Archive for April, 2016

The Vacant Stare

April 26, 2016

In my last blog, I took the new leaders of historic Oak Park to task for forgetting why the Village is an attractive place and proposing the demolition of three nice old buildings (one of which definitely rates as a landmark) on Madison Street.  The proposed demolition is part of a road-bending plan that completely redeveloped several blocks.

Madison Wesley 20s auto buildingNothing to see here, move along, please.

Some would argue that these buildings (only the landmark is vacant) have failed to attract development for 7 or 8 years, so they should be razed.  Interestingly, much of the plan’s site is already vacant, and has been so for more than ten years.  So, if the first part about razing buildings to make way for development is true, how come these come-hither drop-dead gorgeous vacant lots haven’t succeeded in attracting development?

Madison Euclid vacant lot2Ooh-la-la!

Because of the Vacant Lot Myth.  I have spent a three-decade career being told by real estate developers that historic buildings need to be razed in order to attract new development.  I guess the idea is that a blank piece of paper allows one to be more creative than one that already has some drawings on it.

OP Madison vacant lot2Move the cars so I can see what you look like

Except that is wrong.  I can tell you it is wrong from having taught Fine Arts students and I can tell you it is wrong according to recent research referenced here.  Referred to as the “Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis” after the famous Dr. Seuss book written while constrained to 50 words.  Constraints – like old buildings rather than vacant lots – will inspire MORE creative solutions than the blank slate.  Intuitively true, it is nice to see research supporting this.

OP Madison vacant lotWould you eat them in a box?  Would you eat them with a fox?

Vacant lots are fine if you want to attract cookie-cutter development, the kind that can go absolutely anywhere because it does not relate to place – it relates only to the abstract commodities of square footage, the diagrammatic commodities of access and exposure, and design born of exigency not inspiration.

Which is not what most of use think of Oak Park.  We think it is special and terribly attractive place.

Best Buy genericIdentify where this is.  Stumped?  How about within 100 miles?  200?

So why is Oak Park acting like my teenage daughter who is inherently beautiful but spends hours in the mirror finding fault and spending all of her TIF funds on makeup?

alexface61

Taxpayers are spending $360,000 to study the plan, even though the developer is already buying up land, according to the Wednesday Journal.  There is also a TIF district because there always is.  So the taxpayers are subsidizing this one in several formats and believe me it costs more than mascara (which we bought at Walgreen’s on Madison – where they re-used an old building.)

Oak Park Madison WalgreensYeah but you can’t get a major retailer to….nvm.

Shouldn’t we use this soupçon of subsidies on a creative plan rather than one that any other community in the country could have?  Don’t we value our own attractiveness?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oak Park Amnesia

April 20, 2016

Well I have been back in Oak Park for over half a year now, and it just got listed as the coolest suburb in the Chicago area, in large part for its incredible historic architecture (over two dozen buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright – more than ANYWHERE, and tons more by other Prairie architects) and a rising restaurant and nightlife scene.

oak park s lake E 1970sS Oak Park Avenue in the 1970s

But even places that book tens of millions each year on their heritage sometimes forget how they got there, and apparently Oak Park village officials in 2016 have not only memory loss, but a dramatic diminution of executive function.

That is perhaps a harsh analysis, but we have a recently released economic development plan to prove it. The plan covers a two-block stretch of Madison Street, which was once Oak Park’s Motor Row. Among the few remnants of that heritage are this 1948 former automobile showroom,

IMG_3299

And this 1923-26 Hill Motors automobile showroom, which I thought was a landmark – we went to a Oak Park Area Arts Council event there some years ago.  It has been proposed as a landmark for the last NINE YEARS without Village action (and was on Landmarks Illinois 2007 Watch list).

Madison Wesley 20s auto building

There is also this 1922 muffler repair building which is remarkably intact.

Madison Euclid CarX

These last two buildings were designed by Oak Park’s most prolific architect, E.E. Roberts. Roberts had a long and storied history and produced many Village landmarks.

IMG_3300Details.  That’s where God is.

Now this new economic development plan proposes demolishing ALL three of these buildings. This despite the fact that they are “Significant” in the Madison Street plan and should require input from the preservation commission. One section of the Hills Motor seems to be preserved, the smaller half.

Madison Wesley 20s auto bldgWhich will be enhanced by a BIG OLD PARKING DECK next to it.

Is it 1965 yet?

Now remember how we convinced Walgreen’s to restore this nice little building a decade ago instead of demolishing it? It is only a block away.  See the blog here.

Oak Park Madison Walgreens Just imagine it in a landfill.  We like recycling here.

The Village also knocked another significant E.E. Roberts showroom at 260 Madison Street without ever consulting the Preservation Commission.

Now there are several vacant lots that the plan is addressing, which is good, but for some reason they want remove most of the buildings that are left.  Hmmm.

