The Mischief of Modernism and the Hubris of Scale

February 17, 2022 Economics, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (0) 73

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram, once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

The famous quote of Daniel Burnham two years before his death is a rousing bugle call to think big and build big. A half century later in the apotheosis of postwar optimism, planners and architects in the richest economy ever found their blood stirred by magic and found that for once big bold visions could actually be built.

One of my two favorite modernist big plans – IIM, Ahmedabad.

And they screwed up, because as the architect Jack Hartray noted, the mischief of High Modernism was that they felt they knew everything and could predict all future needs. Hence the full-floor air conditioners in Mies van der Rohe’s 1971 IBM Building, now a hotel. No one is good at futurism, even the recorders of noble diagrams. Circumstances change.

We know what computers will look like in 50 years?

Modernist plans like University of Illinois at Chicago or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs have suffered similar alterations as the all-encompassing original designs proved too specific for the passage of time or human patterns of use.

I actually like the buildings but I also remember the aerial walkways which didn’t make it 30 years.
This is my other favorite – same architect as above.

Every real place that is built and exists for a couple of decades evolves through patterns of use, changing technology, changing needs, tastes and a mountainside of externalities. I argue that iterative design is more efficient and practical, despite lacking the magic and well-stirred blood.

Behold the taco truck

The food truck is a great example of iterative design that starts small and then gets bigger, stirring a little more blood as it gets a sense of what works and what doesn’t and as films and life have shown us, the lowly food truck may well become a Michelin-starred restaurant one day.

Gorgeous.

I was thinking about this as I read through the final report of the Facility and Land Stewardship Task Force for the Institute of Texan Cultures, which I served on. This Institute was created a half century ago as a re-use of the Texas Pavilion from the 1968 World’s Fair here in San Antonio, Hemisfair. The huge Brutalist structure is aging, and it sits two miles distant from the rest of the downtown campus of University of Texas San Antonio.

This is not a building people naturally love. It looks like neither a puppy nor a kitty.

Of course, the original big plan in 1970 was to have the whole UTSA campus right next to the ITC in Hemisfair, but it went out to Sprawlland instead. The Institute of Texan Cultures is basically an ethnographic museum supplemented with rotating exhibits on a variety of subjects and gets half of its admissions during the annual Texas Folklife Festival.

Wood Courthouse/Confluence Theater – also from Hemisfair ’68.

Now, our Task Force was told we were not talking about the future of the building but rather the institution. To contradict that point, they opened with a review of various studies of the ITC building which illustrated that it could never reach American Association of Museum (AAM) standards and would cost $50 million* to fix up anyway – not that we were talking about it.

This architecture however, is not disingenuous.

The Task Force actually ended up talking about how they would like to preserve the building, although that thought was mangled in the final report. It was clear from our several meetings that the Institute itself needed to be smaller and more connected to campus, and we accepted the premise that we weren’t talking about the future of this particular building.

Can we accuse the architects of waffling?

I raised the food truck analogy in our second meeting and specifically asked if there was an iterative design process possible. Maybe restore the Institute bit by bit instead of all at once like a mischievous Modernist. The question got lip service but again, is absent in the report.

SO, a High Modernist building designed to become a museum during the era of big bold plans is now threatened because 1. It needs to be smaller and elsewhere; and 2. It would cost a fortune to upgrade something that big and bold. Dissonance, anyone?

This is where Daniel Burnham actually made his big plans.

But it isn’t just modernism. Every 19th century opera house and 1920s vaudeville movie palace was overwrought. Beauvais Cathedral collapsed like a Gothic Babel. There is a hubris in going huge. World’s Fairs and Olympics and even sports stadia are exemplars of the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Loss Leaders of civic investment. They only “work” in the biggest possible picture.

Foreground: ITC during Folk Life Festival. Background: The Spurs forever home after they left Hemisfair.

A new AR and VR based Institute of Texan Cultures in a downtown location near the campus makes sense. Building it up through iterative design makes sense, and the same approach applies to the old Brutalist landmark up against the highway – do it one bit at a time for a collection of different uses.

