There are some basic principles of heritage conservation/historic preservation you will always hear from me. The first is that preservation is not a series of rules or standards but a PROCESS. It is a better process than zoning or building codes because it treats every property as an individual with its own character and history. Zoning and building treat properties as alienated commodities, one-size-fits-all.
Fortified Saxon village, Transylvania. I guess these two pictured structures are the same. Both are made of the same material and designed for both commerce and fortification. They must be identical.
Which is why preservation folks often bump up against zoning attorneys, because the whole treating-resources-based-on-their-actual-characteristics thing is especially annoying to them. After all, their expertise is commodification. You don’t have a house, you have a residential unit.
3-2 $2400 a month ignore the picture.
I taught Historic Preservation Planning for almost twenty years and one of the two final paper assignments was ALWAYS developing design guidelines for a specific historic district. The principle, which was clear since the advent of historic districts, was that you can’t really have design guidelines that apply to all historic districts in a city. Some are Victorian. Some are bungalows. Some are Mid-Century Modern. Any design guidelines that applied to such diverse districts would have to be so bland as to be useless.
This is a San Antonio historic district, so it should follow the same rules as….
this San Antonio historic district, or this one (they all look the same, right?)
I would show my students the Mid-North Historic District Design Guidelines from 1973, created at the time the historic district in Chicago was designated, because EVERYONE KNEW that each district had its own characteristics and needed its own, specifically tailored design guidelines. But that did not happen due to money. So, a perennial Master’s student assignment was born.
Mid-North historic district, Chicago
Fast forward thirty years and the Conservation Society of San Antonio gives a grant to the River Road neighborhood to craft design guidelines. I also helped them from the technical side, since my dissertation was on the history of historic districts and I have a lot of experience with design guidelines.
This is River Road. Some commonalities with bungalow districts, although with more Revival Style and fair amount of Moderne influence, especially in windows, unlike other districts from that period.
Those are the windows on the right – very particular to this area.
And they came up with an excellent document. It was set to be adopted by the Historic and Design Review Commission today but some people in the neighborhood (attorneys probably, or some other commodifiers) raised a last-minute stink so they pulled this thoughtful document from the agenda. Apparently they think that the citywide guidelines are enough, which means they missed the entire point.
Which means they think that River Road looks the same as everywhere else.
Quod erat demonstratum.
If you need a primer on how historic districts work, here’s one of mine from 2009.
I would always tell my students that you don’t save buildings once. You have to do it again and again. Back in the 1980s and 90s when I worked for Landmarks Illinois (it had a longer name then) we helped save the Hotel St. Benedict Flats (James Egan, 1882) four times in six years – with a National Register nomination, appeals to zoning changes, and finally a landmark designation followed by a phone call from a developer who ended up buying and restoring it using the historic tax credits and an easement donation.
Last year here at the Conservation Society of San Antonio, we lobbied San Antonio College and the Archdiocese – then the owner – to offer the building for sale. We collaborated with the Tobin Hill neighborhood group and even with this blog, which led to two persons purchasing the building for rehabilitation as a wine bar. You can see my blogs on it here and here. Now, a year later, it needs to be saved again as the owners have put it up for sale following a little rehab and some damage from intruders.
I actually discovered that people had broken in back in February when I was taking Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chair Sarah Bronin on whirlwind tour of San Antonio preservation. I immediately alerted one of the owners, but some damage had been done and now there is a protective fence and several boarded up windows.
Damage does not always mean the end of an historic landmark, and at least the Hughes House was officially landmarked by the City Council in the interim. It also got a zoning change for the wine bar, no mean feat given its location near schools and houses of worship. Still, the process starts again, the building is a bit banged up and the future is uncertain….
In other news, a landmark I drive past every day had a fire recently, again courtesy of the obdachlos, who also tried to block firefighters from responding. Fortunately the firefighters succeeded and only a portion of the rear of the house was damaged. We were interviewed by a tv station about the house, since it is a Texas Historical Landmark and associated with Venustiano Carranza, one of the big four of the Mexican Revolution along with Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Carranza was President for most of 1915-20 (and actually got rid of Zapata). The house was built by his niece 1913-14. Both Madero and Carranza spent significant time in San Antonio early in the decade, although the houses they visited before 1913 are all demolished now. There is a statue of Madero on the River Walk near King William. So the Carranza house is our only physical connection to this history.
