The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.
While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.
Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.
But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:
Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.
And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.