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Blog Archives | Vince Michael

Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (0) 84

In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States.  Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead.  It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.

That was seventy years ago.  Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment.  This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million.  Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s.  Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts.  Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters.  Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday.  Living history is no longer hot.

Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois

Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving?  Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century.  Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year.  But they used to draw twice that.  $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.

good old days in New Jersey

The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question:  Is there a future for living history?  The demographics are worrying:  In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.

with Inn four miles of Denver

Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales.  Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.

There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people.  This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.

It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology.  For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day.  Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.

In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.

Does Living History have a future?  And how much will it cost?

Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up”  The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.”  Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report

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Alamo Plaza and Diversity

August 30, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (2) 1218

This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century.  This is a topic I have been working on for many years.  You can see some of my writing on it here and here.

The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools.  For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history.  Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”

Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.

Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks.  Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.

Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.

The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)

This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.  The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921.  It is on the National Register and a local landmark.  But wait.  There’s more.

The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration.  This was a first for the South.  The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier.  It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.

A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.

Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out.  The San Antonio Express and News reported:

“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.

Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”

Kress, one of the other stores.

Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light.  While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.

SO – what happens now?  Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.

If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.

They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up.  That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.

Joske’s, November 2014.

And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.

Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior.  This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity.  Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”

Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were.  Also where Travis lived during the siege.  Probably his slave Joe as well.  

Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960.  That is true, and incredibly insulting.

It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks.  It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.

Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?

Whose history would be erased for whose?

Photo:  UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News

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Villita Shall Not Be A Dead Museum for Mincing Scholars

August 16, 2018 Historic Districts, Intangible Heritage Comments (0) 490

In October, 1939, San Antonio passed the La Villita ordinance to preserve its oldest neighborhood, stating boldly:

RE-CREATING “LA VILLITA” AS A PROJECT OF SAN ANTONIO:  PROVIDING FOR ITS RESTORATION, PRESERVATION AND CONTINUATION; ENUMERATING CERTAIN IDEALS, HOPES, AND PURPOSES: SETTING FORTH IN NARRATIVE FORM SOME OF ITS INTERESTING HISTORY; AT THE SAME TIME ORDAINING THAT VILLITA SHALL NOT BE A DEAD MUSEUM FOR MINCING SCHOLARS, BUT A PLACE FOR THE LIVING, AND THOSE NOT YET BORN.

Whoa.  They actually repeated the line about mincing scholars in the ordinance itself, with an illustration comparing the mincing scholar to a jitterbugging couple, adding “Moreover, there are more jitter-bugs than scholars.”

The Cos House, one of the first seven La Villita buildings restored 1939-41.

La Villita was and is to be a collection of historic buildings selling crafts, thus preserving handcraft traditions as well as buildings.  Nearly 80 years ago San Antonio was trying to save its intangible heritage through legislation – for the people, not scholars!  The ordinance said it was “always aiming to meet the needs of TODAY and TOMORROW, ”

Bolivar Hall – they also named all of the 1941 sites after Latin American heroes – Bolivar, Juarez and Hidalgo, to promote peace and trade.  “Promotion of World Peace” was a stated purpose of the ordinance.

The San Antonio Conservation Society had a key role in all of this.  After the WPA money ran out, the City implored the private Conservation Society to purchase more buildings, extending the crafts village another block to the east with the purchase of the Dashiell and Bombach houses in 1942 and 1949.  We still own these.

Dashiell House today

Otto Bombach House, home to Little Rhein Steakhouse since 1967.

The crafts village had working tile kilns and even today you can see soap made there, along with other handmade items, since that jitterbugging 1939 ordinance is still in effect. (As a scholar, I try to limit my mincing when in La Villita.)

Entrance to Plaza Juarez, La Villita.  The cannon may help discourage mincers.

The City also asked the Conservation Society to move its harvest festival from Fall to Spring and from the River to La Villita to help bolster the craft village.   So we did that in 1948.  And again the next year and the year after.  This year we celebrated our 70th A Night In Old San Antonio®, the signature event of Fiesta, in La Villita.

