Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Latest news on Alamo Plaza

December 3, 2016

The big news this week is the long-awaited release of the Alamo Master plan, following a process that took most of the year.  Actually, the real master plan won’t be done for another six months, but the summary that was released to City Council and civic groups finally takes some clear positions on what the Alamo area will look like in the future.

Alamo 7;12 AMl

This image I took about five months ago in some ways summarizes the plan, offered by George Skarmeas of Philadelphia and a large local team.  The goal is to restore focus not simply on the Alamo church but the plaza in front of it.  They propose to remove traffic from Alamo Street, which while presenting a traffic challenge (there will be no northbound street route for half a mile) will reclaim the original ground level and create a coherent plaza to interpret both the mission period and the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

shop row facing alamo

Of key importance to groups like the San Antonio Conservation Society, the historic buildings facing the Alamo across the plaza will not be demolished, as had been proposed by some who wanted to reconstruct the west wall of the compound (for stunning views of a 5-story parking garage, I guess).  Indeed, the team proposes turning the 1882 Crockett Block (see my blog on architect Alfred Giles) into a new high-tech Alamo museum, a double win for preservationists, who have advocated not only for the building but also for high-tech VR interpretation.  (Another blog reference.)

Crocket facade detail

The only cautionary note here is that the proposal guarantees preservation of the facades but foresees indeterminate change inside, due to potential demands of the new museum.  Hopefully they find a clever architect who can meet modern demands while minimizing disruption of historic fabric.  The plan also preserves the Woolworth Building, site of the first successfully and peacefully integrated lunch counter in the south, back in 1960, although those interiors are long gone.


In addition to closing the street, the plan is to create a single, lower and more original level to the plaza, as opposed to the accretion of parks, gazebos, curbs and so forth that have cluttered the plaza and given visitors the impression that the church is where all the history happened, as opposed to the plaza, where it actually did.

alamo-plazasThe trees are slated to go as well….

To reinforce the importance of the plaza, they will put a wall and entrance in the position of the original, primary South Gate.  The full plaza cannot be restored, since almost a third of it lies north of Houston Street, under the stunning Federal building and Post Office.

po-courthousesYeah, so about 20 yards into this building  is where Santa Anna broke through the Alamo wall…

Probably the most controversial proposal is to move the Alamo Cenotaph erected in 1940-41 and designed in marble and granite by sculptor Pompeo Coppini.  The cenotaph is fairly large and vertical, so it does contribute to the sense that the Alamo church is “too small,” a common visitor impression.  And while it might be located near where many fell, it is a cenotaph, which means no one is buried there.  They propose moving it to a greensward on the Riverwalk about three blocks away, where recent research has shown that the funeral pyre was likely located.  Despite this rationale I expect this aspect to be hotly debated in the coming months.


On balance the plan will help create a more coherent interpretation, as opposed to the accretion of many layers, which does little to orient or educate visitors.


It is significant that this work is happening in 2016 after the Alamo became part of the the San Antonio Missions World Heritage inscription of 2015.  Creating a coherent plaza will help interpret not only the great battle for Texas freedom, but also its long mission history.

sama-gentliz-alamo19cThis is what the church looked like in 1836 – that distinctive campanulate top to the church was added by the US Army in the 1850s.  From Gentilz painting in San Antonio Museum of Art.

In fact, the church was built fairly late in the mission’s history and never completed (an earlier one collapsed). As Skarmeas said, the goal is to create a sense of reverence and solemnity on a site that is now a jumble of commercial concerns and random pathways ill-suited to contemplation.  To achieve it – in the center of the nation’s seventh-largest city – remains a great challenge.



The Future of Heritage Conservation

November 20, 2016

Well, it finally started to happen, and in Houston of all places.  PastForward, the National Preservation Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, witnessed the emergence of the next generation of “preservation” practitioners and highlighted the future of the movement.  Featuring inner-city artists who save places like Houston native Rick Lowe and Chicagoan Theaster Gates, it felt to many of us like the movement had finally turned the corner and embraced the future.

project-row-houses-the-shotProject Row Houses by Rick Lowe – I finally saw it 20 years after I met the man.

It was the conference in Nashville in 2009 when Donovan Rypkema exhorted us to stop calling it “historic preservation” and embrace “heritage conservation”.  I immediately agreed with him and wrote a blog and article about it after Nashville.  In the years since we have labored to create a more diverse National Register of Historic Places, an effort I have written and spoken about often.  Around 2010 I was involved in strategic planning efforts on the boards of both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the short answer was: we need to let the next generation define and lead this movement.  And now it seems we are beginning to do so.

theaster-at-pfTheaster Gates speaking at PastForward, Houston 2016.