This is especially true in the world of museums and interpretation – physicality is being replaced by virtuality. The next generation will tour and learn like this, as I noted a few years back.

Don’t repeat the mischief of thinking you know where everything is going, even if that thought stirs your blood.

  • The $50 million figure is, as always in these cases, inflated by requiring the entire 182,000 square feet of the building to meet contemporary AAM museum standards. To just rehab it for regular people uses would obviously cost a lot less.

UPDATE: One of the ULI members who evaluated the Institute of Texan Cultures was on David Martin Davies’ The Source on TPR today February 24. She said the building was not built to last and was no longer serviceable. She also said the land value was not being optimized. Davies pushed back and asked if it was a “knockdown”. She responded with the great cost of rehab of the entire building, (the mischief of modernism again) and a dig at its style (“it’s in a hole.”).

“A very large, hard to use, expensive building”

Yeah, and I have a large, hard to use expensive city right here – too bad it can’t be redeveloped piece by piece.

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Fetishizing preservation

January 14, 2022 Blog, Economics, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (2) 172

There is an article from The Atlantic making the social media rounds titled “Stop Fetishizing Old Homes” written by a planning professor from UCLA. He claims we are fetishizing the aesthetics of old houses when new houses are better in every way. Several people have asked what I make of this. I have a few thoughts:

I think better in the bath.

First, he is mostly deriding construction built in the 1950s and 60s. Being in southern California, he talks a lot about dingbats and how he can hear his neighbors through the walls, etc. Here is the problem of taking 25 years of postwar architecture and making it speak for all historic buildings:

This was the brief window when energy was cheap and windows were single-paned. Yes, the walls were thin and no one cared. Like they cared in 2000. Like they cared in 1928. Like they cared in 1890.

SoCal bungalow 1920s.

The biggest mistake non-historians make is missing out on the ups and downs of history. They consider history one big bucket with one set of characteristics. When you are talking about old buildings, there are significant shifts in construction technique after 1930 and again in the current century. Heck, there were big shifts in construction in the 1840s.

Buildings considered their thermal qualities very carefully up until 1945, got a little careless in the 60s, and by 1980 they started caring again.

Victorian double glazing. The 3-4 inch gap between panes increased the thermal properties.

Every Victorian and bungalow had double paned windows. They were called storm windows. Government studies show that pre-1930 buildings thermally outperform those built up to about 2000. Dude should spend a week in Cleveland or Chicago. Oddly, he calls out the Chicago graystone as being the dingbat of its era. I owned a 1906 Chicago graystone for six years and spent the decade afterwards dreaming about it because it was so damn good. Couldn’t hear the neighbors. Steam radiators worked. Built in ice boxes, nice hardwood floors, real plaster everywhere. You CANNOT buy the materials that was made out of. They aren’t for sale anywhere.

Yes there were many of them so they were aesthetically “cheap”, but, Dude – THIS IS NOT ABOUT AESTHETICS!

His main complaints are lead paint, asbestos and accessibility. We have had three decades of mandated accessibility, nearly five of lead-free paint, and even more since we used asbestos. I am in the process of researching another house, also 1906, which remediated those things in 1990. I remediated those things from my 1898 house. Now they are equivalent to the Dude’s precious new construction except mine has plaster walls that retain their structural stability when they are 75% wet and your piece of contemporary chicanery is made of drywall that fails at 6% wet.

This one was 1908 with later additions.

The most interesting aspect of the lead paint, asbestos and accessibility argument is that it is never thought through. Okay – how y’all gettin’ rid of those bad things? See Lead Paint, Asbestos, and Other Excuses here.

A whole section of the article reads like the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” advert, which is neither a sales technique nor a rhetorical strategy you want to emulate.

Adobe brick construction 1722. FYI most buildings are earthen.

But even making the argument above might not get through to this guy because, to him, it is all aesthetic. That’s what bothers me most, the idea of fetishization. To me preservation is about history and sustainability. I am not precious. I get bothered by the fetishists. Here are some of my blogs that illustrate that. I get sick up and fed with the idea that what preservation is doing is first of all aesthetic.

Well it has some details.