NIOSA opening parade, 2017. 

With as many as 15,000 volunteers and over 80,000 attendees, NIOSA® is huge by any standard, and it explicitly hearkens to the variety of cultural inheritances of the city, from Native American and Spanish to African-American, Asian, Mexican, German, French and more.  It is appropriately decked out with paper flowers and cascarones made by yet more volunteers.  After 70 years, it is itself an important cultural tradition and inheritance.

NIOSA volunteers meet every Thursday morning.  Year round.  50,000 cascarones don’t make themselves.

The event itself has to be experienced to be believed.  Crowded.  Colorful.  Steamy.  Fun-loving.  Every kind of meat on a stick.  Standing in line for tortillas.  Music and crazy hats.  Not a mincing scholar in sight.

The final quadrant of La Villita, Maverick Plaza did not come into being until various commercial and industrial buildings there were demolished in the 1960s.  This is the biggest part of NIOSA and it is also the site for 3 new restaurants in the coming years. The economics of the craft village have been challenging, and now the City is asking Chef Johnny Hernandez to help make it a culinary destination.

This approach – and the whole history of La Villita, will make for an interesting discussion at the second Living Heritage Symposium being held by the Office of Historic Preservation on September 5-7, 2018.

The first symposium last September brought international experts from around the world and country to discuss new approaches to preserving culture that have little, if anything to do with architecture.  The Office of Historic Preservation, led by my longtime friend Shanon Miller, has already jumped in to these new approaches with its Legacy Business program.

Del Bravo Records on Old Highway 90 – a Legacy Business.

Susan West Montgomery of the National Trust for Historic Preservation told us today that San Antonio and San Francisco are the only cities really dealing with the issue of living heritage.

That is cool to hear.  Those are the places I’ve been living the last six years.

One of them has weather.  The other does not.

It’s great that San Antonio is on the cutting edge of preservation in 2018, but as we saw above, that was equally true in 1939, when they already saw the end of living history re-enactors and urged not simply preservation of buildings, but the “continuation” of building and craft traditions that would engage the next generation.

It is enough to make this mincing scholar break into a jitterbug.

 

 

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SPNM at Harvard – Final Day

July 21, 2018 Sustainability Comments (0) 173

One of our many case studies during the coursework this week had to do with Design Thinking, and it got our group to thinking about how well designed this course – Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – has been.  In addition to the supercharged professors, they carefully make use of the most important learning resource in any institution – the other students.

We come from four countries and represent a dizzying diversity of organizations. As I mentioned in the last blog, one of our tasks this week was Peer Consultation, where we each present a strategic challenge in our organization to the other 7 in our living group and hear their advice.  This is another brilliant design move on the part of HBS.  If you want to get insight into your problems, ask someone who doesn’t know your organization.  Plus, each of these 7 people are brilliant leaders themselves.

Here we are right before the first Peer Consultation.  The basic idea:  You have a one-page statement of your challenge, you present 5-7 minutes, then you turn around and listen while the group discusses what you should do.  It was incredible – these people think so fast, so strategically and so forcefully.  You can’t help but get incredible insights.

The view while you are turned around and they are talking about you

Then we added a twist as we completed our first review of Corinne – Sevaun started a list on the big sheet and asked everyone to say what Corinne was.  We did it with all 8, and by the end we had these big sheets of affirmations.  Not only did you get wonderful insights into a strategic challenge, you got affirmation, something that does not happen everyday to people in our positions.

We are called Team 67 since we are Living Group 67 and we are all fast friends at this point.  It has been a great privilege to spend this week at Harvard, and I am very grateful to the Harvard Business School club of San Antonio for making it possible.  I am also grateful to the incredible professors, the challenging and insightful case studies, and the analytical frameworks I have gained.  But mostly I am grateful to be able to work with 7 brilliant, insightful, powerful and balanced executives in close quarters for a week.  Cheers to Mark, Corinne, Dawn, Chienye, Greg, Jorge, and Sevaun!

