wants to live.There needs to be control of the process of redevelopment and at the current time officials in city government need to have a more holistic view of appropriate development. They need to direct development through intelligent zoning and an acceptance of the need to build high density housing along urban corridors and not allow the rampant building of McMansions which do not increase density.

158 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:24 pm

“Allowing developers buy, raze and rebuild without restraint is asking for neighborhoods where no one wants to live.”

This makes no sense. You think if developers had their way, they would build developments that no one wanted to pay money for? Are they not interested in meeting market demand (aka what people want) to get more money?

159 Chris Wegener June 1, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Well as we see in Los Angeles the do build neighborhoods that over time lose their appeal and the value of all the houses decreases. The issue becomes that the developers profit comes in part from the reduction in value of the neighboring houses. The individual developer profits by building larger houses but the neighborhood loses.

160 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 2:32 pm

@Chris – Where are you getting that development causes a drop in property values of neighboring businesses? Has Mountain View seen home prices drop because of Google’s HQ being developed there? Look at all the development in H Street, U street – are they causing property value decreases or increases among neighboring units?

“Allowing developers buy, raze and rebuild without restraint is asking for neighborhoods where no one wants to live.”

I’m still baffled by this statement. There is still some restraint (the buildings need to have access to roads, water, etc – no one is suggesting otherwise) – and there are plenty of neighborhoods built by developers without interference from historic preservationists that people still want to live in.

How do you see the market for housing and business working, if it’s not people building stuff based on market incentives (ie what people want)?

161 Donald Pretari June 1, 2016 at 11:47 am

I’m.strongly in favor of Historic Preservation. I take this as a conservative precept, btw.

162 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Government significantly interfering with the free market is a conservative precept? The dilution and infringement of property rights?

163 Donald Pretari June 1, 2016 at 12:51 pm

I consider conservatives to be Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, Wendell Berry, and Michael Oakeshott. None of them believe in an unfettered free market or property rights to be immutable. They’re not libertarians, for the reasons I just gave.

164 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:59 pm

“None of them believe in an unfettered free market or property rights to be immutable.”

Libertarians don’t believe that either. I’m not a libertarian, I love government (when it’s competent and effective) and even I can see why historic preservation is a fairly recent and bad use of state power. As the original post said, much of the things we want to preserve today would never have been built had we had a historic preservation regime around when they were built.

165 Donald Pretari June 1, 2016 at 3:36 pm

“As the original post said, much of the things we want to preserve today would never have been built had we had a historic preservation regime around when they were built.”

So what? They were built. We just have a major difference in values.

166 Chris Wegener June 1, 2016 at 1:46 pm

It is obvious you have never visited any place that does not have zoning laws.

Having a contractor move in next door and storing his equipment and trash next to your house is a far greater infringement on your property rights.

167 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Solid straw man argument. My argument is not there should be no zoning – just that there should be far less unprincipled NIMBYism that we see today accepted. One example is the DC height act – which again was originally enacted to deal with the problem of firefighters not getting water up to the higher floors of tall buildings.

168 BDK June 1, 2016 at 3:15 pm

Property is nothing more than the bundle of legal rights in which the state tells you how you can use a piece of physical space, and how you can exclude others from using that space. In a simpler era, the default bundle of rights for a fee simple was very simple–you can do most things on the physical space that was, colloquially, your “property,” or at common law, the “estate,” and you could forbid everyone else from doing anything, if you so desired. Those bundles of rights were only valuable to the extent the sovereign was willing and able to enforce them, of course, and the state (or crown) reserved the allodium.

Over time, those bundles of rights became more complicated, including many centuries ago under the Common Law (and longer at Civil Law), the imposition of encumbrances, including easements, servitudes and covenants. As our world has become more complicated and more dense, so has that bundle of rights that define “property.” In a sense, restrictions like zoning and preservation laws are simply expansions of those ancient encumbrances, but based on modern policies and circumstances.

In some instances, a change in the bundle of rights enforced by the state may require compensation, but we have a lot of jurisprudence on that point. You are within your rights to work to change the laws to require more compensation for such “takings,” to lower the threshold of how “takings” are defined, or to prohibit zoning or preservation laws altogether. But imposition of zoning rules and preservation laws is entirely consistent with respect for property rights, and maintenance of such laws as they already define the bundle of rights that constitute your property is also clearly consistent with property rights.

I wholly expect that the bundle of rights we all deal with in the future when we buy and sell “property” will become even more complicated, at least in densely populated and economically dynamic places. If you want a broader bundle of rights, you are free to buy it, but probably in places with less people and less economic activity.

169 Bill June 1, 2016 at 8:39 pm


170 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 7:54 am

I thought conservatives had respect for decentralized democratic decision making.