Fortunately the house has been secured, but thanks to the KSAT reporters, we learned that there is another building associated with this important chapter in San Antonio history, and it is right across the street. And it is being rehabbed. Now we have two buildings, whose history is intertwined!
Turns out this simple industrial structure was the publication site of La Prensa, an important Spanish language newspaper in San Antonio for a century. La Prensa was front and center during the Mexican Revolution, and having it right across the street doubles down on the value of this landmark. Here are two buildings that hosted important visitors central to a defining moment in Mexican history. They had discussions and strategized here, and the press put their words into action.
If these walls could talk……. The good news is the building is secured, so perhaps it will not suffer the fate of so many others – perhaps a dozen a year – lost to demolition by neglect.
The issue raises the larger question of why the city can’t do more to prevent the loss of vacant buildings, especially since San Antonio passed a Vacant Building Ordinance nearly a decade ago. According to KSAT News, over 250 vacant historic buildings exist in the city, and we have certainly seen many of them succumb to fire after squatters take up residence. We had the sad story of 503 Urban Loop last year, the Lone Star Brewery before that. Heck, 800 W. Russell in my neighborhood (pictured above) burned twice. Like many of the others, the owners were neither local nor attentive.
Above: Site of 212 W. Dewey owned by an Austin developer who bought like 8 houses in the Tobin Hill area which are all subject to demolition by neglect. This neglect is not a lack of capital or supply chains or anything – it is a business model, one that harms neighborhoods.
So why doesn’t the Vacant Building ordinance solve the problem? Representatives of historic neighborhoods have been asking the city that very question in recent days. If neighborhoods alert the Office of Historic Preservation about a vacant building and get it on the Vacant Building list, shouldn’t Development Services be enforcing code violations? Or, is it because it is on the list that everyone thinks someone else is taking care of it? Stay tuned!
One of the issues of the current decade is the push against single-family zoning, usually from the perspective of increasing the supply of affordable housing, but also arguably from a climate change perspective. In either case, more density is desired. So, how does preservation fit into this? Well, many of the YIMBY proponents of same accuse historic district preservation of being a cloaked kind of exclusionary zoning.
Like many such apprehensions of the historic preservation/heritage conservation field, there is truth in it — if you go far back enough in time. (Pro tip – you need to go back at least 30 years and ignore everything that has happened since).
In fact, historic preservationists have been advocating for ADUs (accessory dwelling units) in districts for the last 30 years – as a technique to insure preservation by offering additional income to owners. I remember it from the Oak Park Illinois Preservation Plan Lisa DiChiera wrote in 1993-94. We have long seen adding extra units as a way to increase density and HELP preserve beloved community fabric.
When I do my talk on the history of historic districts, I note that arguably the first modern historic district inspired by residents and not tourists was Georgetown in 1950. It literally took an act of Congress and was perceived – correctly – of causing gentrification and displacing African-Americans. Which it did. A similar thing happened a couple of years later with the first revolving fund in Charleston. Zoning itself emerges in California in the 19th century as a way to exclude the Chinese, and even the density-based New York City zoning of 1916 was adopted by hundreds of suburbs, in part as a way to exclude people.
Historic districts, however, took a different turn starting in the 1960s as they were tweaked by community activists to become something a museum curator would never recognize. This process itself also took 30 years, so that by the time I was fighting alongside community members in North Kenwood, Chicago in 1991-93 to create a historic district, the goal was quite the opposite in terms of race and income. (Race Against Renewal, Future Anterior, Winter 2005)
But it would take a little longer to push the preservation practice a little further in terms of building types. You see, in North Kenwood they refused to include any multi-family apartment buildings in the historic district. You could put in two-flats and three-flats but they excluded century-old architecturally intact six-flats and 12-flats. It would take a couple more years for the preservation community to accept the multi-family as worthy of preservation, even though I argued it in North Kenwood in 1991. When 409 Edgecombe in Harlem, New York became a landmark in the mid-90s, the whole scheme changed. Within a few years, the old Hamilton Heights historic district – which had excluded multi-family – had filled in and marched a dozen blocks up St. Nicholas with four separate additions. Multifamily was now decidedly historic.
