New Jersey’s past is its future — and preserving historic sites from our past is the best way to build a future for generations to come.
The state of New Jersey could embrace an excellent public policy tool for building its future by adopting a state historic tax credit (HTC) to incentivize renovation and rehabilitation of historic sites. Thus far, the state government has lacked the will to do so. For decades, governors and legislators have been weighing the concept of an historic tax credit. In 2012, there was hope when a bipartisan bill passed the Legislature, only to be vetoed by the governor. In the 2018-2019 legislative session, legislators again flirted with adoption and Gov. Phil Murphy publicly supported an HTC, but the proposed bill never made it to a floor vote. The initiative seems to have become ensnared in the larger debate about development incentives.
On Jan. 14, Sens. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), Joseph Cryan (D-Union), and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) reintroduced the Historic Property Reinvestment Act (S-412), which provides credits against state taxes for the costs of rehabilitating historic properties. If we are lucky, history won’t repeat itself for this bill.
Preservation New Jersey (PNJ) urges our government officials during the new legislative session to evaluate historic sites’ development through a different lens. New Jersey needs a statewide law that would give developers and homeowners an economic reason to take the risk and invest in the revitalization of older communities and historic structures.
For those who fear loss of state revenue if an HTC is implemented, they should note the following: Similar tax credit programs in other states have generated strong net tax revenue to the state. In Maryland, for example, the historic tax credits return over $3 for every dollar invested. Between 1978 and 2015, the National Park Service’s federal historic tax credit for income-producing buildings led to $28.1 billion in federal tax receipts, a significant net gain over the $23.1 billion in allocated credits.
Thirty-seven states have a historic tax credit and are reaping the benefits of restoration and rehabilitation of their historic resources. They also are doing a much better job than New Jersey at leveraging federal historic tax credit dollars. Without a state HTC, New Jersey is missing out on a proven strategy for economic growth and revitalization.
The dream of PNJ is to advocate so successfully for saving New Jersey’s historic sites that New Jersey’s endangered historic sites would become history.
Unfortunately, we are a long way from realizing that fantasy. Twenty-five years ago, PNJ created its first list of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey. And every year since, we have produced this list to highlight fading historic, architectural, cultural and archaeological sites with the hope of raising awareness about the benefits of preservation. Out of the 250 properties on the 10 Most list, about 15% have been restored and are again in use, while another 15% succumbed to development or nature and are lost forever. The rest remain in some state of limbo, awaiting the necessary interest and/or funds to restore them. After a certain period of time without restoration, these endangered sites will also be lost forever.
Preservation of historic properties is more than a feel-good activity of nostalgia. Preserving old buildings is beneficial not only for a community’s culture, but also for the local economy and for the longterm sustainability of our society. Earlier this year, PlaceEconomics published a report citing the Twenty-Four Reasons Historic Preservation is Good for Your Community. Here are just a few of the reasons it’s good for New Jersey:
This last point is the theme of a new documentary PNJ is unveiled on March 4 at a gala celebration. The documentary, “Saved or Lost Forever,” delves into the history of three endangered properties that have moving stories to tell — Camden High School, Lower New York Bay’s Romer Shoal Light (a lighthouse) and the Van Wagenen (Apple Tree) House of Jersey City. These properties are unable to talk, so PNJ is telling their stories in hopes that they will inspire state and local officials, developers and corporate leaders, as well as individual citizens, as to the pressing need for preservation.
The 10 Most documentary premiered at a celebration gala at Newark Symphony Hall, which was included on the first 10 Most list 25 years ago. If passed, historic tax credits could play a major role in the long overdue restoration of the historic venue, providing a strong anchor for Newark’s Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District. We will continue our work to advocate for the passage of an HTC bill in the new legislative session and continue our advocacy on behalf of New Jersey’s endangered sites. We need individual citizens to recognize the peril of not doing so and rally around the PNJ mission in order to deliver a future rooted in our past.
For more information about the 10 Most documentary visit: https://www.pnj10most.org/10most-documentary/
Courtenay Mercer, Executive Director of Preservation NJ, is a NJ licensed Professional Planner and certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). She has a Masters of City and Regional Planning from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.