171 Jos. S. Laughon June 1, 2016 at 12:23 pm

If the new bridges and buildings were not so frightfully ugly, I would agree with the sentiment more. But I can’t imagine tearing down an old cathedral and replacing it with a parking lot is truly “progress”

172 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 12:29 pm

“But I can’t imagine tearing down an old cathedral and replacing it with a parking lot is truly “progress””

If you’re someone who likes cathedrals and doesn’t drive, sure I can see that. But if you drive a car and like being able to park it, and don’t care about cathedrals, I think it would be progress.

I find new buildings to much better than old buildings – for many reasons but for one, I think having lead in paint and using asbestos were not a great ideas.

173 Albigensian June 1, 2016 at 12:53 pm

Lead paint was used far longer than it should have been, but asbestos has very useful properties. If the asbestos is sealed somewhere within an old structure from which it’s unlikely to escape if left undisturbed, why not leave it there?

174 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Well, for one because buildings often get “disturbed” even if you don’t intend for that to happen – like a fire, earthquake, or renovation/remodeling. But my main point is in an ideal structure, would there be asbestos? I’d say no, but perhaps you’d want it in your home.

175 JoS. S. Laughon June 1, 2016 at 2:43 pm

The implicit assumption here, of course, being that utility is more important than beauty or that beauty really has no utility worth considering.

176 Dave Anthony June 1, 2016 at 3:13 pm

“being that utility is more important than beauty”

It is. How much value is anyone deriving from the crumbling formerly beautiful buildings of Detroit?

177 sir barken hyena June 1, 2016 at 3:26 pm

“formerly beautiful” = no longer providing beauty, right?

178 JoS. S. Laughon June 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm

The example doesn’t make sense. I’ve not heard a single argument from anyone that the crumbling buildings of Detroit are beautiful.

Your better analogy would be that actually actively beautiful buildings out to be torn down for “progress.” Seems like an ugly world.

179 Cambias June 1, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Exactly the same argument about historic preservation can (and should) be made about environmental preservation: if you want to preserve something, buy it. Spend your own money, or rally others to contribute. Don’t use the power of the state to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself.

If you want to preserve a building, buy it. If you want to preserve some land, buy it.

And if you can’t persuade others that it’s worth doing, don’t use state power to force them to do what you think should be done.

180 BikeRound June 1, 2016 at 1:03 pm

So if Professor Tabarrok thinks all historical preservation laws should be repealed, does he find it acceptable that buildings in Venice could be replaced with, say, Soviet-style concrete blocks? How about destroying the historical nature of Bruges?

181 Stuart June 1, 2016 at 1:15 pm

I think he laid out his argument quite clearly. If owners of those properties (buildings in Venice) wanted to replace them with Soviet-style concrete blocks, then yes, they should be allowed to – since that’s kind of a fundamental part of property rights. Same for Bruges.

And you do realize, that all the “historical” buildings you like at some point displaced even older, more historic structures?

182 Banned Guy June 1, 2016 at 4:17 pm

since that’s kind of a fundamental part of property rights. Same for Bruges. </i

What Chesterton said: the problem with a madman is not that he is illogical, but that he is only logical.

183 Ricardo June 1, 2016 at 10:56 pm

As stated, this is just a dogmatic defense of property rights. From an economic and utilitarian perspective, property owners in unique, historic neighborhoods almost certainly benefit from historic structures and facades nearby in the form of higher property values. If property owners were to join forces through an institution to decide how to keep their property values high — let’s call this institution “elected municipal government” — the outcome would almost certainly be some form of historical preservation.

184 Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger June 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

What a moving speech. Makes me want to shout, Hail Hydra!

The past is what holds us back. We need to shed the shackles of preservation and adopt the ruthless growth of a New Phyrexia.

185 dismalhumanist June 1, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Gawd, really? Another post by the esteemed(?) professor that reads like the ravings of a self-obsessed teenage boy who read something about the topic once and now believes himself an expert qualified to opine on all things everywhere for all time.

186 Jeffrey Deutsch June 1, 2016 at 4:45 pm

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestors ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Both nations and individuals work this way, I strongly suspect.

187 chuck martel June 2, 2016 at 6:31 am

Building is done for the present, the builders want to be paid now, not in the distant future. Planners might have some freakish wish to bestow their vision on future generations but future generations can take care of their own affairs, better than their ancestors, in fact. Many of the blessings of infrastructure commit future generations to a path that may be obsolete or increasingly impractical and expensive to change or abandon.

188 Bill June 1, 2016 at 5:11 pm

You have to understand the subtlety to Alex’s argument.

He is getting you prepared.

Prepared to vote against Donald Trump for using the power of the state to take property.

After all, what is eminent domain used in the name of progress to a real estate developer.

It also can be used to build a wall.

189 Larry Siegel June 1, 2016 at 8:44 pm

You’d think we could produce public goods, like historic preservation, in ways that are moderate and sensible, wouldn’t you? We have to have some historic preservation because of neighborhood effects. There is no known mechanism that would allow the market to rule by enabling neighbors of a (hypothetical) massive high-rise in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro or Dubose Triangle to charge a developer for the amenity destruction they suffer. So, as a substitute, they just preserve all the buildings. That is not an optimal solution but it is better than destroying what makes San Francisco “San Francisco.” Put the high-rise in South Beach where the amenity destruction is zero. This is why we have a government, not to collect and distribute favors but to make sensible compromise decisions regarding public goods and externalities.

