Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Hometown Week: The odd incentives of historic preservation ...

[Hometown Week]

   The job of sober economists is, of course, to tell advocates of land use and other laws that their efforts to make the world better will often backfire, because it is human nature to try to get around laws whenever possible.  In the field of historic preservation, one drawback to the designation process is that it discourages property owners from allowing a building to become distinguished and venerable enough to be designated.  (The same unhappy incentive works on landowners who fear that an endangered species may be found on their land.)            

  Here's a story that could have turned out very sadly.  One of the focal points of my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, was the 1930s art deco "Silver Theatre."  By the early 1980s, as most old single-screen movie theatres around the country were closing, the county government announced that it was considering designating the Silver as a landmark.  Soon thereafter, I remember driving by the theater one Sunday morning and seeing what appeared to be workmen hamming away at the decorative tower outside.  Here's a story about the effort to deface the theatre and make it unworthy of landmark status.   

   The historic designation was made anyway.  After sitting vacant for many years, the Silver was recently restored its 1930s glory -- as a movie palace run by the American Film Institute -- financed in large part by the county's revitalization program for Silver Spring.  It's now a magnificent theatre again, and all it took was millions of dollars of taxpayers' money!

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