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KEVIN LEININGER: Sure preservation feels good, but does it also make sense (and dollars)?

The renovated Landing will open this year and is a mix of old and new construction (Courtesy image)
Columbia Street was where Canal boats landed in the mid-1800s -- hence its "The Landing" nickname. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Could renovation of the Rialto Theater at 2616 S. Calhoun St. make economic sense? Research suggests it's possible. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Connie Haas Zuber
Donovan Rypkema
Kevin Leininger

Four years after a $10 million renovation created a two-story ballroom that is one of the jewels of downtown Fort Wayne, it’s hard to believe the Embassy Theatre and attached Indiana Hotel were once in danger of demolition — a fate other notable remnants of the city’s past were not able to avoid.

Today, however, even a cursory look around town reveals how times have changed: From the Clyde Theatre to the Berghoff/Falstaff Brewery to the Baker Street train station to the former General Electric campus to Columbia Street Landing, which will reopen this summer after a $30 million facelift, old buildings are finding new and exciting uses because more and more people see value in them — in more ways than one.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the value of what we’ve built, how much we’ve already invested,” said Connie Haas Zuber, whose job as executive director of ARCH is to promote the preservation and reuse of historic structures. But in place of the usual emotional or historic (and often ineffective) arguments for preservation, Haas Zuber insists saving old buildings saves dollars and makes sense.

If not for COVID-19, which seems to have cancelled just about everything, Haas Zuber would have laid out that premise last Saturday at the downtown Library in a lecture titled “Historic Preservation by the Numbers.” Those numbers, she said, prove preservation does more than make people feel good: It can make them money, too.

Building on research by Donovan Rypkema (more on him later), Haas Zuber argues that instead of viewing old buildings as impediments to progress, officials and developers should consider them as the first option in order to capitalize on the city’s “heritage investment.”

To prove her point, Haas Zuber cites real estate values in Wayne Township, which contains many of Fort Wayne’s historic residential and commercial structures. According to data from the Wayne Township Assessor’s office, residential assessed values in the area increased by 18.9 percent between 2010 and 2018.

During that same period, however, values increased by 44.2 percent in Williams-Woodland and 46.7 percent in West Central — neighborhoods that just happen to be historic districts.

To be sure, such a comparison is not definitive. Thanks to the (until recently) strong economy, assessed values have been on the rise everywhere, often by a greater amount than Wayne Township’s overall increase. And the two neighborhoods Haas Zuber mentioned are close to downtown and Electric Works, completed or planned improvements to which have fueled real estate investment and speculation. Haas Zuber estimates Fort Wayne’s “heritage investment” in homes, businesses, industries at between $2 billion and $3 billion plus related public investment in parks, schools, streets, etc.

Rypkema, however, has made a far broader review and came to the same conclusion. A principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development-consulting firm, the author of 1994’s “Economics of Historic Preservation” has concluded that renovation of historic structures is a cost-effective alternative, especially when new construction would require expensive demolition and disposal of materials such as asbestos.

“If no demolition is required, a major commercial rehabilitation will probably cost from 12 percent to 9 percent more than a comparable new construction,” he wrote. “If, on the other hand, a new construction project includes the cost of razing an existing building, the cost savings of rehabilitation should range from 3 to 16 percent.”

What’s more, Rypkema said, renovation can take less time than new construction and historic buildings are built to last and can usually accommodate desirable “mixed-use” projects such as Electric Works, the Landing, Superior Lofts and other recent local examples.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of appreciating and preserving historic structures for their own sake. Once the past is torn down it cannot be replaced, and even to attempt to duplicate historic structures would be prohibitively costly even if the necessary skilled workers could be found to do it.

But if you add economics into the equation on the side of history, the impact could be powerful. Despite Haas Zuber’s acknowledgment that the local development landscape has changed in favor of preservation, other historic properties await help. The Rialto Theater and the stately house on Superior Street once occupied by Hugh McCulloch, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, are but two possibilities mentioned by Haas Zuber, who plans to post her presentation at archfw.org

“What’s been happening is wonderful,” she said. “But I want to encourage people to be proactive and do more.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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