I had two opportunities to participate in this discussion at the conference in Houston.  First, I was asked to talk about the Future of “Preservation” practice as the keynote of the Partners luncheon.  My message in some ways was simple:  It is heritage conservation, and we need to become urbanists and culturalists more than architectural historians.  We need to embrace place and people and move away from the rules-driven world of preservation regulation and into the future-building world of community engagement and empowerment.

20th st murals

As I have been saying for years, heritage conservation is a PROCESS that begins with engaging community in what elements of their past they want in their future.  The tools of engagement are many, as are the results, because a rule or standard that works for one cultural community may not work for another.  I have worked all over the world and I know this process can work ANYWHERE and I know equally well how to fail.

L1000417_1It’s always an uphill climb… Tustan, Ukraine, 2006.  They did not fail, as I reported earlier this fall.

I organized the talk around specific changes happening now and in the future that effect our field, like the nature of commercial real estate in an internet-and-drone world, where there are fewer stores and more restaurants, and where physical space is not for meeting needs but creating experiences.

luminaria night bright2

There is climate change and rising sea levels which will drown many resources and force very difficult triage decisions.  We will be forced to abandon certain resources or go to great lengths to save others.  Despite this,  heritage conservation is well suited to this future, because it has always been future-oriented.  It has always been about planning.  And – for at least the last 50 years – it has been all about adaptive re-use.  The greatest urbanist successes worldwide in recent decades have come from whole districts repurposed for new uses.

lodo 083_1.jpgLower Downtown, Denver.

For half a century heritage conservationists have been revitalizing downtowns and Main Streets.  While the organization men of commercial real estate were fleeing to the malls and declaring downtowns dead, we crafted new downtowns out of old buildings and bequeathed to millenials something they can’t live without.  We learned long ago that the most sustainable development model is rehabbing old buildings.  And now the organization men have turned tail and are glomming on to our historic centers.

pearl-brewerysEspecially in Texas where this Pearl has added luster to a whole city…

I also touched on technology, which is giving us new, less-damaging ways to identify and document historic resources like LIDAR and ground-penetrating radar.  It is also giving us new non-destructive ways to interpret historic sites, like the recreation of the paint colors at the Missions here in San Antonio during “Restored By Light.”  Technology is allowing us to avoid irreversible decisions in both documentation and interpretation.


Technology is also letting us know why our brains prefer historic places, and why we need the sense of human connection that heritage conservation gives us, but that mechanistic analog approaches to economic development often fail to do.

I then dealt as I have for many years with the need to be inclusive in an increasingly diverse society.  This has been an important issue in our field for a quarter-century, and we are finally formulating solutions.  We learned during the opening plenary at Houston that Houston is actually the model of a diverse city, with various groups represented at roughly the same percentage as the world at large.  So I have been saying this, but it became evident in this conference that we have started DOING it.


It became apparent to me in a panel I had the honor of moderating on Friday, called “We The People..” which had three young heritage conservation professionals describe the new tools they have developed for engaging community in conservation, and how those tools of engagement are reshaping the field.

14732353_1420491561312319_1200806351050471464_nMe, Emilie Evans, Briana Grosicki, and Claudia Guerra.

Briana Grosicki talked about the parcel survey done in Muncie, Indiana, which is creating a database that involves the residents in collecting information not only about buildings but other aspects of place-based life.  This helps address the 70% of older buildings that define most cities, not the 4-5% that are landmarked.  Emilie Evans talked about Brick + Beam Detroit, a program that helps property owners, contractors and rehabbers develop their capacity to transform their environments through positive action.  Claudia Guerra spoke about her efforts to collect oral histories and other intangible heritage elements that define the lives of those around San Antonio’s historic missions, whose UNESCO World Heritage inscription was earned not through architecture but through a cultural landscape that defined a meeting of civilizations that began 300 years ago and IS STILL GOING ON.  Continuity with the past.

MIssion Concepcio after massMission Concepcion after Sunday mass.

Claudia’s cultural mapping project is one all “preservationists” should support, because it brings us into the current millennium in terms of our heritage conservation tools, techniques, and objectives, and because it activates the community to help direct and steward that effort over time.  People ARE connected to place, and thanks to technology and an understanding of the conservation process, we can all work to help them identify those elements they need to continue to connect them to place.

seminar group1sMy SAIC students at Roger Brown Study Collection, Chicago, December 2009.

I have been fortunate to work in this field for more than three decades and I am even more fortunate to witness how the next generation is transforming and expanding heritage conservation to make a more meaningful life for everyone.

