Downtowns & Main Streets

How Façade Improvement Programs Can Benefit Your Community

October 28th, 2013

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Improvements to this small building in Hamilton, New York, included a new sign, reduction of unsightly signage, a bold new paint scheme highlighting the building’s historic character, and a new cornice for the roof gable. The dark paint was used to make non-historic building elements such as the garage door less obvious.
Improvements to this small building in Hamilton, New York, included a new sign, reduction of unsightly signage, a bold new paint scheme highlighting the building’s historic character, and a new cornice for the roof gable. The dark paint was used to make non-historic building elements such as the garage door less obvious. All photos by Amy Facca unless otherwise noted.

The revitalization of a neglected commercial district or residential neighborhood often begins with improvements to a single building or storefront.

Even simple changes such as the removal of non-historic materials, repairs, or a new paint job that calls attention to the building’s original architectural details signal positive change and often stimulate similar improvements in neighboring buildings.

While this process sometimes begins spontaneously through the work of individual property or business owners, it can be accelerated when a community creates a façade improvement program. As a result, such programs are frequently among the implementing actions of comprehensive plans, downtown revitalization strategies, and historic preservation plans.

Façade improvement programs are incentive programs created to encourage property owners and businesses to improve the exterior appearance of their buildings and storefronts. They focus on either commercial or residential properties in historic or non-historic areas and provide financial incentives such as a matching grant or loan, a tax incentive, and design assistance.

Although it may seem to be a minor aspect of an improvement program, design assistance enables and helps ensure that building modifications comply with any historic district guidelines or other design guidelines developed specifically to enhance buildings in the target area.

Economic Benefits of Façade Improvements:

Façade improvement programs produce many benefits -- including strengthening locally owned businesses, which helps keep dollars in the local economy.

Also in Hamilton, New York, the Nicols-Beal building. In addition to cleaning the brick masonry façade, paint was cleverly used to call attention to the turret cornice and minimize modern window elements in the storefront and upper floors; a new awning was also used to call attention to the storefront and conceal the modern, non-historic aluminum windows in the storefront.
Also in Hamilton, New York, the Nicols-Beal building. In addition to cleaning the brick masonry facade, paint was cleverly used to call attention to the turret cornice and minimize modern window elements in the storefront and upper floors; a new awning was also used to call attention to the storefront and conceal the modern, non-historic aluminum windows in the storefront.

A report in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Dollar & Sense series 1 also found that:

  • Commercial building improvements resulted in an increase in sales in the year after the improvements were made,
  • Sales improvements were sustained for several years,
  • Sales increases exceeded increases in local taxes,
  • The improvements attracted new businesses and shoppers to the target area,
  • Participants were often motivated to make additional improvements (such as to interior spaces or product lines), and
  • Owners/tenants of properties and businesses in surrounding areas were motivated to make improvements

Façade improvement programs, and closely related building rehabilitation programs, are usually developed and managed by organizations with a vested interest in civic improvement.

Programs focused on commercial properties are usually administered and staffed by a municipality’s planning, community development, or economic development office; a Main Street organization; a business improvement district; or other government-affiliated entities.

Residential programs are usually carried out by a government or non-profit housing agency or a nonprofit community or neighborhood development organization.

Other entities which may carry out façade improvement programs include institutions such as colleges or hospitals. Their programs are often designed to encourage reinvestment in the commercial or residential neighborhoods surrounding their campuses. Sometimes programs are organized by a blended team made up of local government, an institution such as a college or university, and a nonprofit community or economic development organization.

The big “carrot” that makes a façade improvement program successful is, of course, the incentives the program offers. While larger business improvement districts may be able to raise funds through the annual tax levy, funding is usually obtained from a combination of sources. The most common sources are federal and state grants for community and economic development, housing, and downtown revitalization; and municipal revenue. It is not uncommon for a municipality or organization to work with a consortium of local banks that contribute equally to the funding pool to share investment risks.

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Notes:

  1. NTHP Dollars & Sense #12: An Analysis of the Economic Impact of Physical Improvements on Retail Sales (based on Brenda R. Spencer’s Master of Architecture thesis from Kansas State University in 1995)

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