New Alliance executive director values community benefits of historic preservation

Caroline Boyce comes to the Preservation Alliance position with a strong background in statewide advocacy, local planning and community development – and a passion for old amusement parks.

 

Caroline E. Boyce came on board as executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia during the first week of March, succeeding John Gallery in the position.

 

Before coming to Philadelphia, she served as executive vice president of AIA Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, 2002 to 2013; Harrisburg director of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, 2000 to 2002; director of the Office of Statewide Partnerships for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington D.C., 1999 to 2000; executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, 1994 to 1999; executive director of the Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Pittsburgh, 1992 to 1994; director of asset management at Microbac Laboratories, Inc., Pittsburgh, 1991 to 1992; Main Street Resource Team Consultant for the National Trust’s National Main Street Center, Washington D.C., 1989 to 1992; executive director and Main Street manager of the South Side Local Development Company, Pittsburgh, 1985 to 1991; and historic preservation planner at the Pittsburgh Planning Department, 1981 to 1985.

 

Boyce earned her master’s in historic preservation planning at Cornell University and her bachelor of arts in government at Connective College.

She sat down with PlanPhilly on March 27 to talk about her career path to the Preservation Alliance and her vision for the organization.

 

PlanPhilly: Where are you from originally?

 

Caroline Boyce:

I was born in England. My parents were naturalized citizens. We moved to Pittsburgh when I was 6 years old. But we did a lot of traveling when I was growing up, going back overseas to visit family and so forth, which I think had a big influence on my interest not only in buildings and the built environment, but the cultural heritage and social fabric of the communities that the buildings were in. So I think that was the beginning of my interest in historic preservation and community development and cultural heritage issues.

 

My father started out working for a British company in the U.S., and that required some travel. My mother’s family was in the British diplomatic corps, and lived in Central America, so we did traveling in Central America, and to the UK. My grandparents lived in Canada, so I went to high school in Toronto.

 

I like to think that kind of perspective is going to help me in my work here. Just having seen the world a little bit.

 

Growing up I thought law school was the direction I was going to head in. I became a government major in college, full-tilt heading to law school. That was at Connecticut College. And in the course of that I did a number of internships with local organizations in New London, Ct., including at the local redevelopment authority. I was administering HUD loans and grants to low-interest homeowners in what became a very strong historic district in New London, and the kind of transformation that I saw taking place there in a fairly short period of time made a huge impact on me.

 

The houses were beautiful Greek Revival homes, and the residents in the community gathered together and developed a strategy for the neighborhood around home ownership and historic preservation, and then leveraged dollars coming through the local redevelopment authority.

 

At the same time, the H.H. Richardson train station in New London, which I think was one of his last works, became threatened. It’s a beautiful red brick train station right at one of the portals to the downtown. People really rallied around. It was the first time that historic preservation on a broader scale became a community focus.

 

I ended up getting a summer job with the New London Landmarks Historic Preservation Trust. I followed what was going on with the train station, and also started doing survey work on some of the neighborhoods in New London. I started getting an eye-opening, hands-on exposure to historic preservation, which was something I had never really thought about before as a career. I changed gears and didn’t end up going to law school.

 

I actually came to the Philadelphia area after I graduated and worked at the Brandywine Conservancy for the environmental management program. I interned there for the summer and did some research on what was then called Lenape Park. It was a little amusement park. They had a beautiful carousel and historic building and landscape features. At the time, the museum was having an exhibit of carousel animals, and that just got me really interested in that, and I eventually ended up doing my master’s thesis on development of a preservation plan for pre-WWII amusement parks. So I have a strong interest in commercial archaeology, and things that are a little out of the box of traditional historic preservation.

 

I went to Cornell for their master’s program and spent two years running around to amusement parks, and looking at old rides, and riding rides. I’m a big roller-coaster and carousel fan.

 

At Cornell, I also pursued the community development end of preservation, which had its roots in New London with the redevelopment authority work I did there.

 

When I graduated from Cornell, I ended up, not out of any personal strategy to go back to Pittsburgh, but there happened to be a new position there with the city planning department, a historic preservation planner. The position is very similar to [Philadelphia Historical Commission executive director] Jon Farnham’s position here. So I was executive director of the historic review commission there, and coordinated the Section 106 historic preservation reviews.

 

I think another thing I bring to the position here is some understanding for and appreciation of the kind of challenges that the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the planning department face. I look forward to developing a good working relationship with them. We may not agree all the time on everything, but I’m very confident that we can find ways to collaborate and move historic preservation forward for the city, and respectfully agree to disagree at times when that is required.