It was once, yes, but that was a lifetime ago. Dude considers preservation an aesthetic pursuit either because he is unaware of the last 35 years of the discipline or because he is into zoning, where there are no individuals. (Another blog on that subject here.)

He also resurrects the 12-year old Ed Glaeser canard that preservation and regulation inhibit new development. This argument seems to have logic. It would be better if it had EVIDENCE. Like the 96% of every city in North America that is not affected by landmarks laws???

Yes, even New York if you include all the boroughs.

Plus, how can he call for millions of new buildings? He advocates for an extinction level new construction event. He ignores the environmental cost of new construction, not to mention demolition.

We need to understand that the author is a professor of zoning. In zoning everything is a commodity and houses are like the grains of wheat in a grain elevator – you don’t care where they came from or where they are going. Just how many there are and what grade they are.

Understanding land use like you understand corn.

Finally, the subhead is about how new construction is better but even he admits what every developer I have every talked to admits easily. New homes are only built to last as long as a mortgage – 30-40 years. I hope you like your carbon diet, Dude!

Hey we might make it 50 years until landfill!

February 2 UPDATE: I was being generous about saying they would last 30 to 50 years. Look what happened to these NOLA houses in about a dozen years:

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San Antonio Preservation Roundup, December 2021, or: Pity the Negligent

December 9, 2021 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 126

The main image here is our 1870 Wulff House, now for sale after 47 years of Conservation Society ownership. We maintain all of our properties with regular maintenance and cyclical maintenance for major systems and features like roofs, porches and facades. We need to be good stewards and set an example. This story is not about us.

A year ago I wrote a blog about how preservation laws and agreements were just being ignored. This week the ongoing story of the Whitt Building took another turn when the owners filed a press release (and a lawsuit) against the city for preventing their demolition of the Whitt Building. The Whitt made news back on Memorial Day Weekend when the City briefly ordered demolition of the structure after the roof collapsed a bit more, only to overrule itself when a structural report and the Historic and Design Review Commission held an emergency meeting to save it.

The Whitt

The story really begins in 1990, when prominent local family who owns the restaurant behind the building, bought the structure, which is a landmark in the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. So….they bought a LANDMARK and then left it out in the rain for 30 years, hoping for the worst. The problem is that this particular building has a concrete structure with mad cred, so much so that the roof does not hold the walls together as it does on many other buildings.

Won’t the walls bend just a bit?

The press release has already had an impact the trailing lawsuit likely can’t match, eliciting sympathy for the poor owners of this eyesore.

Which they bought thirty years ago. WHEN IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A LANDMARK FOR FIVE YEARS. You can see why I don’t have any sympathy – this didn’t sneak up on y’all.

But the press release is timed very well – there is another story about a guy who bought the shotgun house next to his own for the purpose of tearing it down so his kids could play in a bigger yard. Unlike the owners above and below, they were not aware that the building was being considered a landmark. Add the Whitt owners’ press release and the pity party gets some legs.

The insignificant rear of 503 Urban Loop

So maybe this year’s theme is not “Mejor perdon que permiso” but “Feel bad for me, look what I caused” or “Pity the Negligent.” Same story at 503 Urban Loop, which I wrote about last time, owned by ANOTHER prominent restaurant family. We got a tour not long ago and the homeless have taken it over and trashed the inside. They have not trashed the structure, but you got the sense that the tour was meant to make you feel bad for the poor owner, as in the Whitt Building press release.

Dude, I’m old. I’ve seen this muck a thousand times before and you can’t tell me this four-by-four 1883 column is going anywhere.

Yes, those are cut nails.

This is called demolition by neglect. The phrase correctly captures the agency involved – it is the owner’s responsibility, and no amount of press releases (or lawsuits) can paper over that.

Russell and Flores. Again. I couldn’t get away with this.

Meanwhile in the neighborhoods, out-of-town developers are famous for buying up properties and letting nature do their dirty work. This is the second fire at this house which has been laying fallow due to absentee owners.

I have heard building owners explain how hard it is for them to secure their property.

So why is it still their property?

Call me old-fashioned, but I take responsibility for my property and I feel cheated when others get away with doing the opposite.

