Blog: Rebecca Binno Savage

It is the work of a historic preservationist to keep buildings out of the graveyard. Well-known preservationist Rebecca Binno Savage, a project manager with AKT Peerless Environmental and Energy Services, has written the book on Detroit area Art Deco architecture. This week, she digs into a few vintage buildings and builds a case for their resurrection.

Post 1: In the Heat of Historic Preservation

I'm lucky – I'm given the opportunity to write about historic preservation as an economic development tool in Detroit. Detroit's comeback is integrally tied to its architecture. The buildings that make up our downtown outshine and surpass the downtowns of Seattle, Portland, San Jose, or Denver. Those upstart cities have nothing to compare to the Guardian Building, the Fisher Building, or the Fox Theater. Our historic architecture will play a key role in the revitalization of the city and future investment.

In Detroit there have been many historic preservation success stories – you all know them: the Detroit Opera House, the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Dime Building, etc.  But give me a minute because I want to talk about the philosophy and theory of historic preservation.  Historic preservation has three main components:

1.    Historic Preservation is sustainable development – that means historic preservation saves buildings from going into landfills. That keeps our environment cleaner and thus more sustainable. Here is an example:  perhaps you've gone to Slow's Barbeque for dinner. That building – approximately 40 feet wide and 70 feet deep is typical of commercial buildings in Detroit. Let's say that it was demolished. You just eliminated the entire environmental benefit from the last 1,344,000 pop cans that were recycled. So not only was a great building wasted, we've wasted months of recycling.  

Also lost was something called "embodied energy." Embodied energy is the concept of the total expenditure of energy involved in the creation of the building and its constituent material. Each brick has embodied energy. So the demolition of a building also throws out all of the embodied energy incorporated into that building. There was also energy expended in the tearing down and hauling to landfill.1

Historic preservation was sustainable before it was cool. It was "green" before it was cool.

2.    Historic preservation creates jobs. Jobs in the construction trades – one of the industries most affected by this recession. At the same time, there is a shortage of craftsmen in a variety of restoration skills so job training, job creation, and a lifetime profession can be gained from historic preservation work. The jobs in historic preservation aren't just "make-work" jobs – they are good, well-paying jobs for carpenters, plumbers and electricians. Additionally, that carpenter, plumber and electrician each spend their paycheck locally on a haircut, groceries and paying local taxes.2 

3.    Historic preservation prevents sprawl. The metropolitan Detroit area has sprawled out to gobble up far distant cornfields and farms. But each time a building in Detroit is rehabbed, it could be preventing a commuter from making the long drive to their job. It could prevent additional infrastructure investment in a cornfield that was never developed before. It could help small businesses get established in a neighborhood and provide an entrepreneurial opportunity where one did not exist before.  

All that is just great but here's what really matters in a historic development project: The money.  

So this is what drives historic preservation in this country: historic preservation tax credits. There are currently federal historic tax credits for 20 percent of the eligible investments for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. For buildings in a local district, there is a State of Michigan Historic Tax Credit of 25 percent. The State Historic Tax Credit has a potential to go even higher with an "enhanced" credit that requires an additional application.  See the link to the state of Michigan's website on the subject. 

Now that you've gone to preservation school, I'll spend the next blog entries giving you Detroit's greatest preservation opportunities. These are buildings that I feel have the most potential for greatness. 

1 Rypkema, Donald, Principal of PlaceEconomics

2 Rypkema, Donald, Principal of PLaceEconomics