“A Little Learning…

December 29, 2023 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (1) 172

is a dangerous thing” said Alexander Pope, and he recommended going whole hog (until Alps on Alps arise) or abstaining. Heritage conservation/Historic preservation is a specialized field, and like many specialized fields, the wider world has misapprehensions or misunderstandings about it. We can try to impart a little learning. There are pitfalls though, because misapprehension often rings truer than fact.

A case in point is the National Register of Historic Places. Its name is often misapprehended as “The National Registry” just because that sounds, well, classier. When a building, site, district or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places that means it can’t be torn down, right?

Wrong. Also, Wrong. And Wrong again. The list has been around since 1966 and provides no protection against demolition. It DOES provide a review process that MIGHT make demolition less likely, but that is only if it is literally a federal case. It is kept by the Secretary of the Interior, who will have no idea if anyone is going to tear it down unless a federal agency tells the Secretary they are going to. And they can still tear it down, but only after going through the process.

310 W Polk, Chicago, demolished 1991 by the Postal Service because they knew that the National Register doesn’t prevent demolition.

Now, you can explain that time and time again, but it won’t stick, because the misapprehension is so much more plausible. That’s what it SHOULD mean, right? What really amazes me is that people in high positions dealing with real estate and so forth not only don’t get this, but they suspect there is some weird detail of the National Register that is going to somehow – magically – thwart them. Because it is a specialized field. Fear is always based on lack of knowledge.

Even though the National Register can’t prevent anyone from tearing down anything (there I said it again, but you still don’t believe it, right?) it can provide – since 1976 – preservation tax incentives that can be used to restore the resource. Part of the reason we have so many buildings on the National Register is that real estate developers put them there in order to get a 20% investment tax credit. $2 million off your taxes for a $10 million rehab. Not bad.

But wait, there’s more! In Texas, you can get an additional 25% tax credit ON TOP of the federal one, so your $10 million rehab only costs you $5.5 million. Or, in the case of the St. Anthony above, more than $24 million in tax credits. So who wouldn’t want the National Register – it can finance your rehab or, you can ignore it and tear it down! No downside, right?

Another historic tax credit project, right across the street.

And another, across the street again. Not rocket science.

No downside unless you are a victim of misapprehension, or magical thinking. Case in point: the Conservation Society of San Antonio has nominated of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building (1968, Caudill, Rowlett & Scott) to the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner, the University of Texas at San Antonio, is going to oppose the nomination because they want to “monetize the site.”

Okay. Site. Money. Weren’t we just talking about a tax incentives worth 45% of rehab cost? That would be an attraction to someone buying it. BUT, they assume it will be torn down so Spurs Stadium IV (A New Hope) can be built on a smaller site than the Spurs II and III. So? You are the UT System, you can do what you want. In fact, the State and the UT system don’t even have to ask the city for a demolition permit like the rest of us.

As they proved with the Sutton Building in 2019.

So why would you oppose National Register listing if it adds potential incentives and doesn’t prevent demolition? How could you be so powerful and not understand your power? You don’t quite believe that truth because it doesn’t feel true – this is the National Registry (sic) after all!

Civilization and the current moment are saturated with people following courses of action that contradict their fiduciary responsibilities because they have a better storyline. This National Register thing has got to be a big green dragon – it can’t be as innocuous as they say, right?

Oh look, another historic tax credit project!

A good storyline beats the bottom line any day.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

JANUARY UPDATE: We got a unanimous vote from the State Review Board so now it is up to the State Historic Preservation Office to forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register (or not). We had 9 speakers in favor at the hearing in Galveston and they also received 47 letters of support and many more online expressions of support. UTSA provided the sole opposition to the listing.

FEBRUARY UPDATE: University of Texas Board of Regents voted in secret to either lease or sell the ITC to the City for a new Spurs arena. No one is talking, though.

The Spurs probably have enough tax liability that they could use the historic preservation tax credits themselves, avoiding a syndication!

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Selling House Museums

December 14, 2023 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums Comments (0) 130

The Historic Charleston Foundation has decided to sell the 1808 Nathaniel Russell House, which the Foundation has owned and operated as a house museum since 1955. The news has sparked a backlash from those who want it to stay open to the public. Yet many, including house museum expert Donna Harris, have lauded the Foundation’s decision as a way to bring preservation into the 21st century.

