Downtown Historic Preservation – A Case Study (5/05)

Bennington, Vermont, has a rich industrial and educational heritage, with a downtown at the heart of a rural region. Since this year’s annual Vermont Historic Preservation Conference was held there, I thought I might learn about solutions that could be applied here in Lebanon.

I’ve done my best here to capture the flavor of some of the conference sessions, in the manner of a case study. I’m sure there are improvements that could be made to this report, so please contact me directly with your suggestions.

– Jay Collier


National Issues

Emily Wadhams, Vice President for Public Policy, National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust is currently on the defensive on Capitol Hill. Federal funding for state grants is level funded. In the administration’s proposed budget, Save America’s Treasures – the only federal bricks and mortar preservation program – was cut in half, although a House committee is working to reinstate the funding.

Easement reform is under fire. A bill to drastically reduce use of easements for preservation is in discussion. There is bipartisan support for a historic tax incentive, but the funding may be redirected to other areas of the budget.

Two forty-year old bills – the National Historic Preservation Act and the “4F” transportation act – are under threat. 350,000 places – buildings, neighborhoods, and archeological sites – are eligible for inclusion on the National Register, but only 90,000 have been formally listed. A proposal to change section 106 of the act would eliminate support for the eligible properties, and only provide funding programs on listed properties.

This is the first Congress in 40 years to try to undermine the National Historic Preservation Act, so the National Trust is seeking grass-roots assistance in spreading the word about these policy changes.


Bill McKibben, author of “Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks”

McKibben spoke about “Preserving Scale ˘ A Small State in a Big World.”

For years, McKibben’s been looking at large-scale issues, and trends that point toward the future. Recently, he had been focusing on climate change, and he discovered some surprising facts. Over the past seventy years, the average global temperature has risen by one degree, but in this century, it is expected that the temperature may rise up to seven degrees more. That would be the highest since the beginning of primate evolution millions of years ago. Those hit the hardest will be those living at the margins. There may no longer be an identifiable winter with snow on the ground at this latitude, except at the highest places, with seasons shifting by 5-7 days. Tree foliage and sugaring seasons might not continue in northern New England.

McKibben’s conclusion: human beings have become too large in relation to the world around, and this issue of scale is where the past and future overlap. Nevertheless, seeking “sustainable scale” is a “deeply hopeful” task.

So, if the goal of our economic enterprise over the past 100 years has been expansion in scope and scale, then a goal for the next 100 should be to reduce scale again in at least three areas: food, retail, and energy.

First, food. Every time we shop at a market, we take advantage of the facts that: its always summer somewhere and cheap fossil fuel brings our food to us from far away. Basically, these facts allow us to “eat take out every day” even when we cook from scratch. For example, growing and transporting iceberg lettuce from California to the East coast costs 90 calories of fossil energy for every one calorie of nutrient provided. Even organic food at supermarkets is a problem; those products often come from even further away. The long supply lines need trimming.

By looking for the cheapest way of doing things while ignoring the environmental costs, we have been destroying America’s rural landscape. For example: even though the price of milk is at an historically-average level, Vermont still saw over 80 dairy farms go under last year.

The good news is that there are new and interesting kinds of farming emerging, as well as marketing opportunities, such as farmers markets, of which there are now over 10,000 in America.

Last year, Gourmet magazine asked McKibben if he could feed himself on Champlain Valley food through the winter. He was surprised to find that he was, indeed, able to eat well in winter on local products. He found a lot of people figuring out how to grow and market food, producing diverse products and in collaborative systems, such as CSA community farms. “Not only can you eat with your tongue, you can eat with your head, as well.” An example: think about the freshness of a tomato after travelling 1500 miles. Now imagine one grown by your neighbor.

We need an alternative to subdividing farm fields into suburban development. In Vermont, the LandLink program, coordinated by land trusts around the state, offers conserved land to farmers who have business plans that work within development easements.

