Bad Excuses

July 19, 2019 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (7) 583

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.

G.J. Sutton Building, constructed 1912 as home of San Antonio Machine & Supply Co.

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.

Sutton Building yesterday.

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 107-year old brickwork looks fine. The 10-year old windows? Not so much.

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.

Run for your life!

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.

Continue Reading

Pillars of Value

March 27, 2019 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 291

Why saving buildings makes more dollars and sense

1310 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Toby Barnes

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.

1306 W. Commerce, built c. 1909 for Charles Willard

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.

1302 W. Commerce, built c. 1899 for Henry Gill

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.

Needs to be demolished 2016. Today it is yours for $300k here.

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?

Um, no.

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.

Continue Reading

Backwards Planning

January 5, 2019 Blog, Economics, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (0) 286

Ignoring the law and asking forgiveness? yikes.

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.

This building in Chicago was illegally built to four stories about 20 years ago. The City forced the owner to remove the extra two stories. That is how it is supposed to work.

(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.)

I also TOTALLY live with my family in my other houses on the Continent.

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.

Oops! Sorry, I was just trying to salvage it.

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?”

I needed a permit for a sidewalk? Just because it threatens the structural integrity of the building due to its angle, topography, location and material? How was I to know?

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.

Continue Reading

San Antonio Development: Density, Intensity and Affordability.

December 15, 2018 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 451

Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning, and Oregon is considering the same for its cities.  The goal is to increase affordable housing and redress a century of racial bias undergirded by said zoning.  Planners are excited by this trend and see more of it on the horizon.

Buurma section of River Forest, Illinois

San Antonio just reformed its zoning code to include R-1 and R-2 zones, because our old zoning allowed high density pretty much everywhere.    The new R-1 and R-2 zoning will help low-density core neighborhoods and historic districts by encouraging appropriate infill.  So, with all of the current City Hall concern with affordable housing, why are we doing the opposite of what Minneapolis did?

Four houses sidewise on one lot, Grove near Roosevelt.

The contrast with Minneapolis is actually not as dramatic as it seems.  Not only is San Antonio more affordable in general, it is not landlocked like Minneapolis.  Plus the zoning in Minneapolis was actually, really “single family.”  In contrast, even our new R-1 and R-2 districts could see 2-3 units on a lot.  King William, the oldest historic district in Texas, is full of accessory units and always has been. In fact, one of our highest priced houses was once seven apartments:

Yup.

At the San Antonio Conservation Society we meet regularly with neighborhood representatives, and in a recent meeting we learned the difference between density and intensity.  We tend to think only of the former, but look at the little two-story apartment building below.  It has been in the heart of the King William district for decades and is incredibly dense – something like 126 units per acre.  But it is not intense.  It fits in.

In the heart of the district.

Now look at the development below, which is less dense, but more intense.

Also ugly.

After the meeting, I shared a project from Oak Park, Illinois about a dozen years ago.  Two historic houses built in 1875 and 1908, the latter actually a two-flat.  The owners proposed ten units over parking massed up front toward the sidewalk.  Super intense.

This is what they were inspired by, to replace the two houses below.

Since it was in a historic district, the demolition was not allowed, and today the two houses look the same as they did before.  Better, actually.

So did preservation mean gentrification?  Nope.  Turns out you are looking at seven units.  You just can’t see them unless you get right up to the buildings and look into the back.  What preservation meant was that density was increased without increasing intensity.

In fact, Oak Park’s Long Range Historic Preservation plan way back in 1994 encouraged accessory units and coach houses as a way to maintain the historic character of the area.  Preservation is about improving development, not opposing it.

18th Street, Pilsen, Chicago

There was some more interesting news out of Chicago this week when the city landmarked the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, with the specific intent of preserving its vernacular architecture and its culture.  They are crafting a historic district with the specific goal of preventing gentrification. 

Got it? Yes, you heard that right.

This mural was painted over last year, an outrage that certainly propelled the landmark designation.

Chicago combined landmark designation with a five-year Affordable Requirement Ordinance (ARO) and an arrangement with Chicago Community Land Trust to reduce property taxes. Crucially, the effort is focused not just on architecture but also the distinctive culture of Pilsen.

A Pilsen tour led by local activists in 2009.

This is something we have been working on in San Antonio for a few years , notably with the City’s Living Heritage Symposia that the Conservation Society has supported.  Cultural heritage conservation is the leading edge of our field, and it is exciting to see how various communities are developing new tools to achieve it.

