• Sarah O'Brien

Sparking Joy & Building Community

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

Earlier this summer I was part of an Open Innovation session at the 27th Congress for the New Urbanism in Louisville Kentucky. What is an open innovation session? Heck I didn't know either when we submitted our session ideas. And when I say we I mean one of my partners in crime, Britin Bostick, with Stewardship Strategies. Although she had a conflict and missed our session (we had two topics to present) she was there when we started brainstorming challenges, war boarding solutions critiquing content, and cheering me on from the sidelines, the entire way.

Here's how they describe Open Innovation:

At CNU, we know that creativity doesn't always hold to a deadline. That's why we've opened our seventh annual Call for Open Innovation Ideas for CNU 26.Savannah. It's like a second chance for the best ideas to be showcased at our annual Congress.

Open Innovation sessions take the Congress to the​ ​next level—they're lively, fast-paced presentations or alternative-format events to keep our members on the cutting edge of advancing urbanism. In years past, ideas that began at Open Innovation have evolved into CNU initiatives, successful businesses, bestselling books, and full-fledged movements.

Proposals must be relevant to New Urbanism. We highly encourage new voices and diverse perspectives. Each speaker will be given anywhere from six to ten minutes to present their idea. If your idea does not fit into a lecture hall, suggest an alternative setting! Get creative!

So essentially Open Innovation sessions consist of anywhere between 5-10 presenters whose submissions loosely, and I mean loosely, fit together. This "group" work is everything I hated about group assignments in college. Disorganized, silent team mates, and frustration about how something outside of my control will affect my outcome. But once again I survived. Our group went with an overarching theme to our topics: Sparking Joy: The Community Building Edition." Inspired by our discussions and our commitment to not using the theme "Retrofication" given to us, we were Marie Kondoing our way through this. Please note no one in the group was ALL IN on our theme, as my offer to have t-shirts made for us was declined and I think Britin and I may have been the only two group members who took the theme literally when compiling our presentations. Anyways our theme had been reinforced by several online articles myself and a teammate had enjoyed. One article by my favorite online group, Nonprofit AF, titled "Does this board member spark joy?" And another piece by Yard & Company founder, Joe Nickol titled "Does it spark joy? KonMari for Developers." I believe both are worth your time and should be read.

Each team member would have Seven Minutes to present their ideas. Seven minutes? I never prepare presentation materials or notes for myself. However seven minutes on a topic I was passionate enough to submit to a group of people who claim they are doing something new that I wouldn't normally dream of spending time with voluntarily (#sorry, #notsorry) meant I needed to have this written out. I needed to time it. So because of that you get to read and review my presentation materials. So without further ado here is my #CNU27 #openinnovation notes and slide images for "Sparking Joy & Building Communities: The Historic Preservation Edition."

Slide 1


Welcome Everybody. Okay Raise your hand if you consider yourself a preservationist.

Some of you may have heard I am anti-preservation, but fear not, I am just anti-kitchen sinks- you’ll understand what that means in less than 7 minutes.

I’ve always known that preservation, economic development and city building don’t always mix well, they intertwine uncomfortably. But now I think I understand why.


Slide 2


I love old stuff. I revel in spending time on the front porch of my historic home My all-time favorite movie when I was a tiny little girl was Gone with the Wind, not Cinderella, like everyone else. I am every historic hotel’s #1 fan girl and your crazy friend who insists on staying at the shipping container flophouse as soon as it hit the market. My furniture has to be dusted as most is older than CNU. I actually have junk gypsy running in my blood.

I hear old buildings when they speak to me. I listen to the stories in the wind coming from the town square. I have had love affairs with buildings and historic places on more than one occasion. I connect with the history of those who came before me through the buildings that they once occupied. These things spark joy for me. The fuel my soul. But for the last 15 years as a downtown revitalization professional, historic preservation policy has done nothing to spark joy. Frankly my dear it often made me not give a damn about the past or preservation.


Slide 3


“Historic preservation: Bad for neighborhood diversity”

“Historic preservation prioritizes the loudest neighbors, not the finest buildings.”

“When historic preservation clashes with housing affordability.”

”Why historic preservation needs a new approach.”

These recent headlines make wonder what places really matter? And who decides what matters? And what does matter mean to each of us? And are we really helping the places and people that do actually matter to someone?

