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Esteemed preservation expert Donovan Rypkema touts local historic districts in St. Pete

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete Preservation supporters packed the St. Pete Museum of History’s ballroom Monday night to hear from a national expert on local historic designations. The group is embroiled in an effort to make the process of designating neighborhoods as local historic districts easier and is fighting back fierce opposition.

Donovan Rypkema is a writer and preservation expert. He’s in town to present recent findings of a Main Street study. Main Street districts overlap a great deal with local historic designation. Rypkema’s niche, he said, is finding the intersection of historic preservation and economic development.

Rypkema highlighted four areas in which historic designation benefits communities – downtown revitalization, heritage tourism, property values and jobs.

A North Carolina study of Main Streets looking at economic development using historic resources found there was an additional $2 billion investment and a 4,500 net growth in businesses. For every $1 the state contributed, $145 of investment went in to the average Main Street.

“There is no economic development program that’s more cost effective than Main Street,” Rypkema said.

And Rypkema found that in Philadelphia, heritage tourism represented a $3 billion industry creating 45,000 jobs. Obviously Philadelphia’s heritage tourism industry is going to be among the most robust in the nation based on its historical ties to the birth of our nation, but Rypkema’s findings were relevant in other places as well.

“Let’s look at Arkansas,” Rypkema said to a chorus of laughter.

People traveling to Arkansas for heritage tourism spend 30 percent more than those traveling for other reasons. The industry represents more than 20,000 jobs and $74 million in tax revenue.

While Florida’s main tourism draw is its beaches, Rypkema reported 46.7 percent of tourists reported visiting a historic site. And a survey of international tourists indicated that 470,000 more tourists go to a historic site while on vacation than go to an amusement park.

The data he provided builds a case for preservationists as they face a major City Council decision Thursday. Council will vote whether or not to lower the threshold for neighborhoods to submit applications to receive local historic designation. The current threshold is 2/3 of all homeowners must vote in favor. Preservationists say that bar is too high because many homeowners are absentee and a non-vote is the same as a no-vote under the current model.

Supporters of an ordinance change want the city to instead require a majority of only those who vote to affirm the application process.

Opponents have cited a number of reasons why the ordinance change is a bad idea. Among those are that local historic designation, and the additional regulations it comes with, would devalue properties.

Rypkema argues the opposite is true. When looking at property values in Philadelphia over a 30-year period, homes in locally designated historic districts appreciated by 22.5 percent. Homes located in districts with only national historic designation, a largely symbolic classification, only rose 14 percent.

In San Antonio the average property value of neighborhoods with no historical designation at all was just 22 percent. Homes in nationally registered neighborhoods appreciated by 28 percent and those in local historic districts rose 32 percent.

“Nobody is paying the premium to go before a commission,” Rypkema said referring to the process by which homes in local historic districts must go through to make major changes to their home. “They’re paying a premium for protection against the loon across the street.”

That reference was to homeowners who buy up property only to demolish the old structure and replace it with a new one. That is the fear among preservationists who worry about the historic charm of neighborhoods like Old Northeast or Historic Kenwood being knocked out one wrecking ball at a time.

Opponents also argue historic designation would require homes to sacrifice energy efficiency. The most specific example to that is window replacement. Supporters have debunked claims that homeowners would not be allowed to replace original windows with more efficient ones.

And Rypkema made the argument that restoration of existing structures is more sustainable than building new ones – even if the proposed construction is green. He referenced a study launched by New York City former Mayor Mike Bloomberg that looked at energy efficiency in hundreds of buildings.

The study found the buildings using the least amount of energy were those that were constructed before 1930. Further, the newer the building was, the more energy is used.

Rypkema also looked at a number of other components of historic designation. He pointed out that locally designated historic districts had foreclosure rates far lower than those not designated.

“I think the reason is, when I get in financial trouble I can get that property sold,” Rypkema said.

Locally designated historic neighborhoods felt the effects of the Great Recession later and recovered sooner.

Rypkema also said businesses in historically designated neighborhoods had a closure rate far lower than the national average.

St. Pete Preservation handed out post cards at the presentation with a photo of the Soreno Hotel on Beach Drive that was demolished in 1992 with the words “Preserve the ‘Burg” at the bottom. Supporters were asked to fill the post card out and mail it to St. Pete City Council.

So far, correspondence to City Council through emails has weighed in favor of opponents. However, those numbers do not take into consideration personal correspondence like post cards, letters and phone calls.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]

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