West Guadalupe, San Antonio

It is also nice to see an end to the 35-year old myth (shibboleth, perhaps) about preservation and gentrification.  I was asked the question by news reporters when I came to San Antonio in 2016 and I said what I always have said – gentrification and its definable cohort – displacement – is a much bigger phenomenon than historic districts. 

Let me be clear – when preservation emerged as a form of zoning in the 1920s, it was used to exclude minorities and preserve wealth, just like single-family zoning. 

Ansonborough, Charleston.  It happened here.

But that was no longer true by the 1980s, when preservation had been inflected by the 1960s community planning movement, permanently altering its character.  Someone wrote a dissertation about this 🙂

Yes, there were historic districts that gentrified.  There were also historic districts like Wicker Park in Chicago that slowed gentrification while nearby unregulated areas saw values double or triple in a year’s time.

Wicker Park

This week San Antonio extended its housing incentive program, to the cheers of some and jeers of others.  There are different opinions about whether the tools work or not.  San Antonio is shrinking the target area and adding an affordable housing fund following concerns that the incentives were being used for more upscale projects.  

Neighborhood workshop at San Antonio Conservation Society

As someone has commented regarding the Pilsen plan, there are always unintended consequences of incentive programs, whether financial or regulatory.  IDZ zoning was intended to provide affordable housing in inner-city areas and after a decade became a default for developers trying to avoid various regulatory requirements.

And maybe squeeze in a few more square feet.

Real estate development always follows public subsidy – from roads and sewers and trails to zoning and funding incentives.  The Pilsen experiment includes industrial job goals. It also includes a recreational trail and policies designed to allow the trail to improve the community without increasing values too much.  The obvious parallel here in San Antonio is the RiverWalk, especially the Museum Reach, which together with the Pearl has spurred a flurry of development.

The Mission Reach has potential for the South Side, and another piece of that puzzle was added this week with the Mission Historic District Design Guidelines.  Like the Pilsen landmarking, these will help conserve an architectural vernacular particular to a place and a people.

We have seen an increase in the number of Great Blue residents.

These various efforts demonstrative how much the preservation/heritage conservation field has evolved a lot in the last 35 years.  Zoning has certainly changed significantly in the last century.  Most importantly, the goals have shifted in the wake of urban revitalization.  Time will tell whether these various programs work toward the new goals of affordability and amenity or have unintended consequences.  

Continue Reading

Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (1) 694

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

Continue Reading

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

June 13, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (0) 2311

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.

Continue Reading

School Houses Rock

April 13, 2018 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 652

Not long ago I did a blog about the myriad examples of preserved, adapted historic gas stations.  Today let’s look at schools.  I remember schools rehabbed into homes from the beginning of my career over 34 years ago.

The Lemont School – front half 1896, rear piece 1869 – converted into residences c. 1980.

The Lemont School above shows how even two generations of school design are easily adapted, since they needed large windows to allow enough light in for instruction – a feature suited well to conversion into apartments or condos.  Offices are another easy rehabilitation goal, as seen in this 1874 school in Georgetown, Colorado.  (This is from a decade ago – it is rehabbed now)

Schools are a more straightforward rehab prospect than other community-defining buildings like churches and theaters, which tend to have a massive open space inside, although of course more modern schools will themselves include assembly halls and theaters, along with gymnasia.  Still, most classrooms are easily made into offices, condos or even retail spaces.

This one is for the birds.  I mean The Birds (Bodega Bay, California).

Which brings us to this lovely 1916 school by local architect Leo Dielmann, which was “saved,” or rather “not demolished” 20 years ago when they tore off various additions and built a new school.  And then let this one rot.  Despite a sturdy concrete frame, the roof was the only wood portion and it turned into a sponge in the last decade.  But the walls are there and it is beautiful.

Still the owners – the School District – have pulled a fast one, or more accurately, a really SLOW one.  Demolition by neglect.  Over more than two decades.  Makes it look almost…natural.

Councilman Treviño has been fighting for the school, and our friends over at Ford Powell Carson architects even did some renderings to show how it could be rehabbed.

Many neighbors want to save it, but others have been convinced by the long con that the eyesore is too far gone and must be removed.  The real crime here is that no one gets dunned for demolition by neglect – the most common way to deliberately destroy a perfectly usable building.  There is also lack of vision – seeing older buildings as obstacles rather than opportunities.

See?

Treviño is fighting a Principal and Superintendent who want to see the building go away, which was perhaps the plan 20-odd years ago.  That would be a shame.  For the neighborhood, the city, and future resources subjected to the mistreatment of the long con.