So, if the YIMBYs accuse preservation of exclusionary zoning, you can let them know they were correct in 1915 and 1950 and there was a lingering effect into the early 1990s.
But they’ve been wrong since.
“The wrong side of the tracks.” This is an idiomatic phrase that most English speakers would recognize. It indicates something is lower in status, class, wealth and even safety. It refers of course to pre-20th century urbanism, where BIPOC and other communities were segregated, redlined and denied municipal services. It is somewhat surprising that the phrase survives, because much of its urbanism has been lost over the last century plus, when the truck and the automobile introduced radical uncertainty into the location equation, causing zoning, redlining and arguable public housing and highways to keep people apart through most of the 20th century.
The redevelopment of industrial districts and railroads in the last three or four decades has further eroded the clarity of “wrong side of the tracks” in the physical world, yet the verbal palimpsest persists. Old industrial districts served by often defunct railroads have become trendy neighborhoods, from SoHo to LoDo to Third Ward. Here in San Antonio, the West Side remains both physically separated by railroad tracks and underdeveloped, but it seems only a matter of time before that physical economy changes with the growth of downtown and especially the UTSA downtown campus.
The verbal palimpsest has also survived at least two rethinkings of the century-old mechanism that eliminated radical uncertainty by “zoning” various communities. The vast majority of the 591 communities that adopted zoning in its first decade were residential suburbs, and their goal was single-family zoning. Today that is being challenged in many cities with a push for more density to battle climate change (and that can help) and unaffordable housing (not so much). Accessory Dwelling Units, ADUs, are all the rage. Of course historic preservationists were touting those a quarter century ago.
We also have an effort to preserve shotgun houses, because they are historic “small” houses and thety are affordable because they are already built. You can’t build new and rent cheap.
Interestingly, this row runs right up to the railroad tracks, which I live on the other side of. And while the tracks still have trains many times a day, the neighborhoods on both sides of the tracks are up and coming, despite the demise of the streetcars that created them a century ago. The verbal palimpsest persists, as does the physical, but both have lost their meaning in a 21st century regenerating city.
My two week Fulbright Specialist time at Universidad Ean in Bogotá, Colombia is coming to an end in a couple of days. This has been an excellent experience, thanks in large part to Ean faculty member Juan Camilo Chaves and over a dozen excellent students in Cultural Heritage Management. Thanks also go to Fulbright Colombia, celebrating 65 years, and Paola Basto Castro of Ean’s International program, Sergio Sanchez and Laura Hernandez of Fulbright Colombia and Alejandro Torres of Ean.
First off, Ean has a brand new building with an incredible facade-screen passive heating and cooling system, facial recognition technology to enter and exit the building, and a host of other high-tech items, including a nap room, study rooms with color matched to your study style, etc. Even the old (2012!) building has a green roof of the type we were designing with School of the Art Institute of Chicago students in Lima in 2012, complete with hydroponics, beehives and greenhouses.
My weeklong workshop of five lectures was called “Heritage As Process” and included lectures on the long history of heritage conservation in San Antonio; People and the Preservation Process; Conserving World Heritage; History of Historic Districts and of course the amazing story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building. I was also asked to have a Q & A with a larger group of student last week, and guest lectured on the San Antonio World Heritage Missions for another class. Tomorrow I will do my Fulbright presentation summarizing this.
So what did I learn, aside from what a modern university looks like? First, I am again lucky to live in a city with a long heritage conservation tradition, because Bogotá seems a bit like Houston or Singapore with endless highrises backed up to the mountains and little concern for the few remaining historic buildings. The students are working on cultural districts, but the idea of historic districts or preservation zones seems to have little traction here.
I visited the house museum of Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence. It is a well interpreted site set in a lush garden. Especially impressive was the dining room, done in a French style – indeed, due to the timing, the whole place has an Empire feel to it.
Of course the classic tourist visit is a ride up the funicular to Monserrate, the hill above the city. The whole city sits smack dab against the mountains, and of course Monserrate is a pilgrimage route as well, with its church featuring a Christ figure descended from the cross.