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SPNM at Harvard Day 3-4

July 19, 2018 Blog, Sustainability Comments (1) 130

Hard to keep up with this schedule!  We have four case studies per day and today we also have our peer consultation, where the other 7 people in our living group provide feedback on a strategic challenge within our own organizations.  That should be fun!

I will dutifully explain how this is my financial stability plan…

One of the great advantages of a course like this is taking the time to look at organizational issues analytically.  This is extremely difficult within the everyday.  Plus, the faculty here are giving us excellent frameworks that help us perform these analyses, as I explained in the previous blogs.  One of my favorites from yesterday was a triangle that helped diagnose problems within a labor force.  It involved intuitive categories like Capability (skills training, etc.) and Motivation (involvement in mission) but added the key category of License.  License is what you are allowed to do.  License gives the staffer agency and some autonomy, which provides positive feedback to Motivation and ultimately to Capability.

My other big takeaway from yesterday has to do with the purpose of an organization.  Feature this:

The purpose of an organization is to reduce the friction that comes when people work together toward a shared goal.

More to come…

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SPNM at Harvard Day 2

July 18, 2018 Sustainability Comments (0) 138

The energy of these Harvard Business School professors is amazing.  They bound up and down the aisles in our classroom, scribble on about 9 blackboards, and exhibit a dynamic range in their speach and mannerisms, endlessly inquiring, responding, teasing, encouraging and laughing.  Every one of them has put on an incredible show.

And it isn’t just a performance, although that is what we have on our mind when the soundtrack to Hamilton seems to be in the background before each session.  More than performance it is engagement.  This is Executive Education, which means we are swimming in a sea of expertise and experience that only begins with the peripatetic professors and continues with a tsunami of colleagues running nonprofits of every size, description and locale.

That’s me, obviously.

We are 161, with 80 per class session, but we have a residential living team of 8 that meets at breakfast and lunch for group preparation.  Every one of these people is amazing.  Smart, talented, and full of insights and experiences.  My living group hails from four countries and we are already fast friends.  As I said long ago, education is more than a two-way street – it is like a highway interchange with multiple roads intermingling and soaring off in new directions.

Four classes every day – four case studies.  Here are some of my insights and nuggets from today.  The first was “purple windows.” from my classmate Dawn.  That is when a funder says they like purple windows and next thing you know all of your nonprofit programs are supporting purple windows.  The moral is that donor-driven efforts have the potential to push you off of your mission.

Coincidentally, Beacon Hill – the oldest historic district in Boston – is actually known for its purple-tinted windows.

Some nonprofits operate with a lot of donor direction, like our case study of one founded by venture capitalists, whose appetite for risk and experimentation is legendary.  But risk is hard to emulate in the social enterprise world.  My biggest takeaway from the VC nonprofit was their confidence in investing in human capital – they focus on leadership more that operations, and we all could learn from that.

Another lesson from the business world is the ability to “fail forward,” the subject of our second case. Failing is hard in nonprofits because our mission is basically to…not fail.  But failing, as we learned today, is a learning path in business.  As one professor said “I hate to fail, but I love to learn.”  How can the nonprofit learn to experiment without “failing” the mission to deliver vital services?

Lima

Our third lesson today was on “design thinking,” and coincidentally it was about a Bay Area (where I lived) company working in Lima, Peru, where I did a multidisciplinary design studio six years ago when I was faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  So, I was familiar with design thinking and rapid prototyping, although the “discipline” has grown in the last six years.  It is an accordion-like process of expanding and contracting ideas and iterations as you move from an Exploratory to a Conceptual to a Prototyping phase.  The takeaway here, next to the importance of inductive thinking, was the importance of keeping ideas fluid and portable.  I will take this with me to our Staff Retreat next month.

Not big enough for the Staff.

The final lesson was about entrepreneurship, which was brilliantly defined as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources.”  Again, kind of tough in the nonprofit world, but also an essential quality to insure we don’t stay still or complacent.