 

Right around that time, the Main Street program was starting to kick into gear at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and my interest in using historic preservation as an economic and community revitalization tool started to creep up again. It was enhanced by the fact that my work at the city gave me a good understanding of the regulatory side and how real estate development projects work through the city process. I got to know a lot of the architects, contractors and folks who were actually on the ground doing preservation and development work in the city.

 

The National Trust announced that they were going to embark on the Main Street Urban Demonstration Project, where they were going to take the things that they had aligned doing Main Street small-town downtowns and central city districts, and apply those techniques to larger urban areas, either to mid-size city central business districts or larger city neighborhood districts. The South Side community in Pittsburgh, in collaboration with the city, had submitted an application and was successful in getting the East Carson Street business district in the South Side area selected as one of the seven Main Street urban demonstration sites.

 

That was a project of the Community Development Corporation in that neighborhood. Historic preservation had been percolating for a long time as an underlying strategy for the revitalization of that neighborhood, which had thrived for decades with the steel industry in Pittsburgh and had strong Eastern European ethnic groups. The steel industry died, and suddenly this beautiful community, not unlike some of the neighborhoods I’ve seen in South Philadelphia and Manayunk, was without its economic base. You had a 20-block-long Victorian-era commercial district that suddenly had a huge vacancy rate. Residents there didn’t have the amenities or shops that they needed, and at the same time an aging population base, huge unemployment problem, and not a lot of reason for people to be moving there. That was the charge for the CDC — to economically restructure the community so that there would be a reason for people to live there again, and have it be a vibrant neighborhood again.

 

I was hired to run the Main Street Urban Demonstration Project. It became the most successful one of the seven projects. It has thrived through the years, and has received all kinds of national awards.

 

PP: What was actually done on the South Side of Pittsburgh?

 

CB: We worked in the four traditional Main Street areas: design, promotion, economic restructuring, and organization. “Organization” being putting together the right organizational structure for stakeholders to plan for the future and interact together in a decision-making capacity as development happened. Design, of course, being how to do the right thing with the buildings that were in the historic district. We put into place design guidelines and a local design review board.

 

The National Register Historic District went into place very early on. People were so pleased with that and what it did to the community’s ability to market the district to draw attention to the resources it had, that over a period of time the property owners and business owners developed enough of a comfort level that they wanted to pursue local historic designation. So that went into place when it was appropriate, when people had gotten their arms around what it was like to call yourself a historic district. Through the National Register process, we did lots of technical assistance and outreach to property owners to help them understand the importance of good signage and restoring your storefront. We administered a façade grant program that had design guidelines that you would adhere to.

 

People began to understand that it translated to new tenants coming in, to new property owners coming in, to new businesses coming in. We built one of the largest neighborhood festivals in the city, the South Side Summer Street Spectacular. We studied the Fels Point Festival in Baltimore and used that as a model.

 

We used things like the Street Spectacular, and opportunities for partnership and collaboration, which were kind of big things for me. Between the business community, the residential community, the strong church community, the neighborhood groups, everybody had a role in the Street Spectacular. We also put together an advisory board for the Main Street Urban Demonstration Project with representatives from the South Side Community Council, the church community, everybody. We ultimately undertook a neighborhood planning process and developed a broader neighborhood plan once things started kicking into gear in the business district.

 

By that time I was executive director of the CDC, and we started doing some much needed real estate development that the community identified as priority projects. We started out small. There was a beautiful building right on Carson Street which we ended up buying, bringing in a private investor who did it as a historic tax credit project. He took the tax credits, and we got ourselves a new office, and rented out the space on the first floor to a retail tenant.

 

I was there for five years. We started a housing program, the first new housing community in decades. It’s now one of the most popular places to live in the city.

 

That was a really important period for me, because I really did get to be hands-on and see historic preservation being used as an economic development tool, as a marketing tool, as a tool to help the longtime local residents celebrate the community that they lived in and that they had grown up in.

 

It was also a way to get older residents and new, younger residents to come together around a common story, a common theme. The younger residents were coming to the community because of the history and the architecture, and the kind of dynamic stuff that was happening in the business district. The older residents knew the story, and we involved them in telling the story.

 

Those are the kinds of things that get me excited. I like to get out of the box a little bit with preservation, and see it as more than just saving places. It’s got to be relevant, it’s got to be economically viable, it’s got to be fun and interesting — and it’s such a great way to connect people to history and to places in a way that they’re not really thinking about it. You’ll go to a cool restaurant, or a neat cultural arts venue, and you’re there for that other purpose but you’re experiencing the place at the same time. You can find ways through the uses to bring people to the buildings and the spaces, and almost without them knowing it, get them to appreciate the structures.

