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May 3, 2001

How Historic Preservation Works

by Stuart Lieberman
Realty Times

Are you looking for a new home? If a builder is going to build this home for you, the discovery of historic artifacts may delay construction. Many federal permits require historic review before permits can be issued. For example, if your builder needs a permit from the EPA before you can build, that permit will trigger a historic review if the undertaking will affect historically significant buildings or properties. The law that affords all of us with this protection is the National Historic Preservation Act.

Under that law, projects involving either federal funding or oversight are affected. Review occurs when the buildings or sites are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Review involves a complex process that includes a verification of the site's significance, a determination of the measures necessary to safeguard the site, and a review by an independent Advisory Council to ensure that shortcuts are not being taken.

Often, entire areas are considered to be historic. In fact, home buyers often look for that kind of quality in, let's say, a downtown area when deciding where they wish to purchase. Historically significant downtowns add an important, unique quality to a community, distinguishing it from the run-of-the mill suburban developments that often have local highways as "downtown" substitutes.

Since 1980, an organization called the Main Street National Trust has played an active role in ensuring that these kinds of historic or traditional regions remain and survive re-development pressures. The organization is a part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is located in Washington, D.C.

Main Street programs are created by those local businesses and individuals that want to keep their business district alive. Typically a Main Street manager is hired and a Board of Directors is established, and committees are created. Funding comes from local business owners, local government, and public contributions.

The National Main Street Center provides interested parties with a variety of publications to help local groups get off the ground. The organization facilitates other learning opportunities through conferences and by making experts available on a fee basis.

The organization runs a Most Endangered list identifying significant historic sites that are in danger of being lost forever. Often, publicity and public support can lead to a change in plans and a new life for the threatened property.

One property on the list that should touch many readers, if not their kids, is the oldest surviving McDonald's restaurant located in Downey California. The property was built in 1953 and was one of the McDonald brothers' first hamburger stands. In 1994 the chain announced plans to close this cultural icon due to weak sales, and the lack of a drive through window and indoor seating. Faced with public clamor, the chain changed its mind in 1996 and restored the restaurant. It now serves happy meals to happy tourist visitors.

A cemetery is also the list of saved properties. The Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC is the burial place for many known national figures including J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. Plans to curtail operations were announced in 1997 due to vandalism and neglect. Public outcry led to public and federal funding, and the burial location has come alive. Sort of.

If you are in the market for a new home, consider the location of historic sites, buildings and districts. They add character and enhance the quality of life. History makes communities unique, and in that sense, exclusive and a basis for pride.

And if you already live in a community with truly historic features, join your local historic preservation group and make sure that the history is preserved for future generations. Strip shopping centers are a dime a dozen. New 24-hour drug stores are already abundant. Make sure that our history isn't bulldozed away to make room for another insignificant and unexceptional commercial enterprise.

For more articles by Stuart Leiberman, please press here.