The statement that a building is just too run down or outdated to be saved is not so much fact as platitude. It tends to be thrown out to the crowd when a developer is faced with funding or permits that hinge on preservation considerations, to defend against a community concerned with losing a treasured building or the character that it brings to the neighborhood. This statement gives the impression that the need for demolition is out of the owner’s control. The audience is led to assume that the owner spent considerable time weighing the options and are just as upset as the rest of us that they have to tear it down. But often what it really means is, “We wanted to use this site for something else and we never really considered using the building at all.”
“This building is too far gone to save” is an easy myth to bust because there are no shortage of vibrant, beautiful buildings that were once incredibly run down. In fact, in the 1960s most of the buildings in downtown Salem were labeled as “blighted,” a technical synonym for “too far gone to save.” The Historic Salem Jail, once almost impossible to imagine as anything other than a jail, now houses incredible, unique apartments. Historic Salem has given preservation awards to many projects with incredible before and after montages, including one of the original farm houses in North Salem.
Claiming a building is “too far gone” gaslights the community. Anyone who questions this claim can be labeled unreasonable and obstructionist; a crazy preservationist opposed to change. Certainly, there are instances when a rehabbing an old building does not make financial sense or does not meet programmatic needs – in which case, the owner or developer should respect their audience, present their rationale and engage in the debate. Imagine a permitting process where the discussion is about value of a project beyond the developer’s financial concerns.
What social, historical and community value does the building have? How can that be incorporated into a project?
What environmental value do existing materials have? Does it outweigh the convenience of demolition?
What social and community development value does the proposed project offer? Does that tip the scale towards a change in the urban fabric?
Analyzing the social calculus of a project ensures that both developer and neighborhood benefit from the steady march of progress. Let’s replace "it's too far gone" with a real conversation about the monetary value and social values of our community.