One question we are asking ourselves two days in:  Is there a scenario where a nonprofit is just fine at its current size and operation?  So much of what Harvard has been teaching us is about growing the enterprise, going to scale, merging, expanding and exploring.  What if we are okay where we are?

I mean, this looks nice – would more be better?

Three and a half more days to go – stay tuned.

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SPNM at Harvard Day 1

July 16, 2018 Sustainability Comments (0) 175

I have just finished my first full day at Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management, a weeklong course I am attending thanks to the largesse of the Harvard Business club of San Antonio.  The course takes advantage of the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative, which has helped conceptualize and provide frameworks for understanding the different “business” of the nonprofit organization.

As might be expected, this effort has produced some pretty amazing outcomes at Harvard and here is a taste of what we can expect this week:  FRAMEWORKS for Strategic Thinking; DESIGN thinking; Entrepreneurship; Leading Change; Scaling Impact, and working with Boards.  The best things I got out of the introductory sessions last night:

  1.  As we move from inputs to outcomes in our social mission, we move from auditable claims to aspirational claims.  We need the latter because they are motivational, but they are a bear to quantify for donors.
  2. Nonprofits are three circles in a Venn diagram of MISSION; CAPACITY: and SUPPORT.  The sweet spot where all three reside is generally small.

Many of the case studies we are looking at – and today they varied between the space shuttle Columbia, a hospital in Massachusetts, a training school in Pittsburgh and a call center in Israel – could be better understood by following these two frameworks.

Frameworks are important.

My biggest takeaway today involved the greatest challenge a leader is faced with: going against human nature.  Our natural human impulse is to seek certainty, affirmation and conformity.  What a leader needs goes against our nature:  ambiguity, dissent and a process to make the right decisions.  It is a questioning, uncomfortable process of constant examination.

My second takeaway is that leadership is, in fact, a process, not a person.  It is the process of bringing a new unwelcome reality to an organization and helping them adapt to it.  This has brought me back to thinking about strategic planning and the many Board roles I have occupied in my life, and even this blog from three years ago, which references those earlier ones and focuses on the nature of my field – heritage conservation.

Interestingly, I am one of only two people in heritage conservation – and one of only a couple from the South, out of 161 participants from five continents.  And I am very fortunate indeed to be here.  More soon.

 

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Last Stand at the Alamo

June 20, 2018 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas Comments (0) 276

Are they making a state park in the middle of the city?  With a 130,000 square foot museum?  Fencing off the San Antonio’s most important public space?

This is the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s great urban spaces.  It sits on the site of the Roman Circus.  There is no need to recreate the circus, or wall it off.  The use of that space by the public connects it back 2000 thousand years and forward another 1000.  It is alive, not covered by glass or shrubs.  Alamo Plaza is our Piazza Navona.  They are almost the same size and scale.

Last year’s Master Plan envisioned glass walls around the Alamo Plaza.  This year’s Interpretive Plan reduces the walls to fences and shrouds them in shrubs, but the goal is the same.  Manage – and likely monetize – the space.  Since both plans have this attribute, the order is clearly coming from the client, not the designer.

No more sneaking in

Public meetings are going on now to take stock of this interpretive plan.  Bottom line?  Every San Antonian has the right to take a selfie in front of the Alamo at 1 A.M.

Or 7 A.M.

We at the San Antonio Conservation Society are circulating a petition focusing on access to the plaza and the buildings that face the Alamo. We have been fighting for these buildings since 2015 when the state bought them, and a year ago, we thought we had won!  Last year’s Master Plan had the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth’s Buildings saved as part of the new museum.  We supported that, along with the restoration of the chapel and Long Barracks, and the regrading of the plaza to create a more uniform space in the courtyard/battlefield.  The City Council approved it.  This year’s plan is different, and not in a good way.

Crockett Building on left, built the year before the Alamo was purchased by the state.

This is still the location of the big ‘ol museum.  For our presentation, they showed keeping the front half of the Crockett Building, which would create an appropriately reverent transition from the courtyard/battlefield to the high-tech wizardry they are promising inside.  They also had an illustration that demolished all three buildings.