PS I actually saw at least three of the above students at PastForward in Houston!

Gas Station Heritage

August 22, 2016

Back in 2008, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held a national contest called “This Place Matters” where people voted on sites that mattered to them – to their history, their identity and their community. As I noted in my blog at the time, the winner was not a grand mansion or a pathbreaking design by a famous architect.


It was a Humble Oil gas station in San Antonio. The San Antonio Conservation Society started surveying the city’s historic gas stations back in 1983. We built up a database, which has led to the City proposing the designation of some 30 of these significant community landmarks.

Slimp Oilb.jpgSlimp Oil, 604 Carolina

Happily, there has been a trend for years of converting the stations into restaurants. The typical design with a large canopy creates a welcoming feel (and an outdoor dining spot!)

St. Mary's N, 2334e (2012)North St. Mary’s

Some have been converted into ice houses (that is a kind of outdoor bar/restaurant for you Northerners) and auto shops and even churches and residences.

Flores S, 3124-6a (2012)

3124 S Flores

Many of those proposed for designation are in need of rehabilitation and have lost some bits of detail here and there, but all are certainly capable of being restored.


202 Fredericksburg

I have long been interested in historic gas stations, but they are especially relevant in South Texas where the industry really took off following Spindletop and the Model T. These are a central part of our regional heritage.

716 S Alamo

Our initial 1983 survey was updated and expanded in 2012 through a web portal that allowed for public access. The Society and the City hosted an event in May celebrating gas station architecture.

Nogalitos, 0901 - 26901 Nogalitos

Which is why it is curious that one of the largest and best of the list was ignored in a Business Journal article today touting the new development on the East Side by Varga Endeavors and Harris Bay.  They have a large site planned as a ring of 5-story buildings with a courtyard retail terrace centered on a vertical urban farm.  It has a kinda Silicon Valley “wow” factor for San Antonio.

The article lauds the fact that there were no historic buildings on site, as if such would somehow detract from the development concept.  Not true.  They would enhance it. As I explained in my recent blog “The Vacant Stare”, vacant sites do not inspire more creative solutions.Slimp Oil2b

Also curious is who told the developers that there were no historic buildings on the site. We’ve been aware of these treasures for decades.  They have been on a publically accessible website for four years.  And compared to many of the others on the list, this station is in excellent shape.

Carolina, 604 - 10 (2014)

We explained the significance of the site to Mr. Varga last week and encouraged him to work it into his new development.   It could be a drive-in entry to the project, or even part of the retail marketplace. Its “Alamo” roofline creates a great branding opportunity for the project just south of the Alamodome.  Here’s hoping that his architects see this superior example as an opportunity to enhance their project.


Kudos to developer Efraim Varga, who has now announced that the Slimp Oil building will indeed be the entrance to his project – an excellent decision that preserves the best of the past while ushering in an exciting new development!



Concrete Culture and the One-Trick Pony

May 15, 2016

I was going to write a blog about the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, now that I have been on hand to witness its demise on two waterfronts, one saltwater, one freshwater.  I spoke to fierce advocates, including a friend who was on the committee that selected the Chicago site south of Soldier Field.  I wondered why advocates had not developed a clear vision of what the museum was supposed to be, and I wondered whether lakefront museums designed for international tourists ever really serve the local population.

Met steps crowdEveryone in every borough goes to the Met, right?

But then I read this article by Jonathan Wynn about why cities should stop building museums.  This has many more implications for preservation and urban economics than the trials and tribulations of a single museum which is Totally Not About Star Wars.

soldier-fielddsIt’s the lakefront – what could go wrong?

Museums, like the United States and its Constitution, are a legacy of the Enlightenment and as such are supposed to be special, rarefied and a few steps above the quotidian and commercial.  But we now have more museums than McDonald’s and Starbucks stores COMBINED (see this article).  So they aren’t rarefied anymore. As the line between public and private has gone fugitive, ALL tourist attractions follow the same economic model, whether they are publicly or privately owned.

surfing museumSSurfing Museum, Santa Cruz

tool sign copyMuseums are a development tool.  And this is a tool museum.

And they all tend to have massive public subsidies, at least the ones built in my lifetime.  Over 100 sports stadiums were built in the last 25 years, most with tax-exempt bonds, and they are acknowledged now to be economically “dreadful,” to use Wynn’s term.  In Chicago, U.S. Cellular Field pioneered an unbelievable public pillaging way back in the 80s.

cellular fldOkay, taxpayers funded construction.  Now can they please buy tickets as well?