A second way to reduce scale is in the retail economy. 10% of trade between the U.S. and China is now for WalMart products – the company is the 22nd largest economy on earth – and it is built upon low-paid overseas workers. A professor at the University of Iowa found that, in the decade from 1983-93, hundreds of stores went out of business in WalMart communities: 500 groceries, 200 shoe stores, 200 hardware stores. The University of Pennsylvania studied similar counties with and without WalMarts; after 10 years, the counties with WalMarts were statistically poorer. Other research cited by McKibben indicates WalMart destroys a job and a half for each one it creates.

There is finally push back. Park County Wyoming – “in the reddest of red states” – fought WalMart by starting a cooperative store, reanchoring its downtown. McKibben’s conclusion: regardless of politics, considering the most effective scale for the retail economy is worthwhile.

A third area where energy has grown toward a very large scale is energy. Our lives are based on fossil fuels, and now that it is running out, the cost is starting to go up due to growing scarcity. We can’t pay the environmental costs either, for they are now too high.

So, what comes after fossil fuels? Nothing will be as easy to obtain or use. The sun and the wind are both much more diffuse sources of energy, so we’ll have to use multiple sources to make up for the efficiency of fossil fuel.

Unfortunately, not all of the alternatives are popular. Take wind turbines. There’s great opposition to placing them on our ridge lines. Unless we include turbines in the mix, however, McKibben predicts our ridge lines would change much more radically as a result of global warming, any way.

Power doesn’t come from nowhere. As long as it continues to come from far away, we’ll continue to remove mountaintops in West Virginia and defend oil supplies in the middle east. We need to shorten the supply lines in every way we can.

Even our culture has grown to too large a scale, and it isn’t working as it could. Radio is a good example. Most stations are going national, combining their operations, and losing contact with the communities to which they’re licensed.

But there’s hope. There’s new growth in local low-power stations. And some long-term institutions, such as Vermont radio station WDEV, survive. One of the last independent stations left in the country, WDEV broadcasts a wide selection of programming from local sports, jazz, and commentators, even music to go to the dump by on Saturday mornings. It exists at a regional scale, meeting the needs of its listeners.

There’s a cost to maintaining a local commitment – you have to sacrifice some of the efficiency that comes with combining services into a large-scale mode – and that’s part of the price of community. We have to preserve the twentieth-century culture where people were far more focused on the community around them and interdependent, economically, on their neighbors. “One definition of community is that you have to pay attention to the things that other people are interested in.”

At the same time, television tells us the exact opposite. McKibben spent a year viewing tapes of television programming from hundreds of channels recorded on one day. What was the primary message he found? Over and over, the message was that viewer is the most important thing in the universe. “That’s really not what humans were built for.”

More and more, the life of “over-scaling” is running into its own contradictions, so individuals are working to “get the scale right” ˘ neither too large nor too small. For his new book, McKibben walked through the Champlain Valley region, from the Addison County town of Ripton to the Adirondacks, to find people who were finding a balance that works. He found a successful Middlebury College farm garden. He met people who were figuring out to develop and market biodiesel.

And he talked with the people at Vermont Family Farms in Middlebury, which is supporting a sustainable timber economy by building a market for locally-grown wood. Not only do they focus on the basics of responsible cutting, but also on an effective business plan. Changing public perception is key: convincing consumers to use alternatives and see the intricacies in some local woods as character, not flaws. In fact, a new Middlebury College building was made completely with Addison county wood.

According to McKibben, stories like this ˘ stories that indicate there’s hope to community-scaled living ˘ “keep me going.”

Bennington Success Stories

Meg Campbell, of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, introduced a series of presenters to talk about successes in Bennington revitalization. She asked everyone to remember that “communities don’t need us, we need communities.”

Bill Colvin, Bennington community development director, said a sense of optimism is beginning to permeate the community; Bennington is beginning to believe it itself, again.

