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The Dark Side of Historic Preservation

March 22, 2023

Historic preservation ordinances can limit property owners’ rights, stifle businesses and even hinder the goal of preservation itself

Anyone who has been to Independence Hall, Mount Vernon or Hannibal, Missouri, knows what an enlightening and even moving experience it can be to visit a historic building. The places where history happened can feel like living witnesses to the great events of the past. That makes it natural that we feel an irreparable loss when, say, the home of John Hancock, or a work by the great architect Louis Sullivan, is destroyed.

This hits close to home, if you’ll pardon the pun. I was raised by a family of historic preservationists; my parents were the live-in caretakers at Heritage Square, a Los Angeles museum devoted to protecting old structures. Even after leaving that work, they have devoted themselves to restoring and maintaining 19th century buildings across the country. (They’re currently restoring an old brick mansion in Indiana.) I grew up in a construction zone, surrounded by architectural history and often hearing the slogan, “Old houses need love too.”

But there’s a downside to historic preservation. As Alex Tabarrok puts it, “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.” After all, life goes on—and as lovely as old buildings may be, they are not only expensive to maintain and repair, but they can also stand in the way of worthy innovation and necessary development. When the government orders historic preservation by law, the resulting costs are typically imposed on individual property owners in the form of expensive mandates—or on would-be owners, in the form of higher costs for housing.

Read the rest of the op-ed at Discourse Magazine

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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