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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
Less than a week ago I was part of a group planning the next national preservation conference and we were brainstorming what programs and indeed what formats should be employed to reflect our world in the COVID-19 crisis. One of the big concerns was whether “historic preservation” would be considered a luxury that we no longer could afford.
Man that’s dumb. The only business happening on my street besides mail delivery and garbage pickup is “historic preservation.” They are repairing the lovely bungalow on the corner, restoring the clapboard siding after leveling. Work is also going on next door in another bungalow that just sold, and there is a ton of interest in the one just fixed up on the other side of our house. There are at least 5 rehab projects on this one block, two for sale and another for lease.
You could quibble about some of the choices the owner/contractors made, but the bottom line is that century-old buildings are being rehabilitated and reused. Conserving well-made older buildings is a wise reuse of resources, a more affordable approach to housing, and a benefit for the community.
I live in a conservation district, not an historic district, but every building on my block is old and ninety percent of the work being done would be consistent with a historic district. Preserving building is not only environmentally friendlier than new construction, it is also an economic engine. Right now it is providing more than its share of jobs in an otherwise stalled economy.
2019 was a big year for the San Antonio Woolworth Building. In May, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building released a study showing how the historic Crockett and Woolworth Buildings could be incorporated into the new Alamo Museum.
Also in May, the Woolworth Building was named a State Antiquities Landmark. Then in October, the Conservation Society and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building constructed an ofrenda in honor of Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old NAACP youth branch leader who initiated the sit-in movement’s first peaceful and voluntary lunch counter integration in the south on Wednesday, March 16, 1960.
Also in October, the San Antonio Woolworth Building was named to the 2020 World Monuments Fund Watch List, one of only 3 sites in the U.S. This led to a rash of publicity in favor of saving the building. So the question is – where are we today?
If you want to know the plan for the Woolworth Building, just look at my blog from August, 2018. It’s all there.
It’s 2019. You don’t change your plans just because the public doesn’t like them. The lack of public influence on the plan was one of the reasons that historian Bruce Winders left the Alamo in 2019 after 23 years.
In an effort to regain the PR momentum, the Alamo announced that it had studied the lunch counter integration and would fund a 5,000 square foot institute on Civil Rights history at the Kress Building, two blocks to the west on Houston Street. The institute – led by Dr. Carey Latimore of Trinity University – is a good thing.
But why can’t they interpret that history at the Alamo Museum? The museum is supposed to be 130,000 square feet. They can’t spare 5,000?
Follow The Money
Besides dealing with the Woolworth publicity, the Alamo is getting sued by Native American groups concerned about burials as well as Defender descendants concerned about the Cenotaph. To regain PR momentum, they announced that the Cenotaph restoration and relocation would begin in early 2020. The interesting fact about this announcement is that it is achieved not through the long-promised $300 million in private donations, but with $38 million in previously secured city bond money.
The new Alamo Museum design is not yet revealed, and you usually need that – plus half the money during the “silent phase” – in order to generate your centimillionaire donations. Here we are five years and well over $100 million of taxpayer money into the project and it is still being directed by private donors who haven’t chipped in yet.
Civil Rights History
Dr. Latimore was hired to prepare a study on the social history of the Alamo Plaza and nearby buildings for the Alamo. He has argued that the Kress was the first lunch counter integrated, not the Woolworth. Hence the institute there.
The whole point of the negotiated, voluntary, peaceful integration in San Antonio was that no one had to go first. And, as Dr, Gregory Hudspeth, President of the San Antonio branch of the NAACP said to Dr. Latimore – Woolworth’s was the most important site to San Antonians. It was where you grabbed a donut as you changed buses to the south, east or west sides of the city. It was where the sit-in movement started in Greensboro, N.C. As I noted four months ago, Woolworth’s was lamented when it closed – Kress was not.