A proactive planning effort includes a vision for downtown development, master plan revisions, the Better Bennington Corporation, and community-wide task forces.

The town actively facilitates public-private partnerships, by using public money for private development; over $3.5 million has been leveraged for streetscape and facade improvements, parking development, and block grants for job creation. Ninety-four properties have received investment in the past five years. Economic growth is rebounding in industrial sector.

Mike McDonough, of the Better Bennington Corporation, reported that interest in downtown revitalization has waxed and waned over the years: Bennington Bounces Back in the 1960s, the Downtown Living Program in the ’70s, and the Bennington Downstreet Association in the ’80s. The Better Bennington Corporation, now in its 15th year, is enjoying continued success planning and promoting for downtown. (Bennington was recognized, as the same time as Burlington, as having one of the first two designated downtown in Vermont.) The BBC integrates many interests, from municipal planning, to property developers, to downtown businesses. Town government understands the importance of that effort, even when it’s not the most popular thing to do.

Harvey York, president of the board of the Better Bennington Corporation, explained that the BBC focuses on downtown, whereas town-wide concerns are already being addressed by the chamber and the county industrial corporation. The BBC goal is to make downtown Bennington epitomize the “Vermont Main Street Experience” as a hub for civic activities, a home for Vermont products, and an example of historical character. A place where people can live and work and thrive.

The BBC started with community forums which posed the question: where would citizens like the downtown to be in 15 years? The task forces brainstormed options for how to get there. A strategic plan, which came out of those reports, has been directing action for eight years. Drawn by the wealth of community commitment and ideas, a major developer came to town to support that vision, and this has opened the door to other financial partners in the process.

Robin Andrew, of the South Street Cafe, reported that this hub for “casual community conversation” has, since 2000, significantly increased hours, increased staff to 8, held exhibits by community artists, and hosted a variety of performers, including open-mic nights and a folk music jam.

As a developer who was new to town, Matt Freeman benefited from community interest in a deactivated middle school, which he was redeveloping. Since it was part of the core of the downtown, citizens wanted to see the preservation project include a senior housing and youth center, and this is what will happen. The town “came alive” and, as a result, the permitting process was much more collaborative because Freeman was following expressed community needs. In addition, the “sea change” at the state level (in supporting the designated downtown program) makes it more possible for developers to reuse historic properties.

Historic tax credits are also critical for local affordable housing. Jim Canavan of the Regional Affordable Housing Corporation (RAHC) serves all of Bennington County. RAHC owns and manages 225 units of affordable housing around county; the corporation has combined historic tax credit with lower income tax credits to make this possible. Since there is little equity financing for affordable housing, RAHC’s preference is to look at development in the downtown historic district where there is additional support. Nevertheless, a worker has to make over $13 per hour to live in town. If affordable housing is to be seen as a public good, then we all need to be more assertive in making it happen.

Another success story is the transition, in North Bennington, from family philanthropy to community-based support. Rob Wilmington, of the Fund for North Bennington, notes that the compact historic village – consisting of a series of mills with compact housing and farms on the edge and a separate government from Bennington proper – has benefited, over the years, by the role of the McCullough family, which provided both philanthropy and targeted capital.

With the assistance of the family, the transition has given birth to two new local organizations. The first is a for-profit organization which is a forum for people interested in supporting the community; it owns and leases the town gas station (a key gathering place) and is keeping it from becoming a franchise. The second group, the Fund for North Bennington, is a not-for-profit with 10 years of experience bringing additional capital back into the community. It has helped preserve over 300 acres of land through fee or development rights.

Bennington Planning and Zoning Tools

Dan Monks, Bennington’s planning director, spoke about documents used in planning for the town. The master plan, updated in 2005, articulates a vision for the future of the town, including a focus on maintaining the historic settlement pattern.