Now museums would seem to be different, more refined, more elegant, certainly more educational.  And they are usually not-for-profits, which means the massive public subsidies are going to a public good (at least those member of the public that can manage $25 museum admissions).  The University of Chicago found that between 1994 and 2008 Seven Hundred and Twenty Five (725) cultural institutions were built for $15.5B.  The result?  12 percent saw an increase in attendance.  Not an ROI to write home about.

OI egyptOne of the museums at the University of Chicago

Wynn’s recommendation?  More festivals.  They can be priced to cover their costs NOW, they are immensely popular, and they are incredibly good economic development generators for their communities.  Think about Coachella or SXSW, which have become positively definitional for their communities WITHOUT PERMANENT BUILDINGS.  Events come and go, but unlike sports teams and museums, they don’t leave giant single-use hulks behind.

SC blues fest14iSanta Cruz Blues Fest.

32 million people attended music festivals in 2014.  Festivals are nimble, they can switch venues, switch lineups, and unlike fancy waterfront museums, are MUCH more inclusive and diverse.  Wynn quotes Toronto Mayor John Tory:  “We should build the events – and maybe a building will follow.”

hardly strictly

This makes sense to me.  In heritage conservation we spend way too much time painfully reverse engineering this.  We have a building resource and we try to find the events and programming it needs.  This is especially challenging when it comes to house museums, as I have written about many times before, here, here, and here.

Lyndhurst E besterSMaybe a Goth festival?

Interestingly, most of the buildings that have survived 70 or 150 or 300 years are relatively adaptable.  It is difficult to find a city these days that does not have a lively neighborhood in an old warehousing district, where sturdy adaptable buildings still stand.  They epitomize the 21st century design fundamental “Long Life, Loose Fit.”  More challenging are those terribly specific buildings, especially the ones requiring crowds of people, like churches, theater and stadia.

3rd wd  red romThird Ward, Milwaukee

The 21st century economy is nimble and adaptable.  Capital is nimble; Labor will be, once artificial barriers are removed, and the only commodity worth its salt (hehe) is information.  The spaces around us become important not in their ability to deliver a certain commodity or experience, but their ability to deliver ALL commodities and experiences.

luminaria pop wallSLuminaria art event in San Antonio, one city that has married festival events and historic infrastructure in a remarkably successful way.  You should go there.  Soon.

The same is true of cities.  Those that spend billions financing one-use facilities will have a generation of debt and a one-trick pony to show for it.  Those that build events and experiences will be able to animate all kinds of spaces and buildings.  And they will offer the future something other than unpaid bills.

luminaria night bright2






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?


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,


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.






San Francisco and the heritage of cultural innovation

March 31, 2016


Mission St theatreSThe Mission, recently

Heritage conservation is about place even more than buildings, which are large and important but not exclusive constituents of place.  “If these walls could talk” is also true of streets (I did a course for over a decade called “If These Streets Could Talk”)  and sidewalks and trees and mountains and streams and streetlamps benches and on and on….  You also have certain places that have an enduring character despite the passing of decades and technologies, these places just seem to imbue activity in a similar way over time, causing us to assign that “character” to place.

Jack Keruoac sidewalkThis street talks in English and in Chinese

San Francisco is that kind of place where history and character suffuse a surfeit of sites, and despite everything (true) you have heard about its insane gentrification and “Die Techie Scum!” graffiti there is an enduring heritage quality to the place.   And that heritage is often about the cutting edge of cultural change.  Which is to say, Eros.

bow arrow bay bridgeIn San Francisco this is about LOVE.  I don’t think it would read the same way elsewhere..

I first visited the city forty years ago and there was a drought and the Governor was Jerry Brown so when I lived there again for three years there was a certain cultural and climate continuity.  This is a city whose built fabric is as old as most of the MIdwest but it is also the place where, when you tip the country, everything loose falls off and lands in SF.

Arch hill SFs

It was always a place where you could be different because it collected people from every corner of the world, from China and from all over the U.S. during the Gold Rush and it was one of the first places where it was okay to be gay or trans or sexually liberated  – or at least it was more okay here than anywhere else.

castro2The Castro, recently

The city was founded by the Spanish 240 years ago this week and has always been a place on the edge, a city of Good Herb (Yerba Buena) that had its first growth spurt during the chaos of the Gold Rush and has pretty consistently been known as a den of iniquity (One of the presenting Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Golden Gate Park yesterday was Sister Dana Van Equity).

hardly strictlyA different event in Golden Gate Park,not long ago

From Mark Twain to Herb Caen takes us from the Barbary Coast to  Beirut by the Bay and maybe the melody changed from honky tonk piano to electric guitar but I swear that bass line was there in ’06 when the city burned and sixty years later when it got all hot and not-so-bothered in the Summer of Love.  And then they tripped back down 100 miles to Monterey for the Pop and the Who and Jimi and Janis and it is hard to talk about the cultural somersault of the 1960s without saying San Francisco.