Why can’t urbanism, and development, and preservation and my love for old things spark joy in me and in communities across the country? If Marie Kondo helps people decide if something sparks joy, who is the Marie Kondo of preservation? And does this person even know what my joy looks like or what your communities joy looks like? How are the defining what matters and in what context?


Slide 4


On the left is the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. It’s had more development false starts than it has hotel rooms. Its currently tied up trying to get approval for international investment incentives but according to sources the red tape is unsurmountable. The Trump Tower hotel project in Washington DC on my rights received approx. 50 million dollars in historic preservation federal tax credits And NO I haven’t seen the tax returns either. Preservation Policy is clearly broken ya’ll. That’s right, I said ya’ll, and not just because I’m from Texas, but because collectively we can’t fix what is broken if I talk about you or them or me. We know city building is in peril. The housing crisis, lack of diversity and inclusion, infrastructure liabilities, growing wealth gap, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg folks. This isn’t just preservations problem anymore, frankly it never has been solely their cross to bear.


Slide 5

Slide 5

In 2013 Texas had over 137 million in costs for tax credit applications, spread out across NINE projects. And in 2015 over 365 million for 35 projects. Again, not a fan of doing math, but that accounts for projects totaling on average between 10-15 million each. Let’s look at the distribution of projects by location. All of the major metro areas are there. But what about main street usa? Rural Texas. What about incremental projects? I know you all have had experience with a smaller project in a less urban area, right? True. I have a renegade developer friends who in 2014 got a $1400 state tax credit , out of spite. He lost money through the process and to this day hasn’t been able to sell his $1400 state franchise tax credit. But he wanted to see if it could be done and what it would cost. So until the data is accessible and can prove otherwise let it be known that I think the system is geared towards the big boys and cities and projects.

Slide 6


In local government when we finally realize something is not sparking joy we clean out the closet or chart a new course, so to speak. I can’t tell you how many storage rooms and offices I have cleaned out Or how many new road maps I’ve been given over the last 15 yrs of public service. But what we don’t ask often enough is why do we need this closet in the first place? Or is this really the place we need to be headed, and why? Because what local government doesn’t have the time to do, the capacity to tackle, and the political capital to survive is ask why? Why there? So I believe that simply trying to clean out the closet or draw a new route we are just making our problems worse. More costly. More difficult to solve. To honor our past today, and to make preservation truly sustainable, inclusive, viable, and accessible to ALL, we have to forget what we think we know and do different.


Slide 7


Why such rigid preservation regulations? Why only wood windows? Why do the incentives only work for big cities and big projects? Why do people cringe when the preservationists walk in the room?

I have always wondered what does a park ranger have to do with historic building rehabilitation? Of course, I was too busy fighting for downtown development often times going head to head with a local HPO, or as one liked to call himself, history boy, to ask why.


Seriously. Who in the heck is responsible for historic preservation in this country and WHY?

I’ll let you google the missions and visions of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, where NPS and preservation policy live. But I am going to point out that when the interior department was first created by Congress, it was something of a “kitchen sink” department where various agencies were placed to address domestic matters of one kind or another. As a result, it was known as the “Department of Everything Else or the Kitchen Sink.”

And most importantly why in the world is the kitchen sink and little park rangers taking away all of my joy?

Slide 9 Pre Animation


I won’t bore you anymore talking about how preservation has been set up to fail. And I won’t read the Department of Commerce and HUD’s missions and visions to you, because google can do that. All I know right now is its time talk about how we throw preservation out with the kitchen sink and start from scratch.

Slide 9 Post Animation

If we really want to preserve and protect our built environments to be fiscally viable, diverse, and inclusive so that they meet our needs of tomorrow preservation plays a critical role. It has to have a seat at the table. Crazy? Meh. Impossible? Maybe. Unreasonable? Absolutely.

George Bernard Shaw said: The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

It’s time to be unreasonable, ya’ll.


Sarah served as a Texas Main Street manager for over a decade and is a proud two-time Past President of the Texas Downtown Association. She lives in Smithville Texas and has worked in local government. community development, destination management and downtown revitalization across the State of Texas. She is a motivational speaker, consensus builder, and visionary problem solver who helps organizations and communities understand their purpose and achieve collective impact.

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