The plan curiously bends Madison Street here.  Now, granted the street is wide enough that they added planters in the last attempt to revitalize it. Which kind of worked, because there are several viable businesses here that will vanish if the plan proceeds.

madison plntres

Why bend the street? In part it is traffic calming but the bigger part is advertising.   It will add some taxable buildable property on the south side once they knock down the 1948 building, supposedly JUST ENOUGH to attract a major anchor tenant.

Bottom line?   It will give the new building on the south side a physical prominence – kind of like a foot sticking out to trip you – thanks to the giveaway of public right-of-way.  A billboard without a billboard.

I’m not sure if they are paying any attention to retail trends in 2016 because the anchor tenant they are looking at would simply replace one two blocks away (same issue with Walgreen’s a decade ago) and depends on car-oriented once-a-week shopping, which is actually WAY over.

Is it 1965 yet?

At the end of the day it seems the kind of junior varsity economic development move that a more down-on-its-heels town might scramble after, not a mature community with an international reputation.  Especially since under the Village’s OWN PLAN they need to ask the Preservation Commission about the Foley-Rice Building.  So, are they going to?

This short-sighted plan needs a tune-up.

Panama Papers and Preservation

April 5, 2016

I am going to jump on current events, namely the release of terabytes of data from Panama implicating an international host of politicians and businesspeople and celebrities in whacking great amounts of money laundering.  These range from the obvious beneficiaries of oligarchy like the Russian and Pakistani leadership to the unexpected (Iceland?) and I am sure the contortionist rhetoricians of our endless political winter will try to tie in some of our own candidates and their corporate backers.  I of course will focus on preservation.

$3 mill.jpg

A home last summer in my former hometown of Los Gatos.  $3 million.  That is normal in Silicon Valley.  In fact, in Palo Alto, the median home price is well over $2 million.

So what do these MASSIVE tales of money laundering have to do with heritage conservation?  Well, if you have been following my blogs here and in Traditional Building recently, you know I have been taking on the issue of historic districts and real estate prices. Both the Bay Area and Manhattan are known for their otherworldly real estate prices, and what the Panama Papers have shown is that one of the prime receptacles for laundered money is real estate.  In those markets (also Miami, which has like only a couple decades of dry real estate left).  Look at the Panama Papers article here.

LG W yellow VictorianSAnother Los Gatos Victorian.  I don’t know the price, but if you have to ask….

Okay, so all sorts of dirty dealers are stowing their ill-gotten gains in real estate – how does that affect preservation?  Well, first of all, it gives the lie to those economists and politicians who like to blame high prices on environmental regulations.  This was a key to Ed Glaeser’s analysis of Silicon Valley and Manhattan in Triumph of the City (great book, I reviewed it in this blog here.) It is also part of the false narrative behind the legislative efforts against historic districts in Michigan and Wisconsin.

office PASPalo Alto.  Michigan and Wisconsin wish they had this problem.

Four years ago when we were looking for a place in Silicon Valley, the pattern was (and is) that you would show up at a house or condo and there would be 15-20 other people and 2 or 3 of them would offer 10-20% OVER the asking price.  Cash.  No mortgage.  Nothing suspicious about that.  Did you ever see that 80s movie “The Boost” with James Woods?

LG mcmansion nasty.JPGYou’d have to be high to find good design here.  Also in Los Gatos.

This happens A LOT.  It happens in Chicago too – I remember a time before the ’08 crash when at least HALF of condos sold in downtown Chicago were speculative purchases that were NOT going to be lived in by the purchaser.  I’m sure it is true again right now because they are building a buttload of new residential towers on the Chicago River.

Chgo River 614The Riverwalk is done so you get that taxpayer subsidy.  Not that it matters, because you really live in Moscow or Shanghai or Odessa or Sao Paolo.

Secondly, this real estate reality also confounds the detractors on the left, who complain that environmental regulations (which include zoning, BTW) prevent affordable housing by driving prices up.  This is the old saw about preservation and gentrification, but as we just learned above THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF EMPTY UNITS in these expensive cities because they are housing MONEY, not PEOPLE.  This is, sadly, normal functioning of the real estate market.  Everywhere.

Guiyang twrs

Guiyang.  It has like 4 or 5 million people.  And Lamborghinis.  Lotsa places to park cash.

Supply follows demand, but you see the demand is for real estate INVESTMENT, and the supply is provided not based on the need for interior space but based on the need for investment vehicles.  Got it?  When you watch these markets at work you realize that there is a large cadre of actors who are driving the market, regulations be damned.  In fact, the whole point of Silicon Valley is to drive markets, for tech, for rides, for food, whatever.  That is what they do, period.

PA cool car.JPGWhen they aren’t buying cars.  Actually, they control that market too – the biggest international classic car show is Monterey.

It will be interesting to see the scale of laundering in the Panama Papers, because this issue is one of scale, and that is what separates actual economic analysis from policy positions based on ideology and anecdotes.

Sf Ital rowhousSSan Francisco.  Where the whole world owns real estate despite all of the regulations.