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Arthur Ziegler: Preservation as a Tool for Achieving Economic Vitality

Last month, I began a series of discussions on the historic preservation movement and our organization as we look toward the future. In my letter, I talked about the origins of historic preservation as a reaction to urban renewal across the country.

Our organization became a national leader in committing to the principles of restoring neighborhoods for the people who live there, based upon the residents’ wishes. Through our early work in Manchester, the Mexican War Streets, Allegheny West, East Allegheny, and South Side, we developed a set of core goals and working principles. Since that time, we have utilized them as our guideposts while we flexibly embrace opportunities as they present themselves.

I believe it is important to know that our primary goal is not preservation as an end in itself, except for remarkable buildings like the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail. We believe that preservation is a tool for achieving economic vitality and a better quality of life for our citizens. Let me share with you some additional detail about elements of our process.

When we begin work in a neighborhood, we utilize the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) program. The NTI program allows us to work collaboratively with the residents to define needs and architectural values within the community and focus on an initial real estate investment area.

Historic preservation deals with real estate; whether the project includes buildings, parks or gardens, real estate is the core. We  deploy our strong real estate development capabilities first. It is the primary commitment we make to neighborhoods that lack funding and expertise, but which define through the NTI where we should begin restoring houses and shops.

Next, we begin the effort to raise the funds necessary to buy vacant and deteriorated historic properties and restore them, creating a ‘beachhead’ around which people gather and are willing to join us in investing in the area. Often, we follow the first work with “clean out and shell” restoration and sell the houses to people who have become committed to the restoration of the neighborhood.  It is important to note that we always ensure that no one is dislocated from their homes by our work and we always provide for mixed-income use, rental and sale.

Advocacy is, of course, essential. Our plans must be explained to community groups, to local officials, government agencies, and funders.  Additionally, we make sure to enlarge the work to include traffic planning, street lighting and paving, landscaping, street trees, real estate tax reductions for restoration, school improvements, zoning, and crime reduction.

Through our early sales of properties in Manchester, Mexican War Streets, Allegheny West and South Side, we created the Preservation Loan Fund. Through much hard work and effort, we have been able to add additional funding  over the years. Much of that funding has come through the generosity of Richard Scaife. Mr. Scaife has funded our pioneering and highly experimental neighborhood efforts for many years. Since then, we have worked hard to preserve our capital.

For 30 years, we have served our neighborhood organizations with less than a 1% default ratio. Our lending to date totals over $18 million and has produced enormous leverage in attracting others to invest in real estate in order to restore buildings for housing, community use and economic development.

More recently, we added a Historic Religious Properties Program that provides grants and technical assistance. The criteria for receiving awards from this program includes demonstrating architecturally valued religious buildings that provide services to the neighborhoods in which they are located. I am proud to say we have awarded over $800,000 in grants in 18 years.

However, our efforts are not solely focused on finance, restoration and planning. From the beginning we have always had as a foremost member of our staff an architectural historian who can write splendidly about the buildings of Western Pennsylvania and often highlight those in particular neighborhoods where we are at work, building awareness and community pride, another vital tool.

Through creative educational programs and walking tours, residents and visitors learn about the value of the buildings in historic neighborhoods, and children take pride in these neighborhoods instead of only hearing about the problems.

Our collaborative also extends to governmental agencies. Through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, we utilize the Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) and the Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP) to build neighborhood capacity, improve vacant lots, establish community gardens, support central business districts, and improve their linkages to their adjoining residential areas. Through these programs corporations can make major contributions to underwrite our costs and receive tax credits.

On Carson Street and in the South Side in 1969, we began what became known nationally as the Main Street program and our work expanded over the years. Now, we manage the Allegheny County program as well as others, and we are at work in more than a dozen main streets in Western Pennsylvania. Each functions as the center of the neighborhood.

What other tools do we use in our programs?

Easements are an important tool in our work. Guaranteeing the preservation of buildings in the United States is very difficult. There are no federal, state, or local laws that do that, but easements do protect buildings in perpetuity. Therefore, we accept easement donations on buildings, historic landscapes, and historic farms. Each time we accept one we also accept the obligation of inspecting it and enforcing its protection through legal means in perpetuity. We now have easements on 36 buildings, thus forming permanent architectural anchors to many neighborhoods.

We have also invested in real estate to spark economic development, to demonstrate that the reuse of historic buildings works and can generate income that can be used for further community revitalization efforts.

As you know, we developed a vision for Station Square, the first use of land along Pittsburgh’s riverfront for shopping, dining, and office purposes and for the first river trail. Our vision of master planning worked and we did it without any government subsidies (unlike urban renewal), except for a small federal grant for a sewer line and a federal loan that we paid back early.

Finally, we always provide technical services in community organizing, fundraising, financing development projects, construction management, historic tax credit work, National Register applications, and governmental approval processes. Our tool kit is unique in the preservation community in the U.S.

As I mentioned in my last letter, we could not perform the many programs mentioned here without you, our members. I thank all of you who have shared your views, comments and opinions with us since my last letter.  I again invite you to continue this conversation about our organization, its mission, goals and values. My next letter will describe how we benchmark among the major preservation groups.  I look forward to corresponding with you then.

For ongoing updates on our work, tours, and other projects, I invite you to continue following us at or on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

Arthur Ziegler,
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633