190 French June 1, 2016 at 10:37 pm

But had that mindset and policy in place 100 years ago – what makes “San Francisco” so special would never have come into existence. So why not continue to allow creative forces to shape a city rather than trying to freeze buildings and whole neighborhoods in time? You have no idea what amazing things you could be stopping. Many Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower at first and thought it was a terrible idea.

Historic preservation is in part (along with NIMBYism and zoning) driving up the cost of housing and making cities increasingly exclusive places for the rich to enjoy.

191 Ricardo June 1, 2016 at 11:55 pm

You are knocking down a strawman. Many buildings in the Embarcadero and South of Market sections of the city were built in the past 30 years. A new skyscraper currently being built in the area will make the list of top 10 tallest buildings in the U.S. Note that the city of San Francisco is only about 160 years old and much of it was gutted in the 1906 earthquake so there really wasn’t a whole lot to preserve 100 years ago. We are lucky, though, that a few buildings from the 19th century did survive and that some of them continue to be preserved today.

192 AIG June 1, 2016 at 10:17 pm

“Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build the system today. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future.”

And you’re wrong…of course.

The system we have today was not build half a century ago. The system…TOOK…half a century to build.

E.g.: it took 22 YEARS to build I-90. Since that time, many sections have been expanded and modernized. Many new bridges, overpasses etc. constructed.

Could we build the I-90 of 1956 today? Yes. Would we want the I-90 of 1956 today? No.

“Infrastructure” is not a discrete point. It is a continuously expanding and updated system. The fact that economists don’t understand this, is surprising.

193 AIG June 1, 2016 at 10:36 pm

The Interstate highway system started in 1956…and was COMPLETED in 1992. That’s 36 years total.

Much of the system was not new highways, but connecting existing highways to form a continuous system. Hence why many highway shave multiple names, since they are both part of the interstate system as well as part of the existing state or local highways and turnpikes which make up the whole. As an example, the Pennsylvania Turnpike started in 1940, and was completed in 1956. 16 years later, to become part of the interstate system.

So depending on how you gauge the start date of such a thing, it took as long as 52 years to get all the pieces completed.

Second, what we have today is the expansion and modernization of the system which is a continuous process. In 1956 you couldn’t drive a heavy 18-wheeler at 90 miles per hour, as you can today on I-90. To allow for that, the entire surface of the road had to be replaced and modernized several times over, over the decades.

PS: I was wrong in my previous post. I-90 wasn’t complete until 1991. So that’s 35 years to complete!

194 Will Muessig June 2, 2016 at 1:40 am

This post reminded me of various efforts to build a super-long-lasting clock. Every few decades a new cutting-edge design comes about that is ‘superior’ than the previous one, and *that’s* the clock that should be preserved. Is ‘chronocolonialism’ a concept? It should be, especially in urban planning. [x-posed on Market Urbanism FB page]

195 C. Dan June 2, 2016 at 5:53 am

Historic preservation regulations are also a natural (if imperfect) counter-weight to eminent domain. If historic preservation regs are removed, buying/funding buildings privately would not be sufficient, if the state can force a sale via eminent domain.

196 David June 2, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Someone else may already have said this–I don’t have the strength to wade through almost 200 comments to find out–but one of the things about “historic districts” is that they are often the unintended product of economic collapse or downturn.

I gained this insight many years ago while touring Bruges, in western Belgium (now officially renamed Brugge: but of course that is just the Dutch word for “Bridges”, and Bruges is just a Francophoneticisation). The guide pointed out that this was the most extensive example of this type of architecture (I forget the name…basically 17th-century Dutch-Flemish) remaining outside of a painting, which had led to more or less the entire Old City being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (this was before that appellation was being assigned quite so promiscuously as nowadays).

The guide then went on to explain that these houses had been built by the local merchants and traders as displays of their wealth, but that shortly thereafter, the port of Bruges had begun silting up, and rapidly became unusable by the ships of the era (which led to the establishment of a new port city on the new coastline, Zeebrugge, meaning “Bruges-By-The-Sea”). However, this drastically curtailed the level of commerce–and therefore wealth–flowing through Bruges, which never fully recovered, and was in the equivalent of a depression for many years.

This meant that the now-impoverished merchants couldn’t afford to upgrade their housing–think of the period from 2008 to say 2013, only lasting for fifty years instead of five!–so it was “preserved” by the force of circumstances.

So now when I see something of the sort, I ask myself, what great economic tragedy lurks behind those beautiful facades?

197 Rob June 3, 2016 at 9:38 am

Couldn’t agree more Alex. Great piece.

198 Butler T. Reynolds June 9, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Take a picture of it and move on.

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