I get it. Last year the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation sold the 1876 Steves Homestead, which it had owned for 70 years and operated as a house museum. As we removed furniture from the house, someone asked if I was sad that it would not be open to the public. I said: “No, my goal is to preserve buildings. Will it be preserved better by having four people live in it or having 40,000 people tromp through it each year?”

Unlike the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Conservation Society Foundation did not decide to market the house museum we sold. We responded to an unsolicited offer and now it is being returned to its original use as a home. That is in line with #1 of the 10 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that a building should be used for its original purpose. No house museum can, by definition, meet this standard.

That bit of petty legalism aside, it is important to remember the basic facts of house museums over the last twelve decades. First, they lose money. Typically, visitation can cover no more than 20-25% of operating costs. That was true in 1910 and 1930 and 1950 and 1980 and it is still true. William Sumner Appleton was subsidizing 80% of his house museum costs in the 1920s. The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – also in Charleston – learned the pitfalls of the house museum solution in the 1920s and 30s when they bought and saved the Manigault House three times. That’s why Charleston created the first historic district in the United States – because house museums don’t work.

The house museums that thrive make up that 75% operating deficit one of three ways:

  1. An endowment (Glass House, Gaylord Building, Villa Finale)
  2. Very high ticket price (Biltmore, Taliesin)
  3. A gift shop/merch operation that can add a $35 book or handkerchief to every $12 ticket (Frank Lloyd Wright sites).

For the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, which has almost a century of its own history to look back upon, we can see that our mission – saving buildings – is not best served by owning everything. We bought Casa Navarro in 1959 and sold it to the state in 1974. We bought the Aztec Theatre in 1988 and sold it to a private owner in 1993. We have bought another dozen buildings in the heart of San Antonio and turned them over to forever owners with a preservation easement on each to insure their long-term conservation. That’s how you do it.

I served many years as Vice Chair of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Sites Committee. The Trust was created by Congress in 1949 to receive house museums. But by the early 2000s it was already clear that the house museum model was not functional, as I blogged about in 2008 and 2012. When Stephanie Meeks became National Trust CEO her first question to me was “Would you ever consider selling one of our historic sites?” and my answer was “In a New York minute, if it was better for the preservation of the building.”

Cooper-Molera Adobe, Monterey, California. One of the National Trust Sites we helped evolve from traditional house museum. I blogged about it in 2011 and then again in 2013. 95% of preservation is adaptive re-use and as that 2013 blog explains, new productive uses do not necessarily impede the learning mission of a site. In fact, they can enhance it and bring it to more people.

To quote from my own blog ten years ago: “The only way to preserve something over the long term is to make it useful and productive for its community. Then the community will preserve it sustainably over the long term. There is no amount of money that can save a building forever – none, even if you put it indoors somehow and encase it in amber. Everything deteriorates. The only way to truly save something is to make it vital and central to enough people that they will keep investing in it forever.”

JANUARY UPDATE: Well, the backlash was so strong that HCF reversed its decision. Enough people showed up with enough “investment” of one kind or another.

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Techno trivia the backward lens

August 21, 2023 Blog, History, Technology Comments (0) 191

You have probably seen those lists where things that seem to be separated by great chasms of history are actually closer in time to each other than you think. Or farther, like the fun fact that Cleopatra (VII) lived closer to the invention of Snapchat than the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. My favorite is the 66 years between the first powered flight and landing on the moon.

But what really amazes me are the things that seem to be backwards in our lens. Take these two human inventions. On the one hand we have the bicycle, a ubiquitous form of transportation and amusement that is deceptively simple but also strikingly modern. Our contemporary bicycles with chains and gears and rubber tires are basically the same age as the first automobiles, starting in the 1880s. There were velocipedes in the early 19th century, and some form of pedal locomotion emerging in the mid-1800s, but even the term bicycle dates to at best 1860, and the modern “safety” bicycle that begat beer guts in lycra is pretty much contemporary with the first automobile around 1885-86.

Now contrast that with an invention that is a good two generations older – the elevator. The first counter-weighted elevators emerged in the 18th century and were steam-powered by the early 19th century. Elishu Otis patented his “safety” elevator in 1853 over thirty years before the “safety” bicycle.

