Nearly every urban neighborhood and many small town commercial districts have one: a shuttered theater, a dilapidated hotel, a once-gilded mansion now abandoned and forlorn. Such buildings are depressing reminders of a different era, when downtowns flourished and residents and visitors crowded the sidewalks. These vacant structures are emblematic of modern blight and have a way of bringing everything around them down with them. Most get demolished. But some don’t.
The Italianate-style Boyle Hotel in Boyle Heights just east of downtown Los Angeles underwent a $20 million restoration creating 51 units of affordable housing and ground floor commercial space including the Mariachi Cultural Center.
The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood reopened in 2012 after a $29 million investment, bringing back a much renowned entertainment venue and enlivening a desolate stretch near U Street.
The stately McCormick-Goodhart Mansion is now home to CASA de Maryland, a center for immigrant legal advocacy, job placement, and social services in Langley Park, Md., following a $13.9 million rehabilitation in 2010.
And when places with these kinds of historic roots and architectural moxie get restored and reopened they become change agents in their communities. Their influence is magnified because it turns out they create jobs, stimulate the local economy, and stabilize and expand the existing tax base.
Neighbors around the Boyle Hotel, including the Mariachi bands that traditionally gather across the street prepping for gigs, now consider the building a magnificent gateway to their community. Young people lining up to take in a show at the Howard Theatre can hardly believe they are part of a beloved and long-standing neighborhood tradition. CASA de Maryland’s clients can get help with job placement and take English lessons in the welcoming spaces of this former mansion.
What they probably don’t know is that these projects and many others like them are made possible by the historic tax credit. These credits have been widely used in low-income areas and often provide the spark that gets these neighborhoods back on their feet. Between 2001 and 2012, for example, NPS statistics show that 75 percent of historic tax credit projects took place in qualified low-income census tracks. These credits also make rehab projects possible in a variety of diverse communities, from traditionally African American communities in large East Coast cities to the Chinatowns of the Pacific Northwest. For example, according to data assembled by the U.S. census, 29 percent of all HTC projects are located in census tracks where more than one third of the residents are African Americans.
Blighted buildings aren’t pretty, or uplifting. The availability of the historic tax credit, however, can help communities of all Americans—both newcomers and old—gain back their history.
Do you know of a similar historic tax credit project in your community? Let us know in the comments below.
The Spring issue of the National Trust’s Forum Journal takes an in-depth look at the credit, its history, its use, and future. Members can download the journal from the Forum Library. To learn more about becoming a member of Preservation Leadership Forum click here.