My favorite BugaBoo

April 1, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (1) 1484

My favorite bugaboo about heritage conservation rose its head this Easter/April Fool’s morning in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report.  The bugaboo goes like this, and has for over a century:  If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.

Like Paris…

Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade.  I loved the book, which had a myriad of brilliant insights and then this bugaboo which was so simplistic it required no response.  Manhattan has been saving TONS of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy.  Just visit Times Square.

Prisoner of the past abandoned by development

No United States city has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings.  So the argument basically is that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape.  Really?

San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.

The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years.  Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, BTW) but plenty more new stuff gets added.  The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.

That’s the Hell Gate railroad Bridge apparently

So here is the bugaboo in its unadulterated form from today’s :  “it could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”

So where is that?  Where did that happen?  And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument?  Where is it ABOUT to happen?

Chicago designated ONE MILE of downtown building frontage 15 years ago.  Contrary to our favorite bugaboo, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment.  Once San Antonio covers the 40% of its downtown that is currently surface parking, we might begin to worry about a slippery slope.

View from King William (designated 1967) to Tower of the Americas.

Now, to be fair to my friend Bob Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views.  This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated.  Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.

The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation.  This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at St. Mary’s and Cesar Chavez.  Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.

Disclosure:  I serve on the Viewshed Technical Advisory Panel, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work.  This information, like all knowledge, dispels fear, especially of this bugaboo.

One Response to :
My favorite BugaBoo

  1. Jeff Berliner says:

    Dear Vince,
    I very much appreciate this counter to your favorite BugaBoo. and especially the closing which puts landmark laws and viewshed laws into a sensible perspective.

    My attention, however, was caught by the caption, “That’s the Triborough Bridge,” which should be corrected to “That’s not the Triborough Bridge” or to “That’s the Hell Gate Railroad Bridge,” which parallels the Queens suspension bridge span of the Triborough Bridge. (Perhaps this was your subtle April Fool’s joke.) See
    for a lovely photo which was taken during the final days of the construction of the Triborough Bridge, showing the two parallel spans.

    On the Queens (right) side of the photo between the two bridges is the Astoria Pool.
    for a lovely photo.
    On hot summer afternoons in the mid-1950’s my Mom would drive my brother, my friends, and me to the Astoria pool, which is still operating today; the admission is now free.

    On a more relevant note, both the the Hell Gate Bridge and the Triborough Bridge are considered Historic Bridges by See:,+New+York for a web page describing 12 bridges relating to Manhattan, NY. I do not know about any landmark or viewshed laws protecting these bridges.

    Also, the Historic Bridges web site is well-worth visiting:
    I found their description of the Moore’s Crossing Bridge in Austin TX fascinating.
    You must know all about this bridge, and the preserved portion of it in a park not far from its original site.


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