MAY UPDATE

Now all the parents are upset because the School District added another fence around the landmark, closing off all open space on the block.  This was not due to an incident but the occasion of a structural report that doubted the building’s ability to withstand a tornado.

Yes, really.  Can’t make this stuff up!  To the long con of demolition by neglect they have added structural scare-everybody-ism.  As the first con was strategic, so is the second, because now we have upset children and parents demanding that something be done.  Those allies are key, because the structural report itself was a bit of a laugher – it is not clear he even accessed the building!  He claimed his report was based on his experience over 40 years. I have to remember that one.

Another structural engineer is taking a look at it through actual inspection and soon we will know what it costs and whether we can find all of the money.  Stay tuned.

AUGUST UPDATE

The parents, pressured by the unnecessary closing of the playground, called for demolition this summer and the owner finally filed for a demolition permit.  Sadly, it seems the long con is working.

Continue Reading

My favorite BugaBoo

April 1, 2018 Economics, Historic Districts, Texas Comments (1) 796

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

Like Paris…

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

Prisoner of the past abandoned by development

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

San Antonio from the Tower of the Americas, 2014.

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

That’s the Hell Gate railroad Bridge apparently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Gas Station – Why Demolish an Opportunity?

February 7, 2018 Economics, Texas Comments (4) 4212

This is Bliss, a restaurant in San Antonio.  The upscale American cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients, has superior service and is consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the nation’s seventh largest city.  It is housed in a historic Humble Oil gas station.

This is the Station Cafe, across from our office, a more modest sandwich shop that is filled to the brink every lunchtime and offers evening beers from its historic Texaco gas station.

At Austin Highway and Broadway this former Mobil gas station is an upscale women’s boutique described as a “must-visit for anyone who is in the mood to indulge in some retail therapy.”  sloan/hall is high-end adaptive re-use.

This is another historic gas station on St. Mary’s Street just north of downtown that is about to be converted into a restaurant.

I could go on with many more examples, but the bottom line is that historic gas stations are adaptive re-use GOLD.  Like everything in the entirely externalized world of real estate value, location is key, which brings us to the city’s newest trail, along San Pedro and Apache Creeks.  I have ridden it a half-dozen times already.

The trail was just completed in the last year and connects to the famous Mission Reach trail that runs 12 miles through the World Heritage area.

Pictured above is a trailhead near Nogalitos Street.  Which brings us to this 1935 Pure Oil gas station at this very trailhead.

2017 photo.

Pure Oil was a San Antonio company that adopted the half-timbered Tudor Revival for their stations, which can be found in a dozen states.  This is the only one left in San Antonio.  It features steeply pitched roofs on both the “house” and “canopy”.

The same station in 2012, detail of the half-timbering on the canopy.

And here it is in 1983 when the San Antonio Conservation Society surveyed it.  We surveyed more than 1,500 gas stations over the years, and this was one of the 30 best, proposed as city landmarks last year.  Having looked at 1500 stations, we can tell you with confidence that the Tudor Style is quite unusual and the station is quite intact.

2012 polychrome view

But then the station was quietly pulled from the designation list at the behest of the out-of-town owner.  So the San Antonio Conservation Society filed a Request for Review of Significance, which the Historic and Design Review Commission agreed to.

We also learned at that time that the site was quite large and the little gem of a gas station only occupies about one-eighth of the land.  The Office of Historic Preservation ruled that ONLY the gas station had historic significance, so the other buildings on site do not need to be re-used.

An acre of land along the trail and a cell phone tower to boot!

A map showing construction of the site.  Only Area 1 is proposed landmark.

The owner hired the best real estate attorneys to prevent designation.  Why?  Because it would be worth more demolished?  That argument doesn’t hold up too well in this town – gas stations are constantly turned into successful businesses.  Here’s a few more:

The Conservation Society met with attorneys for the owners and Councilwoman Gonzales moments before the item came up at City Council.  All parties agreed to put designation on hold for 60 days.

Re-use the gas station on the right (corner of Nogalitos and Ralph).  SPLACH is optional, as are the other buildings.

A restored Pure Oil station in McMinnville, TN in case you wanted to see an example.  One also became a BANK in Geneva, Illinois.

We are trying to find the right buyer for all or part of the site before the DEADLINE of March 18.  For more information, contact me at vmichael@saconservation.org,

Now for a few more of the successfully rehabbed gas stations in San Antonio:

APRIL 2018 UPDATE

The gas station got another reprieve, this time for six months, although it is still not officially for sale.  If interested in this, please contact me!