Implementation documents include very specific design guidelines for downtown: small lots, minimal setback, two or more stories, no parking in front of buildings, and a street-oriented facade. Separate subdivision guidelines for rural areas prohibit development in forests, and a scenic resource inventory has been very helpful. The town is currently revising its sign ordinance, developing an official map, and initiating viewshed protection for existing lots. The town also recently separated planning and zoning functions.

Meg Campbell serves on the Historic Preservation Commission. Bennington was Vermont’s first certified local government (CLG) in 1980, through an amendment to National Historic Preservation Act. The Commission reviews applications to historic register status and advises the planning commission on renovations in the district. In 2005, they published an addendum to a 1990 design guidelines manual called “Time and Place in Bennington.” Their advice for design guidelines: be as specific as possible. People who are applying for changes are grateful for clear guidance.

Michael Allen, of Balliere Consulting, reported on additional guidelines in development for two additional areas of town: the north commercial gateway and North Bennington.

With completion of a new highway around town, Bennington’s new gateway will, in many ways, now be at the north of town, near a highway exchange. This area is a more traditional commercial-development corridor, so new design standards were in order. (Since they were developed at the same time as a revision of the zoning ordinance, the standards became part of the ordinance, itself.)

In order to support historic settlement patterns in this commercial district, the guidelines encourage new buildings close to the road with parking in back. Alternatively, when buildings are placed at the back, smaller in-fill development is encouraged near the front road. New development projects need to include front infill at the same time.

A two-story mass is encouraged in front, with lower facades acceptable in back, near parking. A key recommendation for box-stores: the front facade has to be broken up into numerous modules, such as separate entrances, to integrate with the scale and rhythm of nearly development. Visual depth is encouraged through effective use of window openings and fenestration for shadows.

The scale of signs is affected by the distance from road; building-mounted signs can be larger if they are further from the road. Free-standing signs, however, are only allowed when the scale of lettering is the same as a street-side sign, regardless of location.

The North Bennington village area received village center designation in 2004 and design standards focus on the commercial core area. Residential standards are still in development, and currently apply to new home construction and additions of larger than 50%.

One final observation from Michael: whereas historic preservation specialists often focus their attention on individual buildings, the historic nature of a community comes from the interplay between and among the spaces. Seeing the whole system is key to preserving the nature of an historic district.

Michael McDonough of the Bennington Planning Commission spoke to the process undertaken by the Better Bennington Corporation to ascertain community needs. In its first ten years, the BBC reduced vacancies, increased private-public cooperation, and encouraged infill development, but most activities were in a reactionary mode. In 2000, working with consultants, they developed physical and market overviews for downtown and a vision statement. Implementation then began, using primarily local, in-house resources.

The first step was a feature analysis, overlaying patterns – such as historic district, commercial, office/business, residential, and institutional facilities – onto a downtown map. Then, entry points were analyzed, with pros and cons for each. The same process was undertaken for individual blocks and for vehicular and pedestrian circulation.

The analyses were integrated into a master plan, which was a broad overview of five downtown areas: retail core, retail core expansion, government center, historic residential village, and public greenspace. The plan was intended to guide both development and preservation by respecting historic settlement patterns as new facilities are developed. Organizing principles were created for each area to guide development. Task forces met to discuss each area in 2003; then, in 2004, they delivered development recommendations which layered the master plan goals and task force implementation ideas.

The conclusion of this 5-year process was a real development tool that captured community interests and defined what people wanted for each part of downtown. When a development firm came to town, they could benefit from the community knowledge gathered by the process.

Bennington Economic Development Strategies

Chris Cochran, from the State of Vermont, described the federal and state tax credits available for local historic preservation. A federal credit called RITC provides a 20% return of all development costs (except parking) – it is often used as an equity tool to get a project going – but the building must be eligible for the Register and renovation must be at least the financial basis of the property (purchase price minus price of land). There are also currently-proposed refundable state tax credits for designated downtown buildings and village centers built before 1983. The tax credit would be 50% for elevators and for sprinklers up to a total of $50,000. There is also a proposed 25% credit for code and exterior facade improvements.

