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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Fires have hit two historic houses in the last couple of weeks and it reminds me of the tragedy of losing landmarks to fire. The first was a stunning Alta Vista bungalow that was NOT occupied. Of course, if you have a building that is not occupied and not secured, it IS occupied by homeless. In winter, fire becomes even more likely.
Indeed, that is what caused the fire at the old Lone Star brewery a year ago. Sadly, this bungalow has not been cared for by the owners. The other fire was next to a landmark, but one man called to say the home had been visited by two presidents, something we are looking into.
Fire, fire, fire. One of the biggest gut punches I ever felt was returning to Chicago from New York in 2006 and seeing the news that Pilgrim Baptist Church had burned – an architectural landmark (originally KAM synagogue) by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler and a cultural icon as the home of gospel music founder Thomas Dorsey.
That year saw two of Louis Sullivan’s buildings burn and another demolished in a perverse and macabre celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. I blogged about it here and witnessed the second fire from the Loop train platform.
The two 2006 Sullivan fires were caused by dodgy tradesmen using torches where they should not have been using torches. Shortcuts. Fauler Mistkerl.
I saw it with an 1830s Greek Revival house in Lockport in 2000 when they used heat guns to strip paint, ignoring the 150 year old newspaper packed into the walls. They went to lunch and it burned down.
Sometimes it is deliberate. Another gut punch was a weekend we took the dog for a walk in Humboldt Park and saw that the stunning 1896 Fromman and Jebsen Stables Building had been torched.
Back here in San Antonio we had that dramatic fire in the historic gas station at Flores, Cevallos and Nogalitos a year ago. Fortunately the walls are still there and there is hope for a rebirth.
Interestingly, that old Pilgrim Baptist Church just got a big stabilization grant to help preserve those surviving walls nearly 15 years after the fire. Where there is a will, there is a way.
“It is better to seek forgiveness than permission.”
Unless you believe in justice and the rule of law. Or have an economist’s need for certainty and market stability. If you are just trying to get away with stuff, perdón beats permiso for sure. Yay criminality!
This is an attitude you come across in historic preservation – indeed, urban development in general – all the time. People just go ahead and whack away at their building without permits and hope they can get away with stuff.
Often they do. In San Antonio, violating a permit (or not having one) does not have a financial penalty. In some cases, the building owner can be required to put things back the way they were, although absent clear and malicious intent, that rarely happens. In other places, you can be fined up to $500 a day until you put it right.
Now take a gander at the above photo. What is it? It is a kiosk, I say. That is what the permit that was approved in 2018 said. A park with some trails and benches and a small retail kiosk.
So, the developers got an approval for a kiosk, which quietly morphed into a 5,000 square foot restaurant, plus 3,000 square feet of outdoor seating. Let’s hear it for open space!
This case is not the malicious building owner as much as the misdirecting one, and often it is the city facilitating the sleight-of-hand. We (Conservation Society) called it “bait-and-switch” in our statement, which recalled the drawings from 2018 which included no restaurant at all.
We do see this from the development community, especially between the “conceptual approval” of a development and “final approval.” “Conceptual approval” will often feature nicely finished new buildings, which then get dumbed down into cereal boxes by value engineers prior to “final approval.” Or, the old building they promised to save has deteriorated so much (often by active undermining) that they can no longer save it, it costs too much cry cry cry.
I think it would be better if we got back to a level playing field where ALL building owners played by the same rules, and promises made one year were still valid the next. Here’s hoping that an era of sneaking and cheating comes to an end.
If it wasn’t enough that the San Antonio Housing Authority voted to demolish the Alazan Courts project (1940) just weeks after it was included on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List (see my blog here), they are also moving to destroy the only piece left from Victoria Courts, an administration building from the same era 80 years ago.
Now, the building was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the Texas Historical Commission, so if SAHA is using federal funds or permits, then it is an “undertaking” and would have to be reviewed by THC in its role as State Historic Preservation Office. It doesn’t mean you can prevent demolition, but it can slow it down and allow people to reconsider.
When historic housing projects first became eligible for listing back in the mid-1990s, a lot of people and media attacked the notion that these hoity-toity preservationists were interfering with the noble goal of providing decent housing for the working poor. And no one does that better than a local housing authority.
Except that isn’t how it is done. The way housing authorities have worked for the last three decades is that they raze their old projects, partner with a private developer who gets tax credits for providing housing for people at 50 or 80 percent of median area income, while also providing market rate housing, thus eliminating economic ghettos and giving people a leg up.
As you may have guessed, this model is problematic, because by the time you displace a family for demolition and rebuilding, you are likely to never see them again. Moreover, the familiar pattern is like this – you slowly depopulate the project so when it is time to raze and redevelop, you have a far smaller number of people you are obligated to rehouse.
Interestingly, many clever developers have become adept at combining the low-income housing tax credits with the historic preservation tax credits. They even offered to help SAHA with Alazan-Apache, so we wrote SAHA and testified at their hearing.
Crickets. Again, nobody likes the hard work.
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
Last week the reports that the Alamo had commissioned regarding the three buildings the State purchased in 2015 were finally released more than two years after they were announced. The reports vindicated preservation.