AUGUST 2018 UPDATE

The San Antonio Conservation Society made a significant financial offer for the Nogalitos Pure Oil gas station and the land it is on, commissioning Alamo Architects to draw up plans showing a restored gas station and new housing along San Pedro Creek.  The owners declined to sell.  Now the gas station must be landmarked.

APRIL 2019 UPDATE

The City Council is scheduled for final designation of the gas station on April 18, but owners are still pushing for demolition!  After they negotiated “in good faith”.  Unbelievable!

Continue Reading

Kids These Days: Real Estate 2018

January 26, 2018 Economics Comments (0) 577

I always enjoy the Urban Land Institute’s analysis of Emerging Real Estate Trends (by pwc) and this year was no exception.  What made it especially interesting was the demographic foundation of much of the analysis:  the Millennial/Generation Z groups that will define the future of space.  As usual, the punks have it all over the hippies.

1. SMALL

The next generation is not interested in your 6,000 square foot McMansion or even your 3,200 square foot suburban gem.  I recall Doug Farr about seven years ago describing a potential tenant for a retrofitted Lathrop Homes unit:  Has a $5,000 bicycle and an iPad.  Probably only wants 700 square feet.  Will not be collecting furniture.

Let them eat cupcakes.

They are here and they are happy with small space.  People collect information and experiences now, and while vinyl and books and even mid-century modern furniture are all hipster now, most of what we collect fits on a device smaller than your thumb.

There will be a lot of obsolete McMansions soon.

2. NO AUTO MOTIVE

All the talk of driverless cars plays right into the next generation.  They are getting their driving licenses later or not at all.  They Uber everywhere.  The autonomous vehicle already exists for them as a choice consumer product.  The countryside the hippies wanted to escape to in the 1970s became the suburbia these kids grew up in in the 1990s.  There is nowhere to drive to anymore.  The car no longer symbolizes freedom.

As it turns out there are more comfortable places to have sex.  Who knew?

For real estate, the more radical transformation is not the autonomous car but the autonomous truck.  Self-driving trucks will have a much bigger impact on the real estate landscape than cars.  This was also true with the advent of the truck and car a century ago.  That’s why we have zoning.

Soon all traffic will be stage managed.

The evolution of the internet of things has also meant that technology is now shifting away from the cloud and onto the edge – where cars and trucks and houses have enough computing power to learn and manage data.  I read in the Economist that one theory about why Amazon bought Whole Foods was to have enough physical footprint to implement edge computing nationwide.

And Canada, I assume

3. PRIVATE COLLABORATION

Back to those Millennials/Generation Z.  About five years ago I toured Bloomberg headquarters in New York City and it was the ultimate open office.  Fish tanks and food kiosks everywhere, ridiculously bright colors, and desks sprawled across an open floor plan.  The CEO occupied just another desk.   No corner offices.  Open space encourages collaboration, so offices followed the open plan.  Hippie Paradise.

Architects love this stuff..(Wikimedia Commons Miller Thomson Vancouver)

Millennials LOVE to collaborate.  They collaborate more than any other generation ever.

By smart phone.  Alone.  Behind a closed door.  ULI explained that the old office door is making a big comeback.  The Millennials and Generation Z demand amenities like rooftop gardens, food options and gyms, but they also really, really want to be able to close the door.

Turns out the physical and mental world aren’t perfect analogues.  Who knew?

According to ULI “Over half (of employees) reported that ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work.”  The open space plan is still there, but the pushback is growing.  Coworking spaces, which are like multiplayer live-work lofts, are also a thing now – one such company in New York now leases more space than Goldman Sachs.

4. RETAIL IN THE AMAZON AGE

The death of retail is painfully obvious in America, because even though online retailing has ONLY taken 10% of the market, the U.S. retail market was grossly overbuilt, with 10 times the capacity per capita of Germany.  So it is REALLY visible and we will have plenty of malls to go with those McMansions in the 2030 fire sale.

Ahh…fulfillment

Perhaps some will be converted into fulfillment centers, where massive physical space is needed to keep the online retail world humming as they send and receive and repair in million-square-foot tilt-up panel behemoths.  Buildings are getting bigger and smaller at the same time.

5. OLD FOR NEW

What does all this mean for historic buildings?  My own Millennial offspring seem to love the Jane Jacobs idea that new ideas need old buildings.  They have doors.   They have character and patina and a story or two.  They are often smaller.  They are greener than new buildings because they are already there, and as the last 70 years have shown us, they are endlessly adaptable.

 

Continue Reading