I am off this morning to report on my Fulbright Specialist experience! Stay tuned for the next blog on the wonderfully challenging approach to interpretation in the museums of Bogotá!
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.
This is the 1911 Hughes house at 312 W Courtland Street in San Antonio. It sits on a corner next to a parking lot and across from the epic and massive Koehler House. And it is up for demolition. Which is understandable, unless you look at it.
It’s pretty. It’s intact. It is a solidly built, eminently adaptable house. Indeed, it has been owned by the Archdiocese for over half a century. They used it for a Catholic student center for most of that time, but now apparently it needs work. LIKE EVERY OTHER HOUSE IN HISTORY.
So, we have an owner who feel they can’t rehabilitate a house they themselves have let go. What is the alternative? Are they going to build a new student center? A parking lot? What is the alternative? Nothing. Just like 503 Urban Loop, our brothel-cum-child care center that is up for designation December 2. The owners originally said they were building a residential highrise, not they are on to the NO ALTERNATIVE PLANS plans.
Does anything say “I’M A FLIPPER” more loudly than a request for demolition with no plan for a replacement?
I remember City Council members back in the 1980s in Chicago saying that they might vote against landmarking something if they saw that what it was going to be replaced with was better. That actually makes sense, because a legislative representative has to look at all the factors, whereas a landmarks commissioner focuses on whether the building meets the criteria for designation.
If you aren’t revealing your plan, you probably don’t have one. In fact, you might just be shilling for the eventual owner, who has convinced you to do the dirty work of getting a demolition permit before they will ink the deal. It happens. But the Tobin Hill neighbors who are upset about the Hughes house are right, and the Council Member needs to have an alternative or he will be approving an Alternativeless Demolition.
Despite four non-profit and neighborhood organizations supporting the designation of 503 Urban Loop, it has its detractors because it is not conventionally pretty from all angles. Some might argue that the homeless are getting in and demolition is necessary. Because demolition solves the homeless issue?
312 W. Courtland is a very nice house so it might have even more friends, and fewer social ills in its Tobin Hill/Monte Vista neighborhood.
No, the real issue at 312 W. Courtland is likely that a potential buyer is asking the Archdiocese to demolish it because, under state law, they can do it UNLIKE EVERY OTHER BUILDING OWNER because they are a church.
The building isn’t a church, of course, which is what the first religious exclusion laws in the 80s focused on. It’s a perfectly good house.
Want to know the funny part?
The Archdiocese is likely getting hosed by the buyer – who is obviously making their offer contingent on the Archdiocese getting the demolition.
How many ways are there to be hosed in this situation?
- The property was never listed for sale, so all of those out-of-state transplants buying big lovely houses three blocks away have not had a chance to bid on this. The Archdiocese is leaving money on the table.
- The demolition and disposal cost on this is going to be high. Tile roofs are lovely, but heavy. Brick is also lovely, and you can’t push it over for $20k. Not a cheap demolition by any stretch. If the Archdiocese pays this bill for the under-the-market buyer, they are again….leaving money on the table.
So, what is the alternative? We don’t know.
Tobin Hill neighbors are asking for a Review of Significance, which you can support by contacting the Office of Historic Preservation, City of San Antonio. Again, State law allows the Archdiocese to prevail over landmarks laws, but let’s at least shine a light on it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO!
Visit the Conservation Society page on the Hughes House TODAY!
See the Conservation Society page on 503 Urban Loop now!
JUNE 2022 UPDATE: The HUGHES HOUSE IS SAVED! The Archdiocese found a willing buyer who is interested in repurposing the house! Apparently the sale closed today!
Over a month since the last blog post, but I have been busy with my new UTSA class on World Heritage Management, as well as lots of regular work. The Conservation Society of San Antonio partnered with Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Westside Preservation Alliance to promote 503 Urban Loop as a local landmark. Built as a brothel in 1883, it was home to the famous madam Fannie Porter, who hosted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there in 1901 (Remember the song “Raindrops Are Falling on my Head”? – based on a San Antonio bicycle as far as we know.)
