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Finding Dollars and Sense In Historic Preservation

HISTORIC preservationists often are regarded - with some justification - as people who breathe in the present but who live in the past.

But many preservationists are looking up from their history books and out from their lovingly restored cupolas onto the surrounding communities.

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People who long focused primarily on preserving individual buildings and sites that are historically important or culturally noteworthy are adopting a broader agenda to protect the quality of life in the places where many Americans live.

Meanwhile, urban planners, municipal officials, community organizers, and others are seeing historic preservation as a tool to enhance the livability and quicken the economies of cities and towns.

``Economics is taking its rightful place as one of the pillars on which the historic-preservation movement rests,'' says Don Rypkema, a real-estate development consultant in Washington.

Across the American landscape, the past and the present, culture and commerce are commingling in new ways. People are forming alliances that many preservationists once would have deemed unholy and that many bottom-line types would have seen as pointless.

Witness the theme of the 48th National Preservation Conference held recently in Boston: ``Preservation, Economics, and Community Rebirth.''

Besides the usual blend of historians, historical-society members, and architects, the more than 2,500 participants at this year's preservation conference included federal and state housing and transportation officials, state and local politicians, city planners, commercial developers, and bankers.

More and more, such people are recognizing historic preservation not only as a way to attract tourists and boost property values, but also as a means to stimulate other economic activity in communities. The primary focus of both preservationists and pragmatists in this regard is on revitalizing small business districts.

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In communities throughout the United States, once-crowded shops and restaurants along Main Street have been falling on hard times.

The decline is attributable partly to population shifts as people move away from small towns or out from city centers, and partly to the gravitational pulls of outlying malls and discount stores.

IN 1980 the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation's largest preservation organization, formed the National Main Street Center (NMSC) as a catalyst to revitalize small downtown and neighborhood business districts. The NMSC is not a funding body, but it advises city governments and community groups on setting up organizations to manage Main Street projects, obtaining local financing, design enhancements, and advertising and promotion for small businesses in the shopping districts.

Today, about 1,000 communities in 37 states have Main Street projects, says Kennedy Smith, director of the NMSC. As of the end of 1993, Ms. Smith reports, the program had resulted in a net gain of 23,000 new businesses, 80,000 new jobs, 33,500 building rehabilitations, and $3.6 billion for physical improvements.

Last week, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and the National Trust announced the creation of the first citywide Main Street program. The coordinated program, to be officially launched next year, will bring revitalization projects to about 20 Boston neighborhoods.

Mr. Menino says he first became excited about the Main Street program in 1984, when, as a Boston city councilor representing the city's Roslindale neighborhood, he introduced a successful Main Street project in the community.

Numerous other large cities have already expressed interest in Boston's approach, Smith says.

Says Mr. Rypkema, the consultant whose clients include the NMSC, ``Economic development through historic preservation works.''

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