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Time and Value

July 23, 2021 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 234

I recently recovered my old coin collection from my parents’ house and it got me thinking about time and value. There is a natural tendency to assume that older things have greater value, but any economic history can disprove that pretty quickly. The value of things fluctuates greatly over time, but we tend to think values go up over time.

Not true.

During my teaching career, I remember having a hard time – before 2008 – explaining to students that real estate values can go down. No one at that time had ever seen that, but as a historian, I had seen it 150 years earlier.

This was the example I used – cost $10,000 to build in 1863 and was worth less than half that 50 years later. Allen House, Cape May, New Jersey, photographed 1996.

I thought of this when someone posted on an historic preservation forum posted about having to deal with all of these people trying to donate pianos. We get a lot of those here as well, And I actually personally took a piano off someone’s hands in 2006 or 7, only to ditch it a decade later. We think that old things have value, but the fact that so many people are trying to give them away…means they don’t have value. People are trying to give them away.

It was a Schultz, made in Chicago.

I love old stuff, but that does not mean it has monetary value. I once had a woman become fairly rude when I explained that we were not going to accept a particular piece of furniture which she intended to have us display in one of our house museums. Her bold and presumptuous intention was met with a realistic collections and donation policy. Now, you might say “But that is where something like this has value! In a house museum!”

Steves Homestead, 1876. Open weekends 10-3, $10 per person. Fully furnished, no room for more.

Yes, it has educational value there. But its economic value is likely a negative number. Let’s do the math. There are 10,000 Victorian homes around here of which exactly four are museums. That creates a market demand for 4 old pianos, maybe 5. Let’s say that 4,000 of those homes had pianos at one time. Basically we have 3,995 extra pianos, and let’s say, generously, that 500 of them are restored and tuned and used regularly. So now we have 3,495 old pianos and supply and demand says their value is diddley plus squat plus sweet FA, as the English would say.

That’s not even getting into the dismal economics (is that redundant?) of the house museums themselves, which require a pretty massive subsidy to survive as what they are. Your museum admission generally pays about 20% of the cost of keeping those houses. So who is paying the four-fifths and is it worth it to them?

Like many late 19th century houses near downtown, this is now an office. Wanna buy it?

Used, rehabbed houses are not the problem that house museums are. They have use value as well as historic value and they exist in a market where they retain value – because they are used.

But let’s get back to my coin collection. I’m sure Mom was glad to have it gone, and it can’t have much value. It reminded me of a discussion we had at Vogt Auctions in 2019 about how certain items – china, silver service, and probably pianos – no longer have monetary value because demand is gone. They had several experts letting people know that many of their treasured collections were not going to be wanted or kept by their descendants.

Read ’em and weep.

That does not mean there are not valuable things – they are just different than the things that were valuable 20 years ago. Mid-century Modern furniture is at a premium. Victorian furniture is on clearance.

It was already on sale when someone bought it 30 years ago and installed it in a house museum as if it belonged.

Young’uns pay for vinyl, but I’m not sure about those cassette tapes.

It is kinda like fashion – some very strange 70s and Victorian stuff is back in vogue now, like baby doll dresses. Meanwhile I am trying to see if I can skate through a whole decade without acquiring pointy brown shoes. I know, don’t say it – it is illegal and I am in big trouble.

Quads in the days when only hockey players had in-line skates.

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The Zoning Revolution

May 26, 2021 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 272

A century ago, a fad was sweeping across American cities and suburbs. That fad was zoning. Between the introduction of use and density zoning in New York City in 1916 and the upholding of zoning by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court in 1926, the municipalities of some 30 million people adopted zoning. Most of those municipalities were suburbs, and the issue was not skyscrapers or any other form of density. It was about use.

The technological revolution of the early 20th century was the automobile, and more importantly, the truck. Prior to those innovations, proper middle-class people just made sure to live on the right side of the railroad tracks, away from industry and the poor. But the truck meant that now, industry could go anywhere, not just along the tracks. And in 1916 you made a lot of money tearing down houses and putting up factories. That has not been true in my lifetime, but it was economic reality a century ago.* So zoning came along and protected those houses.

