America's urban treasures

AMERICA'S cities are much the richer for the strong national push in recent years to preserve more of their structural heritage. Residents of virtually every city can now point with pride to not just one but several historic buildings saved from the wrecker's ball.

Most have been put to modern, innovative uses. Anyone shopping or dining in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall Market, St. Louis's Union Station or the former chocolate factory in San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square knows just how effective the marriage of old structures and new functions can be. Many once-active schools now serve as everything from apartments to corporate headquarters.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the sponsor of Preservation Week, which started yesterday, notes there are now 45,000 such buildings and 1,200 historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there are now 5,000 local preservation groups that try to make their voices heard in community development plans at the earliest possible stage.

But this interest in preserving the past is relatively recent. For years the assumption in this land of the pioneer was that newer was better. Americans watched as developers bulldozed clearings for new parking lots and shopping centers in the name of progress.

But in time such automatic razing came under question. Urban renewal was dubbed urban removal. Finally, in 1966 Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, which created an advisory council to keep a watchful eye out for any federally funded projects that might adversely affect historic properties and to negotiate solutions.

Ten years later Congress passed the first of two sets of tax credits which have effectively convinced developers of the financial merits of saving past treasures. The measures have spurred private investment in historic buildings of more than $2 billion a year.

So far it appears that Congress's plans to revamp the nation's tax code will reduce but not remove the current tax incentives for preservation. The 25 percent tax credit for rehabilitation of structures that are on, or eligible for, the National Register would be cut by 5 percent in both the House-passed tax bill and the Senate Finance Committee version. Other credits would also take a slight cut. Preservationists are encouraged.

Congress is to be commended for recognizing this continued need. By preserving the best of the past, America ensures its own future.

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