The plan we saw removed the two other landmark buildings, including the Woolworth’s on the corner, site of the first voluntary peaceful integration of a lunch counter in the South (March 1960).  All three are landmarks locally and listed on the National Register.

You can interpret both the lunch counter and the long-lost west wall of the compound inside the building.  In the shade.  Why is it always either/or?  Designers know better.

The real irony here is that in the name of interpreting history, they suggest removing actual century-old historic buildings in order to replace them with modern versions of long-lost elements, like the wall.  Replacing real history with fake history?  Tossing actual historic fabric in the dumpster for a conjectural reconstruction?

The other big issue is access.  Last  year the plan closed Alamo Street in front of the Alamo.  Now they are closing part of Houston Street to the north, Crockett Street, and the bit of Alamo between Market and Commerce.  Access is limited to five gates.  The planners are adamant that the Battle of Flowers parade and Fiesta Flambeau can’t parade in front of the Alamo?  Why?  We have a fence around Wulff House and we still let the Granaderos y Damas de Galvez do their living history there once a year.  We take the fence down for a day and then put it back.  That’s not hard.  Why the bloodymindedness?

We okayed closing Alamo Street in front of the chapel a year ago, but now the closures have grown like kudzu and it seems there will be little northerly traffic through the downtown.

Unless they re-open Main Plaza.  Just sayin’.

I still don’t get why no one has proposed restoring the chapel to the way it was during the battle.

In addition to the irony of demolishing actual historical things for reproductions, there is the irony of wanting to get rid of the “tacky” theme park-styled attractions that occupy the Woolworth’s and Palace Buildings, as well as more to the south.  Yet walling off the plaza for heritage reenactment risks turning the whole thing into a kind of theme park like Colonial Williamsburg.

The amount of physical intervention proposed by this interpretive plan is really staggering.  This is the 21st century – you don’t need the sort of physical interventions people were doing in the 1930s (like Colonial Williamsburg).  Or 1960s.  This is NOW.  Augmented reality, programmable to the latest discoveries.  Clean up, regrade and reprogram.  No heavy machinery needed.

Looking at the key point where the March 6, 1836 battle turned – underneath the Post Office. 

Check out my previous blogs on how actual tourists will be experiencing historic sites tomorrow.  Don’t spend millions crafting something that will be silly in five years.  Y’all can’t outdo Piazza Navona.  That takes actual, continuous history, not a recreated circus.

Not the Alamo.  Also not Piazza Navona, but it is a Roman ruin.

AUGUST 2 UPDATE:

Still no timeline for a revised plan, but they are releasing an RFQ for an architect for the museum and commissioning someone to evaluate the buildings in light of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation weighed in with a letter urging preservation of the buildings.  The City Manager, Mayor, County Judge and Councilman Trevino have all gone public in support of preserving the buildings and keeping the plaza open, which are the two main points in our petition.  And our petition now has over 6,200 signatures!

 

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Infill in the Fastest Growing City in the U.S.

June 13, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 1168

66 people a day are moving to San Antonio.  That is a higher number than any other city in the U.S.  There are less than a dozen cranes downtown, but that is more than San Antonians are used to, and there have been various flare-ups over developments in neighborhoods.

So an opinion piece dived in on the side of top-down planning in the Rivard Report, claiming that San Antonio has a movement against New Urbanism and is in danger of sprawling even further by restricting density.

Check out this sentence: “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based upon answering the singular question of whether an infill project fits in with the neighborhood.”

Cellars at the Pearl

Zoning decisions are never based on answering singular questions.  The whole point of zoning is that it is a site of negotiation of complicated, multiple questions.  The author references the debate over the Dean Steel site along San Pedro Creek west of the King William area.  Perfect example of the multiple questions being answered by zoning, like, should it be residential (yes), how should it address the street, the creek and the nearby neighborhood, and how dense should it be?

