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National Preservation Month aims to make preservation a year-round priority

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2011 - Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared May Preservation Month in the 1970s, preservation groups around St. Louis have filled the month with house tours, lectures and other events to celebrate St. Louis' historic treasures.

"The goal of the month is to really grow the constituency for historic preservation," said Michael R. Allen of the Preservation Research Office. "It's a time to encourage people to think about the buildings around them in their communities."

Many of the month's events bring interested participants directly to historic sites around the city. Landmarks Association of St. Louis organized a series of neighborhood walking tours, which began in April and will continue through June. The remaining two tours will showcase South City streets, with a tour of Bellerive Boulevard on June 11 and the Grand-Dover Park neighborhood on June 18.

Landmarks Executive Director Jefferson Mansell said the walking tours are a way to educate people about the history of St. Louis neighborhoods and people are interested because they get an in-depth look at one specific area of the city.

In addition to the neighborhood tours, Landmarks held additional events during its annual Preservation Week, which took place May 7-14. The week culminated with a reception on May 13. During the reception Landmarks honored preservation projects with the "Most Enhanced Awards" and recognized preservation historian Esley Hamilton with a distinguished service award.

The "Most Enhanced Awards" are countered with Landmarks' yearly list of the most endangered sites in St. Louis. Mansell said Landmarks has been releasing a most endangered list for the past 15 years. The lists include sites Landmarks comes across during survey and registration work that have architectural or social significance.

"As we're doing that (work), if we come across buildings we think are exceptional architecturally and are vacant and abandoned, we will make note of them," Mansell said.

Many of the sites on these lists are threatened with demolition or proposed development. Mansell said the goal of the list is not to criticize the owner or bring attention to the lack of maintenance. "Our main goal is to publicize that these buildings are endangered in hope someone might step forward and save them," he said. The 2011 list of the most endangered sites will be released in Landmarks' summer newsletter.

Historic preservation efforts to save sites like the ones listed on the most endangered list face financial barriers and a general lack of education about the benefits of redevelopment.

Allen said it's often difficult to engage residents on preservation issues because old buildings can be a nuisance. "It's not enough to show up and tell a neighborhood they should become a historic district," he said.

Historic districts and sites can be eligible for historic tax credits. The tax credits have been available by federal law since 1976 and at the state level since 1998. According to the State Historic Preservation Office website, the availability of federal and state tax credits encourages investment in historic resources. Currently, federal law provides an investment tax credit equal to 20 percent of approved costs for qualified rehabilitation of historic buildings for income-producing use, and Missouri law provides a tax credit equal to 25 percent.

To be eligible for the credits, a building must be considered "historic," meaning it must be listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places, be a contributing element of a historic district that is listed in the National Register or be a contributing element of a Local Historic District.

According to Allen, historic tax credits are a long-term solution and only one part of the preservation puzzle. Many residents want immediate financial resources to help restore the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

The future of the state tax credit program is also a concern for preservation efforts. The program survived unscathed in the Missouri Legislature this session, but Mansell said the fight to keep the tax credit program at the same level will likely be an ongoing battle.

Along with uncertainty over historic tax credits, buildings are also threatened by a lack of a review system for demolition permits in the north part of the city. In these areas, several buildings have been lost due to demolition and brick theft. "(That) whole part of the city is just disappearing," Allen said.

In areas that are protected by demolition permit reviews, an application for demolition must be submitted to the Preservation Board and the owner typically has to have a redevelopment plan for the site. Preservationists and residents can oppose the approval of demolition permits during Preservation Board meetings.

Fighting to keep historic buildings standing requires much effort, but preservationists believe their work has a positive impact on the quality of life in St. Louis. "St. Louis wouldn't be the city it is without its historic neighborhoods," Mansell said. "Redeveloped neighborhoods really add to that quality of life that people are searching for."

According to Mansell, Landmarks' neighborhood tours are showing that a lot of redevelopment and restoration work is taking place around the city. Much of this work is being undertaken by young developers and Mansell said it's reassuring that there seems to be a new wave of developers who are restoring old buildings.

Individuals who wish to contribute to the preservation effort can see if there's a way to get their neighborhood listed in the National Register, get involved with a neighborhood organization and volunteer or conduct research with a preservation office.

Though preservation month will soon end, preservation offices will continue to hold events throughout the year in an effort to keep preservation issues relevant and to try to prevent more buildings from disappearing.

Allen said the city is the sum of its parts; and though many neighborhoods are thriving, the next block over may be abandoned and decaying. These empty sites impact the city's identity as a place. When visitors fly into St. Louis over the fading north side of the city, Allen mentioned they don't see a booming city. "What do they see? Vacant land. It's not a good image."