By Lilly Bianco, MHP, Historic Preservation Specialist + Assistant Environmental Planner at M-Group
Cities across the country are increasingly integrating historic preservation into their long range land use planning initiatives. And yet, they still often consider safeguarding historic resources at odds with other seemingly worthier pursuits. There remains an obvious disconnect between historic preservation and what cities recognize as more immediate planning needs related to fiscal health and social welfare. Rather than viewing historic resources as solutions to their problems, cities denounce them as contributing to their contemporary problems— they are not safe, add to urban decay, are costly to maintain or are obsolete. Because of this perceived conflict, implementation of an effective preservation program often remains a to-do item for cities to achieve in the unforeseeable future.
But it does not have to be so.
Many cities have identified opportunity where others have seen only obstacles. The City of Amsterdam is a fantastic case study of what cities can achieve with a little creativity, and an apt reminder that sometimes the greatest risk yields the greatest reward.
At the onset of the twentieth century, the City of Amsterdam faced a tattered socio-economic environment and a quickly decaying urban fabric. In the first half of the twentieth century, city officials saw the resolution of such issues as competing tasks, with little agreement on how to move forward.
Following the Second World War and consequential economic depression, Amsterdam’s inner city fell into neglect. This resulted in two things:
- The glut of uninhabitable buildings meant that there was a housing shortage; and
- Amsterdam’s cultural heritage was in serious danger of being lost due to efforts to remove blight and modernize the City.
Housing construction began to take place outside of the City center, thus proliferating cheaply-made dwellings and redistributing populations to the City’s periphery. The City Official’s desire to segregate housing from commercial land uses and accommodate the automobile further exacerbated the emptying out of the City center.
As a medieval City, much of Amsterdam’s urban fabric was tightly woven with little space to accommodate the historically absent, and now very popular, automobile. In the 1950s, City officials targeted what they considered to be the “least valuable” buildings for demolition to make way for roads. Unfortunately, many of those buildings proposed for demolition included 17th and 18th century vernacular houses. Only the outstanding and exemplary buildings were to be retained.
Acknowledging that cityscapes are not made up of outstanding landmark buildings but largely by the more modest and traditional ones, concerned citizens organized a countermovement to battle the City’s effort to modernize inner Amsterdam. In 1957 this countermovement spurred the establishment of Stadsherstel, a creative organization with lofty goals focused on the revitalization of Amsterdam’s inner city.
Stadsherstel’s, “The Company for City Restoration,” mission was to rehabilitate Amsterdam’s historic fabric and serve the community by addressing the serious housing shortage. The Company developed as an authorized organization under the Housing Act. When formed, Stadsherstel established three guiding objectives:
- To buy and restore the most threatened historic houses, especially listed monuments;
- To construct modern dwellings within these buildings for the benefit of the public housing sector; and
- To maintain these buildings after restoring them.
The company’s structure was especially unique, combining a limited liability company and a public housing corporation. This provided the Company with more flexibility and resources necessary to fulfill its mission. In cooperation with the Ministry of Housing, the Company established creative solutions to ensure it remained true to its altruistic goals. Together, both entities established limits to the dividends shareholders could receive, and required that any profits made after taxes and dividend payments to shareholders go towards funding the Company’s mission to save the City’s historic fabric.
When first founded, Stadsherstel set out to save the most undervalued and threatened buildings in the City. Many of these buildings appeared unfit for restoration, and some were on the verge of collapse. That was, however, the very heart of Stadsherstel’s mission: To restore and retain those buildings considered too costly and burdensome to restore. We can attribute much of Stadsherstel’s future success to the fact that they focused on restoring precisely the most unwanted buildings first.
Once Stadsherstel obtained the buildings, it restored them, updated their interiors with modern amenities, and converted them into subsidized housing. Stadsherstel would then retain ownership, while encouraging former tenants to return to their rehabilitated houses. This strategy continued to evolve as the company grew and protected the most threatened buildings within Amsterdam’s urban core.
Eventually, Stadsherstel began focusing on those key buildings whose rehabilitation would have the greatest impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Key buildings included those on corner lots, those that served as strong focal points, and those that acted as unifying elements which anchored the streetscape. These focused efforts resulted in rehabilitation that reverberated throughout the larger neighborhood and spurred renewal throughout the city center.
Stadsherstel’s multi-disciplinary management and successful track record solidified historic preservation goals and proved the organization’s credibility. The company’s unique structure as a limited liability company and public housing corporation also contributed to its success. As both a public and private organization, Stadsherstel addressed what many see as conflicting objectives between historic preservation and the needs of the socio-economic environment. In 1999, Stadsherstel merged with the Amsterdam Monument Fund (AMF), to continue to grow and achieve the organization’s objectives that were originally established in 1957. Today, the company owns upwards of 500 buildings with more than 900 housing units therein, and has gone on to promote and facilitate historic preservation initiatives around the globe.
Stadsherstel’s success is an example of how individual goals can merge to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Stadsherstel’s imprint on Amsterdam’s urban landscape has been widespread and enduring. Their efforts fueled a so-called “sensitive gentrification,” whereby Stadsherstel restored the historic fabric of a diverse neighborhood, while the neighborhood itself retained its ability to accommodate peoples of different socio-economic backgrounds. The company’s work provided historic preservation whilst also encouraging a democratic mix of peoples able to re-awaken the inner City of Amsterdam. Their efforts successfully restored and retained much of the city’s historic and cultural fabric, including not just monuments, but also lesser known and equally valuable historic row houses and vernacular architecture.
American cities continually face these same issues. Affordable housing, accommodating the elderly in urban environments, encouraging lively and democratic neighborhoods, and retaining a city’s important cultural and historic fabric remain at the forefront of planning discussions. Perhaps the answer to these questions is not as complex as many presume, but much simpler. Perhaps the answer lies in our ability to work together and collaborate. Perhaps, it is a matter of going ever so slightly beyond the prescribed guidelines and deciding there is a better way to achieve established goals, and then following through.
- Deben, Leon, William Salet & Marie Thérèse van Thoor (eds). Cultural Heritage and the Future of the Historic Inner City of Amsterdam. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2004.
- Stadsherstel Amsterdam: The Company for City Restoration, http://www.stadsherstel.nl/36/diversen/english/ Accessed February 9, 2015.
- Tung, Anthony. Preserving the World’s Great Cities: The Destruction and Renewal of the Historic Metropolis. NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001.