Big Tex on Mission Reach near Blue Star

The Oden Hughes project he cited was a perfect example:  Developer asks for 400+ units, neighbors push back, he settles for 340.  That is how zoning works as a site of negotiation.  Developer probably anticipated the negotiation.  I expect to see something similar at Dean Steel.

Dean Steel

The disturbing thing about the article is it seems to want to give more power to the planners and blame the neighbors for causing sprawl.  There are always those people who will oppose any change.  There are always those who will oppose more density.  And there are always those who will ask for more than they need.  But NONE of them get to decide,  And neither does Baron Hausmann or Le Corbusier or their 21st century wannabes.

Corbu to you, too

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place.  Of course the downtown will grow more dense and newbie urbanistique.  You can start by building on the 40% of downtown that is surface parking.  Then you have your industrial sites like Dean Steel and Oden Hughes and Lone Star that can add thousands of new residents without displacing any old ones since they were industrial sites.  You have office buildings that can be converted to dense residential, like these are right now:

You also have Hemisfair, soon to be a new residential neighborhood downtown.  Greenwich Village hasn’t stifled the density of Manhattan, and King William and Dignowity Hill won’t stifle the new residential downtown.  On the contrary, they will complement and economically enhance the new residential downtown just as the Museum Reach and Mission Reach have done for their geographies.  Historic districts preserve and enhance a character that attracts human and financial investment.

San Antonio is not a commodity, it is a place with character.  Planning is not a math problem and people aren’t simply decanted into towers and corridors.  There are multiple reasons 464 people arrive each week and there are multiple components to San Antonio’s character.

Planning and zoning are negotiations between multiple stakeholders that – at the end of the process – answer the manifold question of whether a project fits into a place.

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The Fallacy of the Blank Slate

May 25, 2018 Blog, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (2) 277

I am on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the College of Architecture, Planning and Construction at the University of Texas at San Antonio and we had a retreat yesterday.  Heavy in the discussion was the fact that many architecture students do not get “real world” training or experience.  They emerge especially underschooled in zoning and codes and the permitting process.

Let’s not forget plumbing.

I kinda don’t get it because I used to cover these issues extensively in my Master of Science in Historic Preservation classes.  I guess there is an historical tendency for architecture curriculum to focus on designing new buildings.

I want my name in lights!  And my tower the tallest!

My friend Stuart Cohen used to introduce my presentation to his class at UIC by saying “75% of all the architectural work you will ever do is on existing buildings.”  Add to this the tendency of architectural accreditation to load on course requirements and you have little leeway to help students navigate the actual path of constructing or reconstructing buildings.

Hence the proliferation of “C” level work.

The discussion turned on how both architecture professors and students use “creativity” as the reason they do not study rehabilitation and process.  This is a hoary word and a hoarier concept.  The implication is that creativity is GREATER or MORE when there are no constraints.

See how much MORE you can do with a blank slate?  Like, it must be at least 68% MORE!

The idea is that a blank slate allows more creativity.  But it is wrong.  Demonstrably wrong.  The “Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis” was proved years ago.  Look here.

This was designed in an extremely constrained environment.  By Frank Lloyd Wright, but still.

In fact, it is LAZIER to start from scratch.  Nothing to figure out, just let your mind wander, let your creative juices flow, and you will get…..something like the Libeskind building above where the creative juices just really, really flowed, like flowed.  And the mind wandered. And we who confront the building wander as well.

Unless it looks like it is going to crush us, then we walk purposefully away.

In any kind of education there is always a tension between information and practices that must be learned and the mechanism of learning.  One does not simply decant information into a vessel.  The best kinds of education create a permanent pathway for learning, so that new challenges that were never considered before can be met, not by specific example, but by processes developed and exercised.  Not so much gray matter memory as muscle memory.

Baby I’ve been there before, I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.

My friend Bruce Sheridan has written extensively on how science and art are both underpinned by the same human capacities, and that education must reintegrate art and science.   How our brains and even our emotions work reinforces this concept.  Creativity does not arise magically from an absence, but robustly from a muscled presence.

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