Saturday, March 24, 2012

Historic Tax Credits: saving more than history

Historic tax credits were in the news again here in Oklahoma. Unfortunately.

After placing a two-year deferral on the payments, state legislators revisited the program again last month with an eye on axing it entirely. This short-sighted approach has left developers in a quandary and projects on hold. Politicians claim they have no "hard evidence" of the benefit these incentives provide. But the proof is all around them.

The Tulsa Foundation for Architecture has compiled a compelling case for historic tax credits. A wide variety of properties across the state have been restored, updated and rescued by virtue of these funds. In Tulsa the benefits are evident on most any weekday evening. See all those people? Yes, there are people downtown after 5:00 pm. A scant ten or fifteen years ago that would have been unusual.

But these people aren't drawn to a new shiny mall or a "Tuscan villa" made of Styrofoam. They are drawn to a vibrant cityscape. The fabric of downtown is the antithesis of a homogenous landscape– it's a diverse weave of Art Deco, Gothic Revival, Post-Modern, Brutalist and International. Historic tax credits aren't the only reason, but they do play a crucial role in projects like the Mayo Hotel or the residential development in the Philtower. In some cases these projects would have never happened. Developers have told me so.

I think the main problem here is Rate of Return. Historic tax credits pay dividends over a long term, and too many people cannot see past the quarterly statement. The immediate expenditures, employment and commerce a project creates is merely the icing. The real payoff is the increased property values and traffic from tourists, office workers, retailers, utilities and delivery drivers over years and years.

It's Not Just About Old
The other day I came across an interesting discussion from Oklahoma City about tax credits as they relate to Mid-Century Modern architecture: Should Historic Tax Credit Go Toward Mid-Century Modern Properties? I think you can guess what our answer would be. But reading this reminded me that many people still identify "historic" with gargoyles and lightning rods.

Like it or not, the 50-year ruler slides ever forward– placing the year of eligibility for historic status at 1962 (even though that requirement is supposedly only a guideline). Some folks shudder at the thought of a hideous building from that era. But I still gawk at space-age buildings in wide-eyed fascination like the two-year old I was in 1962. Call me sentimental.

But an arbitrary date doesn't make a building historic. Consider the recent plan to demolish recreation centers in North Tulsa. These may not look like architectural jewels (though Urban Renewal projects from the Seventies do have a certain appeal) but they do have a special meaning to the communities they serve. If a new facility will serve them better then so be it, but let's not assume the community will be served better because the building is new.

Maintaining the diversity of Oklahoma's architectural style is what keeps us from looking like a theme park or suburban sub-division. Historic tax credits should be available as a tool to preserve the fabric of our towns and cities. Regardless of a building's age, location or size.

It will keep Oklahoma looking like Oklahoma.
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Postscript.