So, when you get off your bicycle and get into an elevator, do you feel like you are going back in time? Because you are.

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Coffee and beer and technology

May 5, 2023 Blog, History, Technology Comments (0) 290

I would like to correct my perspective. In the 17 plus years of this blog I have occasionally gone a little Luddite with some anti-technology rants, like this one back in 2007 or this one a few months ago. When you can remember rotary phones, priming carburetors and rolling your own slide film, you will occasionally become an old grouch. On the flip side, I get massively impatient at slow internet and the horrible jumping up and down on websites caused, I assume, by the damn cookies or whatever. I will join your revolution if I must, but please don’t have it at 17 miles an hour. – even I am not that slow.

Most pickup trucks are not to my taste but I found this one palette able.

I grumble about how external hard drives have special connectors designed to slip out of place if there is any percussive motion within three feet, such as typing on a keyboard; or how those same drives always have to be Force Ejected; or how Google needs me to login six times a day. I whine about how “Check Engine” lights are always on no matter what; and how whatever app you are in you will be forced to sign into another app in order to complete your business. But I admit readily that mostly it is progress, even if I have to call my daughter in to talk to the refrigerator. I don’t want to be the stereotypical grouch, especially as a student of history. We’ve been down this road before.

he stereotype of the old person grumbling about how things were better in their day is at least as old as recorded history. One of the things I could grumble about today is how the craft beer revolution that I was part of 30 years ago is now succumbing to hard seltzers and mango white claws – the offspring of Zima and grandchildren of wine coolers and “alcopops”. They have taken over 2-4 more coolers in the grocery store, squeezing out my beloved IPAs in favor of this flavored nonsense.

There is a Sumerian tablet from 2600 BC where the author – in perfect cuneiform – complains about how the coffee today (2600 BC) is watered down and everyone adds cream and spices (mango? chelada?) and it is no longer “like coffee” was back in my day. Harumph. The same tropes of the generationally challenged can be found in most all surviving literature – Greek comedies two thousand years younger than our grumpy old coffee man have identical characters, and Shakespeare in particular can be set in any time period and place without loss of authentically Harumphian stereotypes. Your generation is not special. All the other ones said the same thing. That’s how history works.

Fashion forward. Imagine what the Gibson girl connoted in 1910.

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The Art and Craft of the Machine in the age of Digital Reproduction

October 14, 2022 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 249

Breitbart said politics is downstream of culture, which means our current political extremism is but a distillate of larger cultural forces. I would posit that while these include globalization, climate crises and inequality, they have been profoundly and quite recently shaped by digital communications. The crowd plodding along the street looking at their phones; the basement incel fulminating in extreme words and images because they are his only communication currency; the politician pushing the goalposts for a given issue further and further because the replication of memery mandates that only violent opinions will secure any attention at all.

And here I sit in the middle of heritage conservation as I have for nearly forty years, a rare combination of education, advocacy, urbanism, regulation and economics that sometimes appears to be the last multipartisan issue. Why? Because it is about culture, upstream of the horses that relieve themselves before it reaches the town hall. But what is culture? Something we associate with aesthetics, to be sure, in art and architecture and costume and song and food and drink. The finer things in life. These too, are kinds of communication, phrases and ideas that because they are standing or dancing physically in the real world do not require ultraviolence. They are real. They do not compete with an endless intergalactic webernet’s flow of rawer and rawer sewage.

The sewage is increasingly available to all, but so is heritage conservation. Every place has its stories, its poems and its puffy tacos and every place has its structures and sculptures and street signs. Climb out of the basement and walk down the street and discover heritage, because every bit of it is a node of empathy and a key to a social contract and communication.

In 1901 Frank Lloyd Wright gave his famous “The Art and Craft of the Machine” speech at Hull House in Chicago, turned it into pamphlet sold at his 1902 exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago and purchased by a teen named Barry Byrne, who read it over and over again. Here was the definition of art AND democracy. The clever title transposed two seemingly diametrically opposed cultural/political movements of the time – the Machine Age versus Arts and Crafts, the celebration of the human artifices of a pre-Industrial era. Byrne’s prodigious writings of the 1940s and indeed his buildings refer back again and again to the pamphlet.