 

I left the South Side to come to Harrisburg to run Preservation Pennsylvania, the statewide historic preservation organization. I was there for five years. I realized while doing the work in Pittsburgh that there were tools that were needed and structures in place that needed to be tweaked in order for historic preservation at the local level to be able to be carried out in a more efficient way.

 

There was no state tax credit. There were really difficult rules, for example, related to school construction, the school reimbursement process at the Department of Education. Rules at the Department of General Services encouraged state offices to locate outside of existing older communities and in the suburbs, therefore contributing to sprawl and out-migration from the city – things that only could be changed at the state level, but then could trickle down to benefit projects at the local level.

 

I took my interest in historic preservation as an economic and community development revitalization tool to Harrisburg to try and figure out ways to change the overall lay of the land to make that work easier at the local level. Around my midpoint with Preservation Pennsylvania, Richard Moe became president of the National Trust, and began the process of another big change in the preservation world.

 

We had already been through the process of, OK, preservation isn’t just rich white men’s houses to, OK, we can look at historic districts in the context of which buildings sit, and then went to, OK, historic preservation doesn’t have to be national significance, it can be what’s locally significant. Dick Moe took it to the next level of a much more holistic look at how historic preservation links to cultural heritage and how that environment then links to natural resources, preservation of farmland and open space – the whole issue of land use, and the interconnectedness of the environmental movement and historic preservation, and beginning to recognize that there is opportunity and benefit to be had in a partnership between those working on the existing built environment in cities and towns and those trying to preserve farmland and open space. If we could direct development into existing communities, we could be saving farmland and open space. If we can put into place programs that save farmland and open space, we can direct people to existing older communities.

 

Right around that time there was a lot of pressure on Lancaster County. Walmart proposed seven superstores for Lancaster County, and the Pennsylvania municipalities planning code made it very difficult for communities to put growth boundaries into place.

 

The state law was encouraging sprawl and things like the Walmarts going up all over Lancaster County, which of course was putting pressure on some or the best farmland in the country, the Amish communities, and in fact creating a negative impact on the heritage tourism industry in Lancaster, which was a big economic driver.

 

We were successful in getting Lancaster County listed on the National Trust Endangered List. Out of that process, we collaborated with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and that led to the creation of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania. And ultimately to the passage of the landmark land use legislation, which was passed under the Ridge Administration, that for the first time allowed for multi-municipal planning in Pennsylvania. It was a major step forward for land use reform in the state, and a big victory from a historic preservation standpoint as well.

 

I ran the Harrisburg office of 10,000 Friends during the lobbying effort to get that bill passed, and used the lobbying skills I had developed over the years at Preservation Pennsylvania and even at the local level.

 

I ultimately ended up at AIA Pennsylvania, where I’ve been for the last 10 years. Of course, I had worked with architects from the get-go, and really appreciated the work that they do. AIA’s mission is policy work on behalf of the profession in Harrisburg, and the spectrum of issues architects are interested in included a lot of things that I had already been working on: historic preservation, tax credits, green buildings, sustainable communities, land use, those issues related to things like school construction, and downtown location law.

 

It was a continuation of many of the same issues that I’d worked on before, but an opportunity to learn a little more about the architectural profession and the practice side of it. I think that’s another thing I bring to the table here – good relationships with architects in the Philadelphia region. We have some of the best in the country here, and many that are doing great historic preservation work. I’m excited about continuing to work with them. AIA Philadelphia is a great partner, and I look forward to working collaboratively with them over time too.

 

PP: You received the Preservation Pennsylvania Otto Haas Award. What was that for?

 

CB: That was a kind of lifetime achievement award. That was really a tremendous moment for me because it was a recognition from my peers and colleagues. That meant a lot. I think it covered the spectrum, from the work on the South Side, the advocacy work in Harrisburg,  to raising the role of preservation statewide. I have been involved on the national level as well with the National Trust. I worked my way to being on the board of advisors for the Northeast region, and helped to bring attention to the good work that was going on all around the state. I continue to be involved in a lot of these organizations. I’m on the board of advisors at Preservation Pennsylvania, on the board of 10,000 Friends, and continue with the National Trust.

 

PP: How will your partnership and advocacy skills be used at the Preservation Alliance?

