The Zoning Revolution

May 26, 2021 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 37

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) 108

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) 112

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!

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Lazy flip

November 10, 2020 Economics, Texas Comments (1) 736

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) 598

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) 304

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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San Antonio and Civil Rights

June 3, 2020 Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Economics, History, Texas Comments (0) 437

The protests last night (June 2) ended up violent again, as they had on Saturday, both times unusual for San Antonio. As commentator Rick Casey said “We don’t do riots in the streets.” The last significant one was at Municipal Auditorium in 1939. Now he realizes he can’t be so categorical, because we have just doubled our riot total for the last century.

The contrast to other cities remains significant, and the wise words of both Police Chief McManus and Sheriff Salazar have reinforced the sense of community that has always defined San Antonio.

These are the most challenging times I have experienced and the contrast to something that happened three months before and three blocks away from my birth is significant.

On March 16, 1960, seven lunch counters on Alamo and Houston Streets desegregated voluntarily and peacefully, without protest. It happened in the same place as the unrest Saturday night, as Scott Huddleston of the Express-News noted. An amazing college freshman, Mary Andrews, had written the lunch counters asking them to allow blacks to sit and eat.

The sit-in movement had started at a Woolworth’s in North Carolina only a month before. A meeting was held and a sit-in was planned. Then, the community of San Antonio kicked in. Religious and civic leaders got together with the businesses and they integrated a day before the planned sit-in.

Windows were broken here on Saturday.

The story of Mary Andrews is puro San Antonio, which makes the events of the last few days even more disheartening. At the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we have been fighting to save the heart of that peaceful integration – the Woolworth Building – since 2015. This month we will celebrate Juneteenth with testimonials from residents regarding the importance of the Woolworth Building and San Antonio’s unique role in Civil Rights history.

In times of fear and violence, it is even more important to remember the triumphs of peace and community.

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Designing the New Abnormal

May 21, 2020 Blog, Economics, Global Heritage, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 483

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.

Domodossola, Italy, 2015

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.

Prague, 2005

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.

Tokyo, first city to hit 20 million inhabitants (1965) Now 37 million. 2016 photo.

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).

big city lights bright

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.

Well, most of the city.

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.

No more street barricades!

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.

Socially distanced fusbol, Milano, 2015

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.

Pudong (Shanghai) airport, 2007

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.

Mask it or casket. Especially if you were born in the 18th century.

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.

Like our Bier Garten at Beethoven Maennerchor, San Antonio

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.

St. Francis Xavier church, Kansas City (1950, Barry Byrne)

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.

Architects especially love the open space plan
Wulff House, 1870. Yes, its a knockoff of Schinkel’s Römischer Bäder of 1819.

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.

Home office from the 1960s (Frank Lloyd Wright)

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.

Also Frank Lloyd Wright

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!)

Fresh vegetables, Weishan

Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.

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Will COVID-19 change urban planning?

April 22, 2020 Blog, Chicago Buildings, Economics, Sustainability, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1069

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.

Nimes

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.

Rue de la Ferronerie, Paris

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.

Even the parks are going vertical.

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.

Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, 1830.

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.

The only Wright skyscraper built – Bartlesville, OK

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.

St. Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger during the Justinian Plague, by Josse Lieferinxe
St. Sebastian pleading for the life of a gravedigger during the Justinian Plague by Josse Lieferinxe

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.

Hong Kong 2007

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.

SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.

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Preservation in Lockdown #2

April 17, 2020 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 576

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.

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