You won’t be delivering Fernet to the wrong side of the tracks.

By the 1950s zoning ordinances across the country were being updated to accommodate highways and massive planned developments. It was the age of the suburb, an incorporated R-1 zone. But by the 1970s the wisdom of zoning that separates uses was being questioned and fiddled with. Main Street, that innovative preservation planning project of the 1970s, encouraged people to live above the storefront again, mixing retail and housing as it was in the era before zoning. By the 1990s form-based zoning and experimental communities where you could walk to work and shops were introduced. By the time the pandemic waned a week or two ago, we had all realized that home and work are actually the same place, or were the same place throughout 2020 and could be again. Use zoning suddenly makes little sense.

Not only that, but the renewed interest in affordable housing and mechanisms to address systemic racism has led to a spate of zoning reforms. Minneapolis became the center of zoning reform in late 2019 when it ended single-family zoning altogether, demonstrating that it was aware of what really drove 1920s zoning and that 1926 Euclid V. Ambler Supreme Court decision – keeping others away from nice single-family homes. (It would be another quarter-century before the court struck down racial covenants in 1948.)

Where’s my Fernet?

There is a new de-zoning revolution going on. In Sacramento they are allowing four units on every lot, eliminating parking mandates and allowing 5000 feet of building on 5000 feet of lot. South Bend is also ditching the parking requirements, along with Hartford, Buffalo, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Montana and Edmonton. Here in San Antonio, almost every project takes place under the c.2000 IDZ zoning to avoid parking requirements as well as those pesky suburban-style setbacks. Cars are ruling the landscape less.

Parking? We don’t need no stinking parking!

Chicago is trying to preserve its two-flats, built mostly between 1896 and 1926, since the conversion of those to single-family homes erased 20,000 units from the city in the six years between 2010 and 2016.

This was 2009 so I don’t know if they are still there. 7800 block South Peoria.

The original adoption of zoning was driven by economics. People wanted to preserve their investment. That is also a motivation for historic district zoning: people invested in saving old buildings and wanted to preserve their investment. Most historic districts also didn’t fit the suburban-style zoning implemented throughout the middle of the 20th century.

West Greenwich Village, New York City.

The challenge in the 21st century is that the economics of a century ago are upside down. Now, it makes sense to replace industry with housing, because housing is expensive. So expensive, that urban areas are suffering from a lack of affordable housing. Many of these rejections of traditional Euclidean zoning are driven by a desire to gain density and perhaps address housing affordability. Allow more units on a lot, banish single-family homes.

This is what affordable housing looks like. You can’t build new and rent cheap. You can’t.

Where does preservation fit in? Well, generally the most affordable housing is the kind that is already there. And historic district preservation plans dating back 30 years often called for allowing accessory dwelling units. The idea was there would be less pressure to demolish a house if there was accessory income. Perhaps the vanishing two-flats of Chicago are putting the lie to that.

Century-old “tiny” houses

At the same time two-flats are becoming single-family homes, there is a “tiny house” movement valorizing minimalism. So which way is the trend? In either case, preservation can provide the existing building stock.

*Check out Hadachek v. Sebastian (1915) in California where they allowed residential zoning on an existing brickyard despite the fact that it reduced the property’s value by 80%.

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SNOVID? Snowmageddon?

February 22, 2021 Blog, Economics, Technology, Texas Comments (0) 319

Well, last week was a lost week, thanks to two snowstorms in a city that usually takes a decade to see two snowstorms. Add extended sub-freezing temperatures and a free-market utility system and you have a Texas-sized disaster that will easily eclipse Hurricane Harvey in cost.

Monday Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, heat and water for much of the last week. My family’s experience in Soviet Texas – 4-5 hours of power per day, impassable roads, boil-water notices and a burst pipe – was not as bad as many. Indeed, we were lucky, and had full power back by Thursday after intermittent power Sunday-Wednesday.

Managed to stop this leak in a couple hours

The comically and unironically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has taken a lot of heat (literally) for the rolling blackouts and just plain blackouts that affected over 4 million Texans last week. But the system – designed to avoid federal oversight and harness the free market – ultimately worked as it was designed to: Energy companies made massive windfall profits while people shivered and boiled snow.