The Express-News sent out photographers and reporters to Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960. The photographer’s log clearly states F.W. Woolworth and says 12 photo negatives were used. The photo of the young man looking into the window (reproduced in the mural) is clearly Woolworth’s, but the interior shots look like Kress. It would not be normal procedure for the photographer to visit another location without making a correction, but we do know that the San Antonio Light called out Kress. The conclusion would be that photographers and reporters went to Woolworth’s, found no photo ops, and continued to Kress where they found black and white customers. You can see the photos here. Another photo appeared in the Greensboro, N.C. paper on the 17th.
The event was covered by the local papers on March 16 and 17, followed by positive editorials celebrating how San Antonio was setting an example of peace in an era of conflict. “San Antonio can set the example for the whole nation” said the San Antonio News on March 17, 1960. The day before it quoted Fr. Erwin Juraschek, one of the religious leaders who negotiated the agreement stating “This city can make a fine name for itself throughout the country and the world.” and of course there is Jackie Robinson’s quote in The New York Times on March 20: “This is a story that should be told around the world.”
Thanks to the World Monuments Fund, that story is finally being told around the world.
Recently the City Council passed a resolution that would require that any amendments proposed to the Uniform Development Code be subject to an economic impact analysis to see how much cost they would add to new developments. Many community activists are concerned that this would stifle public input, although the intention was to identify what extra costs would be passed on to consumers.
I don’t think it will limit public input, but the opponents raised a really interesting question. Why is the question of economic impact always one-sided, namely the side of the developer?
For centuries there has been debate over the issue of “takings.” “Takings” is when the government takes your property and has to pay you for it. About a century ago some clever lawyers came up with the idea of “regulatory takings” – whereby you put so many regulations on a property you stripped it of all its value. As with most clever concepts, it hit a hard stop in reality when even the prohibition of all development on a beach site in the Carolinas did not zero out property value (Lucas, 1989)
Here’s what gets me: Why doesn’t anyone talk about “givings?” Like when New York City doubled the zoning envelope in 1961, effectively giving every landowner a massive boost in asset value. Chicago did the same in 1957 – we were all going to be living on Mars by 2000 anyway, so it didn’t matter. Every bit of IDZ spot-zoning is a public “giving” to a private property owner. That’s what needs to be quantified.
“Givings” are in fact central to the entire history of real estate. In the 19th century canals and railroads were financed by the sale of public land along their routes. Kind of like TIRZ (TIF). In the 20th century it was hard roads and then interstate highways. Today it is tax increment financing, bonds and incentive packages.
The entire history of real estate development is a history of chasing public subsidies, primarily transportation. You hear “Location, location, location” and what that means is “transportation, markets, infrastructure.” Two-thirds of that recipe is public.
I’m not saying public support is bad. I have supported public subsidies of private developments that really made a difference. I’m just saying you need to count on both sides.
Back in the 1980s, there were so-called “impact fees” that municipalities would assess new residential developments that required new sewers, schools, streets, sidewalks, security, etc. That led to whining, which led to the era of “property rights” and by the 90s there were attempts in Congress to compensate owners for the reduction in the property value caused by regulations.
That silliness aside, the question has always been formulated on only one side of the equation: What are they taking from the property owner?
I would like to see a strict accounting of what we are GIVING.
I was quoted in the news several times this week, thanks to the sudden demolition of the 1912 G.J. Sutton Building on the East Side, as well as the unanimous vote to demolish the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio at Woodlawn Lake. Both cases were exercises in Bad Excuses.
The Sutton Building demolition began suddenly and without warning. In fact, when a community member emailed us Tuesday afternoon saying it was being demolished, we prepared to forward a news article from the weekend that indicated it would be rehabilitated. But, by then, several news reporters had discovered that the opposite was true.
The building is owned by the State of Texas, specifically the Texas Facilities Commission. After rejecting several bids from developers who would have saved the solid brick structure, they decided to proceed with remediation and demolition. The state does not even have to get local demolition permits, so there was no warning. Not even the local officials elected to represent the interests of the East Side knew. There were, however, Bad Excuses.
The worst of the Bad Excuses was the kind of bureaucratic insanity that makes people want to get rid of government. Remember I said there were bids from developers who would have saved the property? Well, the Texas Facilities Commission can’t do residential, and the three bids (18 months ago) included developing residential uses.