The report from highly respected John G. Waite & Associates, Architects, confirmed what we had expected – the buildings are structurally sound and adaptable to a variety of uses, including a museum. Another report by Trinity University historian Dr. Carey Latimore was commissioned later, after the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building documented the history of San Antonio’s famous lunch counter integration, which occurred at seven sites on March 16, 1960. As a bonus, the Waite Report also noted that the Woolworth Building was the only one of the five surviving buildings that actually had physical traces of the lunch counter.
A third previously unknown report was designed to specifically counter the Conservation Society’s argument that the photographs taken March 16, 1960 all depicted the Woolworth lunch counter. I dealt with this conflict between documentary and visual evidence ten months ago here.
Just before the release, the Alamo announced the construction of a new exhibition hall at the east end of the existing gardens behind the shrine. The reason for this is that they have a deadline to exhibit Phil Collins’ Alamo collection.
The Conservation Society has been advocating for the re-use of these buildings for over five years, and the release of the reports vindicated our position, a position that also led to State Antiquities Landmark designation for the Woolworth Building, and its landing on the World Monuments Watch List 2020. We had been requesting these reports for over a year and we are glad that they have been finally made public.
NOVEMBER 13 UPDATE
City Council was briefed on the Alamo plan yesterday and there has been a lot of discussion of “unwinding the lease” between the city and the state. Political battles at the state level between GLO Commissioner George P. Bush and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, the Texas Historical Commission’s denial of the plan to move the 1940 Cenotaph, and the departure of most of the project’s high profile private donors have put the whole project in question.
I vividly remember when many of the early 1930s federal housing projects became eligible for listing on the National Register in the early 1990s. People made fun of the idea that public housing could be historic, but here we are a quarter-century later and it is no longer unusual. Indeed, a decade ago I was historic preservation consultant for the redevelopment and conservation of the Julia Lathrop Homes in Chicago (1937).
Today the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its list of the 11 Most Endangered Landmarks in the United States, and San Antonio’s Alazan-Apache Courts, started in 1939, were at the top of the list. Kudos go to Sarah Zenaida Gould, PhD, who mounted an exhibit on the project over a year ago and has been a vigorous preservationist with the Westside Preservation Alliance, Museo del Westside, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and the Coalition for the Woolworth Building.
The San Antonio Housing Authority is threatening the demolition of the last of the federal public housing projects in San Antonio. Indeed, they are on a spree, having planned the demolition of the only surviving building from the Victoria Courts complex (1940) just last week.
I get it. The public housing that was a radical upgrade in the 1930s (indoor plumbing) is now behind the times (air-conditioning). Even in our Lathrop Homes project, we could not save all of the buildings. But several other of the 1930s Chicago projects were demolished completely, like the Ida B. Wells Homes and the Jane Addams Homes (except for one building, soon to be the National Public Housing Museum).
Public housing often gets heavily altered over time, but that is why we have been refining the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards specifically in regard to definitions of integrity at sites of cultural significance. (You can see my work on this from 2015 here, and from my 2018 chapter here.) Even though all of these federal housing projects were designed by an A-list of local architects (it was the Great Depression – they needed jobs) their significance is cultural.
The projects reflected the segregated space of the time. The Alazan-Apache Courts were built on the Westside for Mexican-Americans. At the time, the courts were a dramatic contrast with the tiny, tightly-packed houses of the area. Their recognition by the National Trust also points to another historic inequity: preservation and landmarking on San Antonio’s West Side.
This is part of the Rinconcito de Esperanza, which contains several award-winning historic buildings, the modern adobe Mujer Artes center, and the emergent Museo del Westside. It just became the first historic landmark district on the Westside. That is crazy. A large historic district called Buena Vista is being proposed, but historically the West Side has been overlooked.
I hope that this important National designation brings more attention to the history and culture of San Antonio’s Westside. And of course I hope it helps save the Alazan-Apache Courts.
The meeting started at 9 AM and ended at 7 PM with a 12-2 vote by the Texas Historical Commission NOT to approve a permit to relocate and restore the Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza. This relocation had been characterized by the City and Alamo Endowment as essential for the success of the entire plan.
That characterization is curious – one would think that the development of the museum – which has a timeline imposed by donor Phil Collins – would be the key element of the plan. Or the closing of the streets. Or even the relocation of the entertainment zone facing the Plaza, which seemed for years to be the key negative motivator for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. But there has been no movement on that issue at all.
The Conservation Society of San Antonio has been primarily focused on the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings, as I have blogged about many times. It was interesting to hear the Texas Historical Commission debate the Cenotaph relocation. My first takeaway was: These people know what they are talking about. Laurie Limbacher displayed a razor-sharp knowledge of concrete and armatures, and several other Commissioners made it clear that they understood the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards which discourage relocation unless it is needed to safeguard a structure.
Which brought everything back to the curious logic of “this must happen first”? THC Chairman John Nau was not buying it. He said the site is too important “to suggest that the entire project depends on granting a single permit.” Were they giving themselves a way out? The project started six years ago and has been fueled entirely by public money so far. It was stated during the meeting that no private fundraising had been done yet, something I wondered about last month.
Meanwhile, the Alamo itself has reopened after nearly half a year, although it and the Cenotaph are still surrounded by barricades.
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.