We have been promoting it as a rare remnant of Laredito, the near West Side Mexican-American neighborhood nearly obliterated by highway construction and urban renewal. Despite the media appeal of the building’s Red Light history, it was owned by the Archdiocese from 1913 to 2017 and served as an orphanage, day care center and community resource under the Carmelite Sisters and later Father Flanagan’s Boys Town. One generation of sinners and five of saints. The Historic and Design Review Commission voted unanimously in favor. The owner wants to develop a high rise there, which is easy enough given the size of the lot and the size of the historic building.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building met again this month and recently the Alamo chose architects (Gensler – the biggest) for the new museum in the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings. I will be telling the story of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building next week for the Texas Society of Architects, and the National Trust recently published my story/blog about the nearly 3-year long effort.
We have also started working on a White Paper that will tackle the issue of rampant violations of building permits or work done without permits (or beyond the scope of the permit), which I dealt with in my blog last December “Mejor pedir perdon que permiso”. I recently read about a business owner back in Oak Park, Illinois, who totally built a fence around his business without a permit because he didn’t want to wait a couple months for a permit. This kind of knuckle-dragging personality is appearing everywhere and is seemingly emboldened by the dumbing down of the Zeitgeist. On the plus side, it looks like two of the cases that were in my blog last December, at Labor Street and at Florida Street, both in Lavaca, appear to be following the law now! Wow!
And then we have another building that we would just as soon remove, because it should never have been built in the middle of a park back in 1989. This is in Hemisfair, at the crucial juncture between the sparkling new Yanaguana Garden and Tower Park around Tower of the Americas. It is also adjacent to the Confluence Theater/Wood Courthouse, a superior 1968 structure long on our Most Endangered List.
So, the Park Police were supposed to build a new headquarters just north of downtown, but some public official flubbed the land purchase, so the Park Police did what all good government people do, they started looking around for free land in a public park. This is a tactic almost as old as parks, and I can give you two dozen examples of it in Chicago, with the school in the middle of Washington Park being the most egregious.
Turns out it isn’t just the biggest built intrusion into Hemisfair Park that the police want – they also need 300 parking spaces because because. Oh and bulletproof glass because nothing supports the child-friendly Yanaguana garden development like a fortress! We offered a statement opposing the intrusion. It is not far from the Kusch House, recent beneficiary of a high six-figure grant from Bank of America for restoration.
Meanwhile, the Conservation Society nervously awaits the news about the ongoing construction at Alamo, Nueva, and King Philip Streets around Maverick Plaza. We had been planning A Night In Old San Antonio(R) last year without Maverick Plaza, but the construction on the adjacent streets has a much bigger impact on our event, scheduled for April 5-8, 2022.
Now some good news! The City Manager has reorganized and put a new “Transformation Project Division” under Office of Historic Preservation exec Shanon Miller! This includes Hemisfair, La Villita and many other downtown cultural projects. Shanon is an old friend and super competent, so this bodes well! More culture coming soon!
Oh, TPR did this great recording of us sharing the 97 1/2 year history of the Conservation Society!
Well, the parking spaces and bulletproof glass are gone, but it looks like the Park Police will be in that building in Hemisfair. Darn!
Since late last year I have been Co-Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice Working Group, one of four groups comprising the Preservation Priorities Task Force, a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Preservation Partners Network. For most of my years (2006-2015) as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was Vice Chair of the Diversity Committee and Diversity Task Force. This is an issue that is of profound importance to heritage conservation, especially in the United States.
Diversity is the need to represent the full heritage of a place for the full complement of its communities. Inclusion is the necessity of insuring that every member of every community has a hand in the decision-making of what gets saved, why it gets saved, and how it gets saved. Racial justice is the need to address an imbalance that the historic preservation field helped foster, beginning in the 19th century and continuing into recent memory.
It made matters worse that we focused historic preservation on architectural history, which was the white-manniest of professions until a week or two ago. Moreover, many of the early preservation organizations in the 1920s, including my own, engaged in cultural heritage preservation of minority cultures without any input or involvement from those cultures. Commemoration of the Other simply reinforced power and hegemony.
