A Preservation Strategy for the '90s

AS we observe Preservation Week 1990 (May 13-19), a decade of preservation challenges confront us. Relatively easy preservation decisions, based on the rule of thumb ``If it's old and famous, let's keep it,'' are mostly a thing of the past. From ``relocating'' the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in North Carolina to ``redevelopment'' of the Los Angeles Coliseum, the scope of preservation problems is as broad as the nation they span. The 1980s closed with a successful preservation struggle at Manassas Battlefield. A tract adjoining the battlefield park, including the site of Robert E. Lee's headquarters during the Battle of Second Manassas, became the focus of a nationwide preservation campaign after it was targeted for commercial development. Under urging by Civil War buffs and preservationists, Congress bought the tract in 1988.

For a number of reasons, however, the Manassas episode shouldn't be regarded as a model for future preservation efforts. The importance of the battle and its association with General Lee prompted an extraordinary effort that is unlikely to be duplicated at historic places of less renown. Nor will there ever be enough federal dollars to protect a significant portion of our nation's historic places. Moreover, vitriolic confrontations between citizens, developers, and government officials aren't in the best interest of historic preservation.

Unfortunately, bitter confrontations are characteristic of public debates over the future of individual historic places. Proceedings mired in arguments over the concept of preservation lessen the spirit of cooperation in any community, cooperation that is essential when seeking reasonable solutions to complex place-preservation problems. Not every historic place deserves preservation, but all deserve preservation consideration. Instead of reinventing the preservation wheel at every historic place, we need a widely accepted rationale as the foundation of a preservation strategy for historic places.

The basis for a national preservation rationale is found in two principles embedded in the United States Constitution. First, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect owners of historic places by ensuring that private property cannot be acquired for preservation without due process and adequate compensation.

The second relevant principle justifies the public's right to experience historic places: It is the assertion in the Preamble that government in the United States should ``promote the general welfare.'' Recognition that historic-place experiences are important to the general welfare was cited as a reason for upholding the constitutionality of New York City's Landmarks Law in the most recent Supreme Court consideration of preservation law. In the words of Justice Brennan, preservation is justified because ``structures with special historic, cultural, or architectural significance enhance the quality of life for all.''

Sometimes it seems as if these two constitutional provisions are conflicting - the property rights of the few versus historic-experience rights of the many. What needs to be better understood is that rights to both property and historic experiences are grounded in the Constitution and are, in fact, complementary.

High-quality historic environments at nationally known sites like Williamsburg, Va., and locally recognized places like Cross Creek, Fla., provide substantial economic returns to property owners as well as enjoyment to visitors. Since it is in everyone's best interest to preserve wisely, confrontation should be replaced with reasoned consideration of the merits of preservation at individual historic places. Decision-making processes based on grass-roots recognition of complementary constitutional rights is the best preservation strategy for the '90s and beyond.

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