Downtown Developments: Cities Called to Encourage Future Historic Buildings

By Chris Higdon, Community Development Manager, GMA

The phrase, “future historic buildings” seems like a contradiction, right? To translate, we first must think about how buildings become historic. Simply put, for a building, block or district (like a downtown) to survive over the years, it must be built to last and worth saving. The style and scale of a building, types of construction material, intended use and other aspects all factor into whether people cherish and fight to preserve a building or not.

Preservation of historic buildings and districts has become more important and financially viable. Cities now recognize the economic benefits of preserving the historic character of their buildings because it improves community pride, quality of life and encourages tourism. The movement towards saving historic buildings has helped to create tools like the federal and state preservation tax credits, that level the playing field and encourage preservation.

But what seems to be overlooked are the opportunities to create future historic buildings while engaging in historic preservation, downtown development and overall city planning. Future historic building design and materials should coalesce with past historic buildings but also qualify as preservation projects in the distant future.

When looking for examples of cities that have built future historic buildings, it would be hard to find a better example in Georgia than the city of Savannah. City leaders have literally been building historic buildings for hundreds of years. What comes to your mind when you think of “Historic Savannah?” If you are on River Street or Bay Street, you are in historic Savannah. If you are on Broughton Street, you are still in historic Savannah. You walk seamlessly on the gridded streets and through the lush parks passing buildings built in the 17, 18 and 1900s—all that you’re seeing is historic Savannah.

How did this happen? Founded by James Ogelthorpe in 1733, Savannah is one of the greatest examples in the U.S. of a planned city. With a plan in place, the city was able to grow organically over centuries. Since the city’s inception, new buildings were built into the gridded pattern that maintained the walkable blocks and the proximity to greenspace necessary for future historic buildings. These buildings—built over time by different developers and designed in different time periods— look authentic to the city’s original buildings in a way that is very hard to replicate. Fortunately, for all of us, this practice is what has created the future historic buildings in Savannah and can be emulated by other cities.


1. Set an example by using durable materials and quality design for public buildings. Many cities have beautiful historic courthouses and city halls, but every new public building is an opportunity to create\ something of lasting value. For example, new buildings can include libraries, police and fi re stations and public works facilities.

2. Set up design standards to attract quality development and foster cohesiveness and compatibility of design between new and historic buildings. Duluth is a great example of this type of planning. The city has invested in land in its downtown and jump-started redevelopment by constructing an iconic city hall, creating a central gathering space with their new town green and providing events for the citizens with an outdoor stage and events space. All of this was done with quality and design and seamlessly blended into the existing historic fabric of their downtown.

Duluth has done more than lead by example. Through further investment of land in their downtown and in partnership with the downtown development authority, they retained control over aspects of the construction of infill developments in the downtown district. This effort has ensured that infill developments and the expansion of their downtown with projects such as Parson’s Alley, will create lasting building stock for Duluth’s citizens for generations to come.

For buildings in our cities to have sustainability—to be worth saving—we must find ways to encourage quality buildings and developments. As with Savannah, a well-designed plan can encourage quality design and construction for many years. Duluth has demonstrated that a city can lead by example and build public buildings of lasting quality and design. The basic principles are also true for new downtowns or commercial districts that will someday be historic. Cities that utilize the tools and methods available to encourage quality development will be rewarded with long-term economic sustainability and the legacy of quality future historic buildings.

This article appears in the January/February 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

Back to Listing