 

CB: Right now I’m still getting my feet on the ground, and learning about all the good work that’s been going on here. Clearly, one of the reasons I was interested in this position is that the organization has been doing great work, particularly in the areas of advocacy and neighborhood preservation. They are two of the priorities in the Preservation Alliance’s strategic plan. I would like to work in those areas to try to attract a broader and more diverse audience to historic preservation. And to work collaboratively with the many organizations that are out there to look for ways to build the capacity of others to engage in advocacy and outreach. The Preservation Alliance alone cannot possibly do all that needs to be done. It’s very important to me to build relationships and leverage our abilities with the abilities of others.

 

PP: Which audiences do you want to reach?

 

CB: Everybody. The business community, getting decision-makers on board and understanding the relevance of historic preservation as an economic tool to assist in Philadelphia moving forward. That would be one group. Also, the architects, the engineers, the planners who are here in Philadelphia and are a tremendous resource, and many of whom are already involved.  I need to get my arms around how to engage more directly with them. Residents, property owners, homeowners, renters, young people. This has got to be an organization for the future. It’s important to me that we think ahead five, ten, twenty years, so that this organization is changing its approach and its message to fit the needs of the times. Just look at the technological changes that have taken place in recent years. We can’t do things the same way they were done when I was in graduate school. I want to engage in existing processes – the city’s planning process – and look for ways to be helpful in moving other people’s agendas forward, in a way that also moves our agenda forward.

 

Before we leave the advocacy and neighborhood preservation realm… We’re going to be paying close attention to what’s happening nationwide, not just in Philadelphia, with the closing of churches and the closing of schools. Those buildings are often defining buildings in communities. Even if they’re not national historic landmarks, they are usually character-defining buildings; they’re very important to the community, and residents have roots there. The future of schools and churches that are closed is something that we’re going to be taking a look at. There will be collaborative opportunities and ventures that come out of that.

 

The other thing I want to mention relative to our neighborhood preservation work is that we’ve been doing some very good work with our African-American heritage program under Melissa Jest. Our strategic plan calls for broadening the scope of work in that area to other ethnic groups and communities, and redefining it as a cultural heritage program that would continue to incorporate our African-American cultural program, but would include some collaboration with other communities as well.

 

Certainly my work with the CDCs in Pittsburgh is something that I bring with me, and I’m very interested in meeting the people here who are doing the good work with those groups in Philadelphia. We’ll look for ways to assist them in the work that they’re doing.

 

We’ll continue to do the advocacy work that we’ve done with the Philadelphia Historical Commision – attending those meetings, paying attention to what’s going on there, assisting the commission in whatever way we can, providing our input.

 

But advocacy goes beyond that; there’s a very strong educational and outreach component to advocacy, as I see it. This links to some of the capacity-building things that we were talking about before: getting information out there to others in the Philadelphia community about how to do a National Register nomination, how to do a nomination for local designation; helping people understand the planning process; the points at which it’s important and strategic for people to engage in dialogue about projects that are impacting historic buildings in their neighborhoods.

 

I’ve got a lot to learn about how systems and processes work here in Philadelphia. I think I know the right questions to ask. But every city is different. I’m on a learning curve right now, and looking to meet people and talk to people, and do a whole lot of listening.

 

PP: What other priorities do you have for the Alliance?

 

CB: Philadelphia is the biggest city in the state. We have a huge portion of the state’s historic and cultural resources here. Something on the order of 70 percent of the historic tax credit projects that take place in Pennsylvania take place in the Philadelphia region.  It’s important for me to continue to maintain my relationships at the state level and at the national level, so that we position issues that are important to the preservation community and development community in Philadelphia as priorities for those who are working on these issues at the state and national levels.

 

For example, the recently passed state historic preservation tax credit. Pennsylvania is now the 30th state – we’re always a little late to the game – to get a state tax credit. I started working on that 16 years ago. We finally got it across the finish line last year. However, it’s a very small program. It’s due to take effect July 1.

 

It’s a remarkable victory that we were able to get a new tax credit program at a time when the state has very severe budget problems. So I’m trying to convey a message to the historic preservation community to not be too down on the fact that it’s a small dollar amount – it’s $3 million a year over a 10-year period, with a $500,000 cap on each project. And that money has got to be equitably distributed around the state.

 

Philadelphia stands to gain a lot from this program over the long run, but we’ve got to advocate for more dollars into the program. I will be participating actively in the advocacy effort to not only promote the program, but to make sure it’s used in Philadelphia even in the small amount that we have to start with. But it’s important to show that there’s demand, and that it’s successful. So we will be marketing it, but we will be working really hard to get more dollars into that program.

