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Something Old, Something NEw, Something Borrowed, Something Green


August 1, 2012

By John Harrington

It’s commonly said that “the greenest building is one that’s already built,” and well known that green can take many forms, including embodied energy saved and demolition avoided. What’s less well known, however, is that sometimes the green of existing buildings can take the form of cold hard cash. In 2010 the Minnesota Legislature created a state historic tax credit program that essentially matches the long-established federal program. Together they can add up to as much as 40% of the qualified costs of rehabilitating a building that is listed, or eligible for listing, on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP: http://nrhp.mnhs.org/).

The cutting edge of green building seems to be increasingly focused on restorative or regenerative development, including restoring productive uses to both brownfields and brownstones. Restoration and adaptive reuse often contribute to neighborhood or Main Street revitalization, bringing homes, jobs, and services to energy efficient locations. This reduces auto dependence by increasing activity on walkable, bikable sites in central locations. Minnesota is full of historical buildings. More than 1,500 Minnesota listings, encompassing over 6,000 properties from all counties in the state, can be found on the National Register.

Since relocating to Minnesota, during the early 1980s I’ve lived in a historic building (Nelson School in Stillwater), worked in a historic building (Crown Roller Mill in Minneapolis, a contributing property in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District), and helped secure funding for the acquisition and adaptive reuse of two historic preservation developments in Duluth. The first development is Gimaajii Mino-beginning a good life.”), a project which involves the reuse of a former YWCA building to provide supportive, affordable housing for many of the area’s homeless native American population. It also includes commercial rental space intended for use by local organizations.

The second Duluth project, Fire House Flats, represents a combination of historic preservation/adaptive reuse of historic Fire House #1, plus new construction on infill sites, resulting in work force rental housing and neighborhood commercial space. As a condition of funding, each of these projects was required to meet Minnesota’s version of the national Green Communities criteria developed by Enterprise with assistance from the USGBC and others. Green Communities criteria are similar to those USGBC developed for LEED® for Homes.

The Fire House Flats site has a Walk Score of 92 (out of 100), a “walker’s paradise.” It also has a transit score of 52 (2 points better than Portland Oregon’s average). That combination helps reduces the need to drive everywhere and so helps diminish energy consumption and green house gas contributions from automobiles. The reuse of these historic structures as supportive or work force housing is a significant contribution to Duluth’s social equity and the long term sustainability of the neighborhoods where these mixed-use developments are located.

LEED® for Neighborhood Development specifically recognizes the value of historic preservation with its credit for “Historic Resource Preservation and Adaptive Use” (GIB Credit 6). Additional value in job creation has been noted in a study recently completed for the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). That study reviewed 14 projects Bimaadiziyaan (Ojibwe for “Together we are among the initial applicants for state historic tax credits and estimated that the 14 projects (Gimaajii among them) will have a total development cost of $343 million, of which $250 million will qualify for state tax credits. More than 1,800 construction jobs with a payroll of $83.7 million are expected to have a total economic impact of $451 million. The proposed uses for these projects are about equally divided among residential, commercial and mixed use.

If you’re interested in learning more about the green involved in historic preservation and adaptive reuse, consider reviewing Standards For Rehabilitation & Illustrated Guidelines On Sustainability For Rehabilitating Historic Buildings. This National Park Service document (available for free at http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/) provides a worthwhile overview of the opportunities and constraints for using historic tax credits in green building and green building criteria in historic preservation.

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