The Past and Present: Historical Designations and Alternative Uses for Government Buildings

In many cities, particularly ones with rich histories, public buildings are the most striking. These buildings may be the city hall, or a historic courthouse, or even an old school. These were among the first structures built as the city was growing and they demonstrate a sense of permanence. With columns, arches, dramatic pavilions, and other striking touches, they were meant to show that the city had truly arrived, that it belonged, and that it wasn’t going anywhere. They were built of pride and justifiable boosterism. Unfortunately, they were also built a long time ago.

That’s not a bad thing when it comes to aesthetics and drama, but it can be a bad thing when government buildings have to reflect new realities of smaller budgets, smaller staffs, and a more efficient, streamlined, and electronic workflow. Having huge, lumbering buildings can be great, but they don’t make the best or most economically reasonable workspaces. However, most people don’t want to see them torn down. They are a part of a town’s history, and a town that ignores its history becomes just another name on a map. Luckily, there are options for preserving these buildings while bringing in revenue and improving the city.

The Affordable Housing Route

The heart of a city is its residents and any viable city wants to bring in a large population and make sure that they have housing. One way to do this is to transform government buildings into affordable housing. This has been done in cities like Schenectady, New York, under Governor Andrew Cuomo. Transforming for residential use can be expensive, but HUD funds and other federal incentives can help ease the costs. Additionally, this transformation helps to integrate people who were previously on the margin into the center, strengthening the idea of community.

Historic Landmark Designation

Having your building designated as a historic landmark, either by the Federal Registry or the California Registry, brings with it certain drawbacks, such as a loss of flexibility and the need to have renovation or usage plans approved. However, it also brings a lot of benefits, such as tourism dollars. If you don’t have the funds to move and to streamline, making your city hall into a historic building that can also incorporate a museum gives people another reason to visit your town. A good example of this is the historic Victorian town of Bellefonte, PA, whose striking City Hall gives ballast to the charming downtown and further cements the town as a place to visit when driving east.

Rent It Out for Office Space

One of the nice functions of a City Hall is that it is essentially already a large office. Different kind of work gets done there, but it has the essential form and function of an office building. The benefit of this is that, with shrinking staffs, you may not have to move at all in order to save money. Streamlining and making your City Hall more efficient means clearing up space. Like many other businesses, you can rent out extra office space with just a little bit of retrofitting. This provides a revenue stream and will attract startups and other small companies that need some space but don’t need a whole building to themselves. The historic location also appeals to “cool” businesses looking for a unique vibe. It allows flexibility for both the new tenant and the landlord. Indeed, you can rent to companies that have just a handful or workers, or ones that need a whole floor. It’s ideal to keep money flowing and to preserve a historic structure.

Residential Property

Galena, IL, is an old mining town that saw a lot of prosperity in the early 1800s, situated on a river connecting it directly to the nearby Mississippi. Its fortunes waned and rose, and now it is a quaint and charming tourist town that’s also excellent for residents. One of its most dramatic public buildings was an old schoolhouse from the early 1900s that stood high on the hills overlooking downtown and the river. Eventually, it became too small for the population, and fell into disrepair.

Luckily, it has since been converted into condos. With its clocktower windows and dramatic views, it provided a great source of income for the town when they sold it to developers. This was a way to embrace history without being sentimental, and to incorporate the past into the present. It turned city property into private property, brought money to the town, and helped attract residents who wanted to feel like they were immediately part of history.

You’ll notice these examples are all outside of California. There’s a reason for this. The Golden State is one that has the most recent past in terms of American history (though not all of history) and has always been great at shedding old skin and embracing the new. This is what makes the state so dynamic, but at a time of huge changes, people want something to hang onto. Governments need fewer employees and less space. If their buildings are a historic part of the town, something that gives identity and a sense of community, they don’t need to disappear.

If you are a government body looking to shed old buildings without destroying them, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of the market from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.