 

To give you an example of the benefits. The federal tax credit in a 10-year period generated $380 million in state tax revenues to Pennsylvania, 148,000 jobs, $17.1 billion in total economic impact. And if you consider that about 70 percent of those projects were in the Philadelphia area, that’s a big economic driver for this region.

 

When you look at the states where the federal tax credit is used the most, most of those states have state tax credits and the leveraging of the two together is really important. So I’m going to continue to work to enhance that program.

 

I’m sure there will be other things like that will be important for us to give voice at the state level and the federal level. I want to enhance the profile of this organization statewide and nationally.

 

PP: You have a reputation for strong financial leadership. How will you build the Preservation Alliance’s financial base?

 

CB: I’m going to take the strategic plan, and develop a three- to five-year operational plan. That operational plan will have very clear priorities, assignments of responsibility, and benchmarks for success. We will have a financial plan that will go along with it. We’re going to develop a fundraising strategy that diversifies the funding base for this organization and looks toward a long-range goal of building an endowment, and creating an organization that is sustainable, able to continue to do all the good work that it is doing, and able to be nimble. It’s really important that the finances for any nonprofit be such that the organization has some ability to be nimble as new opportunities arise. I’m a person that relies heavily on the strategic plan, particularly if the plan is grounded in input from a lot of stakeholders, strong board support, and staff buy-in as well, so everybody is clear as to the road map. At the same time, things can change. A certain amount of ability to be opportunistic and nimble has to be there. You can only do that if you have a strong financial base.

 

That’s an important goal for me. I look forward to engaging with the foundation community, the business community, individuals who for years have been committed to this organization and know it way better than I do at this point, and getting their input. And we’ll be looking for new opportunities. Attracting a broader, more diverse audience to the preservation movement can only help to stabilize our financial situation. The good history and all the accomplishments of this organization are key to moving forward in that regard. I’m very confident we can do what we need to do.

 

Another priority is the easement program. Particularly as the real estate market is gearing up, as the economy is beginning to rev its engines, we will be looking for opportunities to partner with the development community to build on the success of the easement program. We currently have 230 easements, which makes it one of the more robust easement programs in the country. I’m hoping we can build on that and we will be marketing that program and the benefits of it over the course of the upcoming months.

 

PP: How do you view the current climate for preservation in Philadelphia?

 

CB: I think it’s positive. I just finished reading a report by the Pew Foundation that was very relevant to the whole discussion of preservation in the future — making preservation relevant and vibrant. There will always be a strong need in the preservation movement to do preservation for preservation’s sake; there are key buildings and sites out there that you can’t imagine not preserving just because of who designed them and what took place there. But there’s a whole other realm to historic preservation that is about people’s lives, and how they socialize, where they work, where they experience their cultural lives. That is a very important discussion to have about how historic preservation fits into that.

 

We also need to break through some of the myths—the myths that preservation costs more, that preservation involves all these rules and regulations, is burdensome, and the myth that the path to least resistance is new construction. There’s plenty of evidence out there to show the economic benefits of historic preservation. There’s a whole dialogue going on now about green and sustainable buildings. Well, there’s no greener building than an existing building. We need to engage at a much greater level the historic preservation community in that dialogue.

 

Probably the best thing I ever did was to get the job at the Planning Department after I left graduate school. It enabled me to see how historic preservation touches all the various disciplines. I worked within the comprehensive planning division at the Pittsburgh Planning Department, so I worked collaboratively with the transportation planning staff, housing planning staff, environmental planning staff, economic development planning staff, neighborhood planners. There were touch points for historic preservation on everything that happened in that department. So I think the challenge for the dialogue going forward has got to include or address how historic preservation touch and help each one of those disciplines in a positive way.

 

PP: Are there specific programs you will introduce to Philadelphia?

 

CB: Ask me that question in about six months. I really want to get myself situated here, get a feel for the lay of the land, listen a lot, and drill into the strategic plan adopted by the Alliance, and see what are the best ways to move forward with those. I’m inclined to make sure that the great work this organization has been doing is positioned so that it can continue and can be the best it can possibly be before embarking on a whole lot of new things.

There may be ways to use knowledge that I bring to the table to enhance the programs that are already here.

 

PP: Your predecessor at the Alliance used to attend every meeting of the Historical Commission. Will you do the same?

 

CB: I plan to make that a regular thing. I can’t promise I’ll be at every single one. But it’s absolutely a priority.

 

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com

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