To Wright, the Industrial Age meant liberation and democracy. Now all could enjoy the beauty of machine-sawed wood, the commodity of a clear view of nature, and the utility of affordable home and hearth. To Wright, architecture had been “the universal writing of humanity”, rendered moot by Gutenberg. He agreed with Hugo that the book killed the edifice, but instead of lamenting it like Ruskin he embraced it for freeing us from the drudgery of handcraft and allowing the infinite reproduction of beautiful forms. His European associates would likewise celebrate the Machine Age in their theory, and when time and finance permitted, designs.

Wright boiled it down. Art is artifice and all human creations are artificial. “The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that plastic art may live;” and its replication through industry allowed a broad cast of beauty that would “emancipate human expression.” It was the opposite of the mawkish medievalisms of Ruskin, reveling in ruin.

But a year later in 1903, Alois Riegl gave us the seminal heritage conservation text with his “Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Origin.” I have always had an affinity for his proto-Heidegerrian pseudoscientific categorization of preservation motivations: “Age Value;” “Art Value;” “Use Value;” “Historical Value;” “Commemorative Value;” and even “Newness Value.” He talked of intentional and unintentional monuments. He thought “Age Value” the best because it could be apprehended and appreciated by all.

Wright and Riegl both celebrated nature and science and both were focused on the relation of people to their world and to communication. Wright saw the Machine as bringing a new communication to the broadest possible swath of humanity and Riegl saw the Age Value of the heritage site with similar vocabulary and stimulating that same broad swath. This was an era of world views, of seeking cultural essence. It was an era that revolutionized architecture in dramatic ways but also introduced heritage conservation and its manifold motivations.

These two texts of twelve decades gone may not have anticipated the megafolding multiplicity of our current antisocial media landscape, remaining as they did upstream, on the mountain of culture, where humans and nature intersect for real. I think they would have found the plastic artificiality of our intergalactic webernet as cause for a new essay, albeit one that still valued education, nature and science.

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Options, Upgrades and the elaboration spiral

October 19, 2021 Blog, Technology, Vision and Style Comments (0) 461

It has been a while since I indulged in a technology rant. Here is one from 14 years ago. Here is an even better one from 10 years ago. And while the intelligent rant to undertake in 2021 would dissect the opioid-like distribution of emotional internet content in an effort to secure money or power via rampant interactive dopamine addiction, I will forego this more worthy endeavor and stick to my grumpy old mannerisms.

Bicycling

I ride a bicycle, and for the last two years I have recorded my rides on Strava, an app on my phone. I started doing this because our health insurance gives us rewards via Go365 – another app – for exercising. Strava records the rides and shares the info with Go365 and if we ride a lot in a given week, we get bonus points. Strava is free, but they have been desperate to convert me and other users into paying customers. What do they offer? More options, upgrades, and most insidious of all – suggesting new routes. I would almost pay NOT to have that.

Besides, road construction projects insure that we will always be trying new routes.

The problem is, the app already has too many options. I like to know how far and fast I went, and the altitude business is kinda fun, but comparing my Attagirl to McCullough sprint to the rest of the users is stretching the bounds of my attention. If you wanted me to pay for it, you should not have included everything I need (or could ever want) in the free version.

But they are counting on a natural human tendency to get into things. To elaborate. To get more technical, more gadgety. To explore more options. To geek out. To get complex is naturally to get contradictory. I think there is an architecture book about that. It can be nice in the visual arts. When it is technology, i,.e., when it is supposed to be a tool – Not so nice.

18 C Japanese Amitabha. Nice elaboration.

I get it a little – I tend to geek out on information. History, historic preservation, the history of zoning (god that sounds boring), art history, even music a little. But basically I am looking for a certain level of competency and involvement, and that’s it.

9 years ago

I made my own beer for 19 years, and then quit. I made it with malt syrup kits for about 18 months and then I graduated to an all-grain system which I used for the next 17 years, occasionally adding hops or coriander seed from the garden. It was kind of elaborate for 1995, but by 2012 I continued to make decent, quaffable suds without any desire to design a hop-back, invest in a counterflow chiller or experiment with Brett or lactose. I had a system and it worked and elaboration was for others.