It began on a Saturday with freezing rain, turning to a good 4 inches of snow on Monday, following by single-digit overnight temperatures for two nights, a brief thaw and then more snow on Thursday. And there are basically no shovels or plows here, period.

Thursday snow – not so bad. Wouldn’t even register in Chicago.

I spent fifty years living in Chicago and can easily recollect at least four snowfalls of 20 inches or more and half a dozen days at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that place is designed for it. Not only is San Antonio not designed for snowfall, but the utility system rewards NOT winterizing your facilities, so they all – natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, solar – froze up. They don’t do that in Chicago. Or Canada. Or Denmark. Or Russia.

The most Soviet aspect of the whole experience was not simply the lack of power most of the time, or the boiling of water, but the empty store shelves – it made the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago seem quaint. You could get toilet paper, but forget about meat or milk.

But, we are fine and well. The biggest hurt has got to be Texas’ pride – not only did silly ERCOT get publicly busted and bruised, but the political fallout of a series of own goals followed by a multimillion dollar philanthropic largesse from New York City has got to sting somethin’ fierce.

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Demolition and economic hardship

February 10, 2021 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 329

For as long as historic preservation ordinances have been judged appropriate exercises of the police power (40+ years) they have included provisions for economic hardship. This makes sense, if a building is so far gone that it cannot be economically rehabilitated, there should be an exception. But how did it get there? And what are your (legal standard spoiler alert!) “reasonable investment-backed expectations?”

Like this one, right? It was going to be demolished 4 years ago.
Until it wasn’t

See, San Antonio is pretty good at fixing old buildings that people in other towns won’t. So, when you hear that someone is trying to tear down a salvageable house, odds are they aren’t from here. And their claims of economic hardship? Even sillier.

=Owned by an out-of-town company. Not maintained for most of a decade.

So, let’s say you owned this house for eight years. During that time you could have invested a couple thousand dollars a year and slowly brought it back to life. Or you could ignore it, allow the homeless to congregate there, and hope that your investment would turn – magically – into a lucrative vacant lot. Except it’s not magic and it is very deliberate. Even the well-worn phrase “demolition by neglect” sounds more benign than malignant, and this behavior is malignant.

This is next door. Wonder who owns it.

See, this isn’t some poor guy who can’t maintain a house. This is an out-of-town investor who has more than a dozen business entities, each of which owns one of these houses in the neighborhood. This isn’t economic hardship – this is malignant neglect and a business model built on NOT taking care of the assets you own.

I know I promised to save it in exchange for building two dozen new houses around it, but now that I built the new houses, I just don’t wanna anymore and it’s gotten so much more expensive….

How do you argue economic hardship when you have created all of the conditions that made the building expensive to rehab? What are the “reasonable investment-backed expectations” of this business model?

Can’t save that, right? WRONG. In San Antonio it is NOT UNUSUAL to see a building like this pulled from the demolition list and restored. Courtesy Sue Ann Pemberton FAIA FAPT.
And here it is today, roofed and porched and ready. It got rehabbed because it is in a HISTORIC DISTRICT and the neighbors don’t put up with scalawags.

And how do the neighbors like it? Well, if you are behind one of these single-house-owning-LLCs, you should reasonably expect that your investment and your business practice model are going to piss off the neighbors. Indeed, that is one of many reasons for putting the asset into a one-off corporate entity – to hide from the neighbors.

Why do neighbors dislike ignored vacant properties?

Heck, those pesky neighbors might insist that the city enforce the same regulations on you as they do on them. What’s that called? Equity?

No, not that kind of equity.

Time for a new business model.

Guy: I just want to build a nice new house (or two) for my family!
Internet: Guy is an international property developer.
212 E Dewey – owned by an out-of-town developer for 8 years. Employs the homeless to do his dirty work.

An even better business model: Buy a perfectly lovely old house, DO NOTHING to the point of actively resisting neighbor’s attempts to lease it, encourage vagrants to collect on the property, and then WAIT for the neighbors to demand demolition because of all the problems the property is causing. YOU aren’t causing the problems, the property is. Did I mention you needed to excise your moral compass and human integrity to follow this business model? No problem? Good!