The Community Development Office provides a variety of project assistance programs, according to Bill Colvin, the CDO director. Streetscape improvements have been funded every other year since 1996 by the Vermont transportation enhancements program. The CDO has been an active participant in the Vermont downtown initiative.

Programs include:

  • Design assistance (funded with federal CLG grants) is available for architect’s time to explore the “historical fabric” of a building, options for rehabilitation, maintenance schedule, and appropriate signage.
  • An amendment to the downtown design guidelines, “Time and Place,” was released in 2005, also funded through the CLG program.
  • A revolving loan program is currently active; 7-10 loans are awarded per year for job creation, affordable housing, and historic restoration. By using public investment to leverage private development, 94 properties have been supported over the past 7 years.

Results: the vacancy rate is down to below 10% and the grand list value has increased.

Tax stabilization, for buildings that contribute to the historic district, is provided by state statute. (Every structure has been designated as either contributing or non-contributing to the downtown design review district.) For example, the increase in taxes between pre-acquisition and developed value, are implemented over a five-year period at 20% more each a year. This prevents a tax shock all in one year.



Bennington – which has a town manager style of government – has benefited from having the same town manager since 1992, and only two people have served in the economic development position. CEDO also has a positive interrelationship with the BBC and BCIC.

Governance of the Better Bennington Corporation, according to its executive director, Ted Corbett, has been effective due to the wide representation on its board: a developer, a town representative, an architect, and many other community members. Standing committees include economic development, organization, marketing, and design.

The resulting cooperation between BBC, town, selectboard, and developers has made it possible for the non-profit organization to manage a $125,000 annual budget and two staff. The downtown improvement tax district raises $50,000 of that total for the BBC. All committee work is done by volunteers. Projects include a craft fair, called May Fest, which is a primary fundraiser with vendor fees ($20,000).

So, how did Bennington get started on this path of downtown revitalization? According to selectboard member Lodie Colvin, a downtown improvement district (DID) was proposed in 1991 to raise taxes from merchants in a designated downtown area. By adding several scope restrictions – including a three-year sunset clause, capping the total annual income at $40,000, conducting public hearings, and approval by the selectboard – the voters and the state approved the district. The primary rationale was that merchants would be the primary beneficiaries of these taxes to revitalize the overall district.

The tax district was “not being asked to do everything” – from 1992-96, the town approved $50,000 annual funding for revitalization, and the rate has stayed low at .15 to .16 per $1000 of assessed value. Partnership with the BBC, which receives a $25,000 annual contract for DID services has been beneficial.

In 1994, voters approved continuation of the district without a sunset. In 2005, voters actually disbanded the formal board of commissioners for the tax district, with the BBC now managing all services. In addition, the town has been contributing $20,000 above and beyond the district to BBC operations.

In summary, without a healthy central downtown, you lose the heart of the community. What has this meant for developers? Jack Appleman, of Vermont Commercial Real Estate, first came through Bennington in the mid-1980s, and the town appeared to be somewhat economically depressed. But when Appleman met Bill Colvin, who believed in the town, he was encouraged to work on local projects.

Five years ago, the large building at 160 South Main street was dilapidated, with broken windows adjacent to an abandoned lot. Appleman took on the property, and now it is in the midst of a renaissance with several new tenants, including Vermont Country Store, which has brought 175 new jobs to Bennington.

Appleman reports that, although it’s a challenge to navigate the waters of state and federal tax credits, the town has worked hard to make the project work, including the tax stabilization plan. He has 9 projects underway in Bennington, and 6 are already permitted. His process is to lay out every project, along with the pitfalls, right from the beginning, and work with the town as a partner throughout the project.

Above all, he said, it’s about having a vision, being a leader, taking a position. “The leaders in this town do that.”

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