When someone tells me that an app “does so much more” that is super unappealing. That means it needs me to work more. I am dealing with Blackboard after a 9-year teaching hiatus, and I am told it does lots more. My interest is getting the materials online, attendance and grading, which of course are three separate sections of the app (and in the case of grading a separate app) none of which are named appropriately. Grading? DON’T go to the section called “Grades.” Attendance? DON’T go the section called “Attendance.” Want to the see the Readings listed in the Syllabus and Schedule? DO NOT go to the section called “Syllabus and Schedule.”

I’m not really a slow learner

Now the old rants are coming back. I resisted digital photography until 2005, partly because I had a “shift” lens on my camera that allowed me to straighten the edges of tall buildings, correcting the perspective of the image. The digital cameras did not do that, but my colleague assured me I could do it in Photoshop. “Oh, Great,” I responded, “two steps instead of one.” Stealing my time, making me do the work instead of the tech. Bad tool!

And I can’t even find Perspective Correction in Photoshop anymore.
(HINT: It is NOT engaged by checking the box that says “Perspective”)

I used to do lots of writing for Michelin Green Guides and I can assure you that Word 5.1 was the best word processing program. This is long before “Clippy” or “Grammarly” helped those folks sadly deprived of two of the three Rs to write gooderer. Upgrades – elaborations – ruined it.

Quarter century of contributions

Even this damn blog has some wonky new WordPress featurette that forces me to go back to the beginning every time I stop and do something else. This reduces efficiency and makes it take longer – same with the images, which are now impossible to scroll through thanks to the latest upgrades.

What? You can’t name the figure, its attributes or its vehicle? What’s wrong with you?

But actually, the wonkiness of old and overdesigned apps ENHANCES their appeal to geekdom for the same reasons they annoy the happy novice like me. The point of elaboration is to MAKE IT HARDER, not easier! The geeks who designed it, who troubleshot it, who hack it and who find it fun would NOT find it fun and worth all of their effort if it was intuitive and efficient. As someone said about something else: The cruelty IS the point.

Similarly, when I have to take two (more in 2021) steps to correct the perspective on an image, I am doing more work and the technology is doing demonstrably less, even if, in bits and bytes and sensors, it is doing “more.” Here is where we discover the motive for elaboration and overelaborated technology.

It might help if I had a thousand arms.

POWER. That is where the cruelty is the point. I remember a discussion with a printer almost 20 years ago about how people were abandoning the offset press for a variety of self-publishing software. He explained it simply.

“People will trade quality for control.”

They will be happy with a less good product if they get to drive it.

They will be pleased with less efficient technology because they “get it” and I don’t.

Look up and you will notice I was doing it too – giving you all sorts of Asian art objects that I “get” but maybe you don’t.

Just don’t pretend elaboration is progress or upgrades are efficient.

You want to know what is efficient? Stone steps in high jungle. Talk about reducing friction in the 10th century.

Ciudad Perdida in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, Colombia.
See, I did it again.

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San Antonio Roundup September 2021

September 28, 2021 Blog, Historic Districts, House Museums, Texas Comments (0) 524

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.

Oh let me treble the size of my landmark house and then ask permission to reduce my required 5 foot side setback by 4 feet, 11 inches!

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.

Bookmarked travertine to die for.

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.

Until the Obama Center gets finished in Jackson Park: Then we have a new winner!

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.

pre-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!

HEMISFAIR UPDATE:

Well, the parking spaces and bulletproof glass are gone, but it looks like the Park Police will be in that building in Hemisfair. Darn!

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Latest Issues in San Antonio

March 10, 2017 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (3) 2995

Things have been busy at the San Antonio Conservation Society, not only because our major fundraiser Night In Old San Antonio® is coming up next month, but because it is Spring already and a host of development and legislative issues are heating up.

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The Value of Heritage

February 4, 2017 Economics, Sustainability, Texas Comments (0) 2352

When a lover of history, architecture, or neighborhoods sees an historic building or district, they value it.  They want to save it, to preserve that value. Continue Reading

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Real Estate 2017

January 27, 2017 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts, Technology Comments (1) 2294

I attended a recent ULI event here in San Antonio that outlined emerging trends in  real estate.  I was struck by how much the factors they identified tracked with my own prognostications in November during my Partners speech in Houston at the National Trust conference.

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