On Thursday, October 15th 2015, ESI Senior Vice President and Principal Lee Huang gave a presentation to The University of Pennsylvania School of Design’s Historic Preservation Studio on urban blight and historic preservation. The audience consisted of 2nd and 3rd year graduate students at UPenn as well as Fon Wang, principal at the architecture studio Ballinger, who has provided architecture, planning and historic preservation services to public and private clients for over 25 years.
After hearing from the students and what they think about historic preservation projects currently undertaken around Philadelphia, Lee explained the concept of blight, and how complex it can be to define: “You don’t really know how to explain it, but you know it when you see it”, he said. And it is more than just a definition problem. Lee described how there are multiple causes, localized and citywide costs, and multiple approaches to solving the issue of blight. He then made the connection that blighted buildings and historic buildings are often in the same oldest parts of town, so naturally, some historic buildings are blighted, causing the following dilemma: Should we demolish these buildings and start again? Or should we try and preserve history?
As it turns out, this is a hot topic and can lead to some interesting debate. An example Lee brought up was the historic mansion on 40th and Pine, a house that some students in the class recognized immediately. Certain students argued that the building could, and should’ve been preserved, while some opposed saying that private interests were the only reason the building was still standing. Lee advised the students that “what is most important is that we understand others’ perspectives, from their perspective” in a situation like this where the debate can be very personal for some. Lee described his point of view as pro-growth, pro-density, and pro-investment.
Ultimately, the problem between blight and historic preservation is too complex for a “one-size-fits-all” solution. However, we can start by thinking strategically about what is really worth saving and why, and by looking around to identify best practices and success stories. Places such as Phoenixville, Gettysburg, and Lewisburg are the reminders that historic preservation can also be a driver of economic development and urban renewal.
For more information about this topic, read our report Charting the Multiple Meanings of Blight – A National Literature review on Addressing the Community Impacts of Blighted Properties.