In June, James Madison’s Montpelier took it a step further and voted to share power with the descendants of those 3,000 American men, women and children who were enslaved at the sixth president’s sprawling home and plantation. You can read about it here. This is ultimately what it is about. When Juneteenth came to Texas 156 years ago, it was followed quickly by sharecropping, poll taxes, and a penal system designed to return recently emancipated slaves into a state of servitude. It is a testament to human resilience that so many rose above despite a multivalent and violent system designed to prevent them from doing so.
What Montpelier did is key, because the only way to achieve Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice is to hand power over. This is hard for any institution, any movement, any society. It is like the challenge I wrote about ten years ago as two of my preservation organizations struggled to figure out how to incorporate the next generation. The answer is simple. You hand them the steering wheel and get out of the way.
It has been very rewarding to make some progress in this arena in San Antonio, especially our recent success in saving the 1921 Woolworth Building on Alamo Plaza. It was listed on the World Monument Watch List 2020 in part due to the “underrepresented narrative” of Civil Rights history. That publicity resulted in our finding out that famed sculptor Richard Hunt ate at the Woolworth lunch counter that day.
Our Coalition for the Woolworth Building has been the subject of several presentations and an upcoming article and this fall the Conservation Society will be honored for its “important contributions to to civil rights history in the City of San Antonio” by the San Antonio Branch NAACP. Here is a recent National Trust blogspot on the Coalition.
It took centuries for us to get to this place, and the need for reckoning, for Truth and Reconciliation, is still apparent. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert recently made an eloquent and personal plea to look to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza as a place to begin that process in the U.S.
There is a long way to go for both society and the heritage conservation field, but at least we are facing in the appropriate direction.
It has been raining for what seems like forty days (a quarantine) in San Antonio and those rains became the excuse for an emergency demolition order on the Whitt Printing Building, a part of the Cattleman Square district west of downtown. Its modest Art Deco facade belies its community importance – this was the largest Spanish-language printing house in a city with more of that business than any other in the nation. Founded by Gilberto Whitt, one of many who came here fleeing the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the building has been deteriorating for more than three decades.
The owners requested to remove it from the historic district and to raze it. The Conservation Society opposed both actions, fearing the precedent of “de-designation” and the loss of another building in the near West side where decay and redevelopment sit cheek by jowl. The Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) denied both requests, which were set to go to Zoning when an emergency demolition order came out on the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. They blamed the rain for more roof collapsing (not the 35 years?)
The Conservation Society hired a structural engineer on two hours’ notice who inspected the structure and reported that while the roof and other wooden elements of the building were in bad shape, its massive concrete piers and beams were solid and in no danger of falling. Indeed, unlike most buildings, the concrete frame did not rely on the roof to hold the walls up.
A mass of local preservationists held vigil over the holiday weekend, as demolition equipment stood by. A scheduled Tuesday zoning hearing was continued and an emergency HDRC meeting was held Wednesday night. Amazingly, the HDRC, owners and preservationists all agreed that the structure of the Whitt Building would be saved, its roof and non-original infill walls removed. A save!
But wait, there’s more! Last Friday as I brought our structural engineer over to the Whitt Building, our two videos on the history of the first peaceful and voluntary integration of Woolworth’s and other lunch counters during the 1960 Sit-In movement premiered online! You can see the videos here. On Tuesday morning we went to Bexar County Commmissioner’s Court to receive a proclamation celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building, which opened June 3, 1921.
We got to thank the Commissioner’s Court for their timely contribution of $25m to rehabilitate the Woolworth and Crockett Buildings for the new Alamo museum, including a free exhibit on the lunch counter integration AT THE SITE. Turns out that the Woolworth is the only one of the six surviving lunch counter buildings that retains physical evidence of the serpentine lunch counter!
As if that wasn’t enough for the week, it kept raining and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) reconsidered a plan that would have run a new sewer line over two conservation easements designed to protect the recharge zone for the Edwards Aquifer. Now if we can only get them to do the same on another chunk of recharge land.
Congratulations to all who helped make these victories possible – there were a whole lot of people pulling in the same direction here and it made a difference!
But wait, there’s more! Just got Texas Supreme Court decision upholding Houston’s preservation ordinance! Happy weekend!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.