JULY 2021 UPDATE

I noticed that the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would allow New Orleans to double the fines for violating building permits to $1,000 a day to “deter bad actors”. That would be good here as well.

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Lazy flip

November 10, 2020 Economics, Texas Comments (1) 965

While San Antonio has a vibrant historic preservation sector with regulatory support, the City of Olmos Park within our borders does not. The latest egregious evidence of this is the proposed demolition of the Esther Vexler house at 330 Park Hill Drive.

This lovely mid-century modern home was designed by Allison Peery, the architect who coordinated HemisFair ’68, Esther Vexler taught yoga in the home into her 90s but before that was part of the first White House conference on Women and Children in 1963, went back to get her master’s in urban planning from Trinity at age 55 and helped create the Community Housing Development Corporation. Her numerous volunteer positions included serving as the first female president of the Jewish Federation of San Antonio.

The house itself has the low-slung horizontal hallmarks of the mid-century modern, from the anchoring stone end walls to popup clerestories, exposed rafter ends and second helpings of plate glass.

It’s the same old story. Kids sell the house to a buyer who pretends they want to save it but immediately knocks the house and sells the property for more than twice what they just bought it for (including the demo). Nice “work” if you can get it, although in my view you can’t call it work unless there is some effort and intelligence. This is the classic lazy flip.

And it is sad, because by the time anyone notices, the value has been artificially inflated to the demolition point. The real estate ads say “house has no value” as if that was a natural condition and not a manipulated one. Sad!

Photos courtesy Jill Vexler

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Remember all of the Alamo

August 21, 2020 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 783

The north wall of the Alamo

Here are three very nicely designed highrises one after the next. They are the Gibbs Hotel (1909) in a Renaissance/Chicago Commercial style, the Classical 1937 Courthouse and Post Office, and the Deco Gothic verticality of the Emily Morgan hotel (1926). This is in the heart of town just north of the Alamo.

In fact, these three buildings cover the north wall of the fabled mission and fortress. The famous 1836 battle began when Santa Anna successfully stormed the north wall, breaking in roughly between the Courthouse and the Emily Morgan. Commander Lt. Wm. Travis fell but a minute and a half into the battle, also on the north wall, to the left of where the streetlights are in the lower center of the photo.

MOST of the missing footprint of the fort is the north wall.

The chapel, which everyone knows as the Alamo, was the first building preserved by the public west of the Mississippi, in 1883, less than fifty years after the battle. Already this had become the center of town and the large commercial Crockett Block was in place facing the chapel.

Crockett Block, (Alfred Giles, 1882)

The Conservation Society began advocating for the re-use of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings when the state purchased them nearly five years ago for a new Alamo Museum. This was part of the larger reimagining of the Alamo that began in 2014. Sixteen months ago we presented a concept showing how the buildings could be added onto to make the new museum.

Conservation Society Alamo Museum concept with Crockett and Woolworth buildings

All this is preface to a curious push right now by the Save the Alamo Foundation to garner public support for their Alamo Plan. The most curious aspect of this push is that they don’t have a final design for the plaza. Nor even a preliminary design for the museum. How do you sell that?

1940 WPA mural in Post Office, showing Travis drawing the line in the sand with his sword. This mural is located very close to where he died in the battle.

Well, they are selling the idea that they will reclaim the footprint of the battlefield/mission walls. A portion of where the west wall was is 10 feet under the Crockett and Woolworth buildings. WHERE IT WAS – these buildings have 15 foot basements so there is NO remnant of the wall.

Courthouse and Post Office – you can see the restored mural in the lobby.

But let’s go back to the north wall, where all the action happened. Are they planning to take down the Gibbs Hotel and the Courthouse? No.

Just south of the chapel looking north.

So what are they selling? An invisible museum? It seems they are selling the idea that the famed 1836 battle will – by itself – attract all sorts of tourists. Calmer heads, like CM Roberto Trevino, are arguing that the 110 years of history before the battle need to be interpreted as well. After all, it is the mission era that made the Alamo part of a World Heritage Site.

