Why Do We Need Historic Districts?

single-meta-cal April 29, 2018

As part of Preservation Month in May, the Historic Preservation Commission is focusing its 2018 #ThisPlaceMattersHsv campaign on celebrating Huntsville’s historic districts.

In 1972, Huntsville joined the national preservation movement by establishing its first historic district in Twickenham.  Since then, Huntsville has landed eight historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places.  By the end of 2018, Huntsville’s first Space Age historic district, McThornmor Acres, will be listed to the National Register.  In March of this year, the City was awarded a Certified Local Government grant from the Alabama Historical Commission to survey the Edmonton Heights neighborhood, a historically African American residential neighborhood with close ties to Alabama A&M University, for potential inclusion in Huntsville’s historic districts.

Historic districts are undeniably interesting places full of character, but why do we need them?

These districts are living museums of a city’s history.  The variety of architectural styles and streetscapes can illustrate a neighborhood’s development and help tell the story of individual communities. 

Five Points has retained its 19th century grid layout of broad, parallel streets, which were designed around the streetcar lines.  This allowed working people to live farther than walking distance from jobs and shopping without owning an automobile.  Additionally, the superior craftsmanship, materials, and design of historic homes provide people with charm hard to match by modern construction.  Instead of recreating a faux-historic appearance, people can experience the real thing by investing in these areas.

Historic districts are made up of historic buildings, but they have value beyond the individual structures.  They help strengthen communities and cultivate a sense of place. 

People want to live somewhere, not just anywhere, and these areas are the perfect antithesis to suburban sprawl.  Historic districts are often well-established neighborhoods filled with residences and local businesses that were designed to be walkable and multi-use.

Additionally, millennials are moving back to cities in large numbers due to the livability factor historic districts offer in urban spaces.  These neighborhoods attract talent and creativity by providing an empowering environment for job creation.  Historic districts are full of the character and authenticity people desire when looking for the live, work, and play trifecta.

Historic districts keep buildings alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of the people and the cities that surround them.  To accomplish this, zoning and building regulations are established to be flexible and responsive to change even as they try to preserve what is special about each building.

Historic district regulations are meant to prevent demolitions and inappropriate alterations but don’t have to be burdensome to homeowners.  When done correctly, this can elevate and accelerate cities’ efforts to remake themselves through their existing historic fabric.

Regulating historic districts can also protect a property owner’s investment.  Regulations are intended to prevent the demolition or inappropriate alteration of historic properties, including the fabric of the historic district that gives properties their value.  They offer predictability for residents and for those considering investing in the community.  These rules can be particularly useful in times of economic crisis, natural disasters, or even just in the event that ill-conceived private interests surface.

For all of these reasons, historic districts should be protected and preserved.  By establishing historic districts, Huntsville has simultaneously preserved and documented the city’s historic neighborhoods, protected homeowner’s investments, and created desirable places for citizens to live, work and play. 

The Historic Preservation Commission is committed to continuing this tradition by finding new areas of Huntsville to survey and list on the National Register of Historic Places.