That’s nuts. Transfer the property to another agency. Sell it to the city. Sell it to the developer without a plan. Change whatever regulation caused that. This building served as an industrial site before G.J. Sutton, the first black Texas legislator from San Antonio, championed its transformation into a state office building. Why can’t its next reuse include residential?
The Bad Excuses continued with the familiar environmental shibboleths of lead paint and asbestos and even mercury switches to make it a perfect trifecta. I wrote about these bad excuses nine years ago here. Simply put, the more you demolish, the more you have to remediate.
Not only that, but the state is paying millions to do the abatement and demolition rather than putting those expenses on the final buyer, an expensive decision County Commissioner Tommy Calvert questioned in an article Tuesday.
And then there is everyone’s favorite Bad Excuse: It’s too expensive. Huh? The private developers (more than one!) who bid on the site could have taken advantage of state and federal tax incentives totaling 45% of rehab costs. This Bad Excuse is usually accompanied by numbers that show how expensive it would be to rehabilitate. To be safe, you should always go with $300 a square foot. That’s what you tell the engineers when you hire them.
Heck, you don’t even need to get an official report. It is 2019 after all, so evidence is hardly necessary – just make the claim. That’s what happened with the 1958 Almaguer Dance Studio, which the Historic and Design Review Commission voted to demolish on Wednesday. We met with the Parks Department about their demolition plan months ago and they showed pictures of cracks and leaks.
Well, you can do that with any building. It is a Bad Excuse. We told them at the time we have seen many worse buildings brought back. We wanted to see actual evidence, but none was forthcoming. It obviously was a safe and sound building hosting dozens of classes where people dance about.
The decision ultimately turned on the desire for upgraded dance studios with sprung floors and a new community center. That was translated into “unreasonable economic hardship” during the hearing, which is another Bad Excuse. There is actually a standard for this – “reasonable rate of return” which doesn’t really apply to public entities.
So, this week, the tale of two governments who tore down landmarks while serving up nearly the full portfolio of Bad Excuses. Retain for future reference.
Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.
Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.
Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.
SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.
I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.
In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.
The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”
Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!
Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.
Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?
Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.
“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.
And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.
Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.
Because they couldn’t think of anything else.
Recently in San Francisco a house flipper illegally demolished a significant 1936 home by the famous Richard Neutra. Here is some coverage.
Perhaps he expected to be treated like the last lawbreaker, who had demolished a Willis Polk house in the same city and was fined a record $400,000. In that case the flipper paid the fine and quickly made 7 or 8 million on the flip. Price of doing business.
Except our Neutra Exterminator didn’t get a fine – he was told he had to rebuild the house in the same materials just as it was, and then put up a plaque explaining the history of the building and making sure everyone understands that they are looking at a replica.
I’m sure we can find a “property rights” type who would cry for this poor flipper,. but not me. The value of this harsh but entirely equitable judgement is that it discourages the unfortunate tendency of some to “ask forgiveness” rather than ask permission. This approach undercuts the law and rewards lawbreakers. Making someone FIX their lawbreaking actually discourages further lawbreaking.
(By the way, you can always tell a flipper because they SAY that they are going to live in the house with their family. Dead giveaway.)
We have some of this “backwards planning” here in San Antonio. First, we have a structural problem in Planning. Public hearings on planning issues are only held AFTER the applicant has dealt with the city planners and there is a big sign that clearly states that there can be no changes at that point. So public input is rendered worthless.
We have the “ask forgiveness” problem in epidemic proportions. Applicants come before a citizen board with limited experience, plead that they have already invested in their non-permitted scheme, and the board feels sorry for them and grants the permit retroactively. Awful precedent, and everyone is taking it up. It happens at Board of Adjustment all the time – “I didn’t know I needed a permit. Sorry. Can I keep it?”
This also happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which has several new members and it still getting used to its processes and purview.
I guess, technically, we are the Wild West, but planning anarchy is no way to welcome tens of thousands of new residents a year. With a series of political and administrative shifts in our city (and an increase in borrowing costs) it is high time we fixed our backwards planning.