And the chapel never had a roof nor a campanulate facade.

The Alamo spent 80 years as a mission, 50 as a fort, and 170 as the commercial heart of a growing city.

Thanks to Ron Bauml

The most curious thing of all about the Alamo Plan is not the absence of a design, nor the decision to expose some wall sites rather than others, but the fact that it is driven by an interpretive message that appears to be scripted by a 10-year old boy in 1950.* I visited as a 15-year old and thoroughly enjoyed the tales of heroism and sacrifice. But that is a small demographic.

And that was then.

The 1836 battle is just the starting point for a much richer tale with stories relevant to all peoples and all times. Why don’t they sell that? The more you include, the more money you make – what am I missing here?

*Thanks to Evan Thompson for this quip.

AUGUST 25 UPDATE:

Well, they have a drawing now! The drawing shows the plaza reconstructed as a reenactment of the 1836 battle, with a second story on the Long Barracks, a rebuilt southwest rampart, and lots of cannon and palisades. The drawing, from their Facebook page and in the news, is rendered from a position above the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, so no news on the museum.

While still clearly aimed at that 10-year-old, it is the first new illustration of the plan in two years, so that is something. The drawing shows reconstruction of the second story of the Long Barracks as well as an earthen rampart at the southwest corner with cannon. I have dealt with the folly of reconstruction in the digital age previously. The drawing also shows lots of living history reenactors, making the whole thing a curiously large investment in a moribund industry.

In a month the Texas Historical Commission will make a decision about moving the Cenotaph, which is a publicly funded portion of the project. No news yet on the museum or other privately funded projects.

FUN FACT: The reason Clara Driscoll insisted on taking down the second story of the Long Barracks in 1913 was that it dominated the plaza and overshadowed the shrine – the same argument for moving the Cenotaph today! So they move the Cenotaph and then overwhelm the Chapel with a reconstructed second story of the Long Barracks???

FUN FACT: Do you know that in 1997 when it closed, the proposal was to turn the Woolworth Building into an aviation museum? True!

If it has room for airplanes, it can handle Alamo artifacts.

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Quantity and Quality

July 31, 2020 Blog, Economics, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 434

The developers of a much-maligned project in River Road have once again been denied permission to build on a vacant area in the historic district. This time they managed to get a feature article written around their failure, morphing from a case to a cause. The subhead calls it an “unpredictable process.”

Being an expert in the field, I don’t find it “unpredictable” but it has a quality that makes it difficult for the average developer. And that quality is literally Quality. Historic Design Review is a qualitative process, and most developers are used only to zoning, which is quantitative.

So what number is this?
And this?
And this?

The first problem is that the qualities of projects like this case – design, landscaping, setbacks, and massing – are overwhelmed by the quantity. The goal seems to be to cram as much building as you can into whatever space you have available. You can add gables and porches and board-and-batten siding but it is still a big hulk. Over the last year, the 23-townhome project has changed design elements that we objected to, like front-loading garages (snout houses) and heavy lot line massing.

They would likely have been approved if they removed one more unit, but after 18 months of carrying costs and redesigns, they probably felt they couldn’t afford to. Curiously, they basically got approval from the Office of Historic Preservation staff, but could not get enough votes from the volunteer Historic and Design Review Commission.

But now that it is a feature article, let’s look at the bigger picture, which is quantity and quality and who is good at what they do.

Starting to see a pattern here….

See, the beauty of historic districts and historic landmarks is that they treat every resource individually. It is not a commodity that can be alienated. It is not a grain that can be graded and put in a grain elevator. There is not a solution from another district or another landmark that can be applied, because that would be a different individual with different needs.

Average developers do not have a good handle on qualitative issues. They are in the business of grading grain and selling it by the container load. Their business model has no room or capital for individuals.

I love your house!

Above-average developers, on the other hand, get the qualitative issues. They may even seek out historic buildings because they know they can get a 45% investment tax credit between the state and federal laws. And they are practiced, so the process is less unpredictable for them. They know the rules but more importantly they know that they have to approach each project with an eye open for its inimitable qualities.

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