SF Love ToursbLove Tours in a Love Bus!  Very recently – less than a month ago

San Francisco has a fabulous history – I finished reading Donna Graves and Shayne Watson’s LGBTQ historic context statement for the City (see last blog) and it is clear the city had a national presence in the movement to insure equal human rights for the LGBTQ community.  It also has a national presence in the 1960s counterculture, from the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers to the Human Be-In and the Fillmore and of course the Haight.

Haight burgersSThe Haight, recently.

There is always something a little off-kilter about San Francisco, and they tend to celebrate the off-kilter, whether in the bacchanalic Bay to Breakers race that is more costume and consumption than physical activity; where major Easter events include not only the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (founded in San Francisco 37 years ago – now that is history, or herstory) in Golden Gate Park but the world’s largest Big Wheel race, which is a mere 15 years old but how long does something have to go on to be part of culture, especially in a town where National Historic Landmarks can’t even stay still but are rolling through the streets and up and down those hills everyday?

Trolley by Union SqUnion Square, recently

I like the fact that San Francisco’s Weird History is actually really deep – it is actual heritage, part of the deep character of the place, the kind of heritage that insinuates itself into the character of those who live there. Now thanks to rapid real estate rocketing rents in the Age of the Technology Startup San Francisco is losing Legacy Businesses despite their best efforts and becoming even more unaffordable than any other patch between the Atlantic and the Pacific.  (Yes, Manhattan, that includes you!)

SF from univ clubEven their most famous skyscraper is uniquely fabulous.

But these present problems don’t make the history go away and more important they don’t make the character go away, because it is still there everyday and no city has more characters than San Francisco.

SF montage3





Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part II

February 6, 2016

Eight years ago I wrote a blog with this title, to remind us that we often think our way past reality.   Despite our ongoing technological revolution the human mind still has a series of fallback postures that fail to perceive reality but instead distort it – simplify it, really – to make it fit into categories more satisfying to our adolescent brains.

VM UC 1981Who doesn’t adore their own adolescent brain?

 As I have often said, categories are the problem. They are the boxes everyone wants to think outside of. They are the crutches that allow brains to grow from adolescence but if you are still using them later, maturity is forestalled.

This week I watched this video of a honking great 1950s American automobile – when they were still made out of metal – crashing into a moderately sized contemporary car in a controlled test. Take a look:  Of course, as my mother and every older adult I ever met explained, they needed a big car because it was safer. And your brain says: “Of course!”

wee vinceI never knew how much danger I was in.

 Except the big old car crumbles to bits and the modern plastic car with snoozefest design survives reasonably well, forcing your brain to process the fact that a big sturdy steel car is NOT better in a crash than its modern polymer descendant because EVIDENCE.

In my last blog I riffed on the folly of thinkers left and right trying to blame historic districts for various “ills” of real estate economics.  What was the evidence?  Historic districts will make the prices go higher.  Except when they don’t.  Historic districts will help maintain value, which will make affordable housing more difficult.  Except when it doesn’t.  Part of the problem is politics, a bottom-feeding critter with a reptilian brain that never got beyond categories.

148 conv sw2And yes, CityLab, they come in more flavors than single-family.

While their folly had several sources, one of the most important was the tendency to think of economics as a zero-sum game.

Remember Benchley’s hilarious column from mid-1930s where he explained economics? I do. Well, I can’t quote it verbatim, but it basically suggested that after you groped around in your pockets and under the couch cushions there was only about $10.87 in the world, along with several rubber bands and mint wrappers (probably Sen-sen – it was the 1930s after all) but then you get a piece of paper from another country saying we owe you ten billion dollars and you run home to mom and say “Lookee I got ten billion dollars!”

Bank AmericaImma so rich!  Get Victor Gruen to design my bank!!!

Which helps our adolescent brain begin to conceive of debt and finance.

But still we have that tween brain that worries about national debt because – why? Someone is going to come knocking on the door and ask for it? Are these the same imaginary people coming to get your guns? Don’t you realize that we borrowed millions (billions in present dollars) to gain our independence from Britain 230 years ago and NEVER PAID THE DEBT? That’s how it works.

Solomon morris washgS

Just ask Chaym Solomon – he’s the guy on the right – the one we never paid back.

Which brings us to the drop-dead-dumbest category dichotomy of all: government and the private sector. This is popular conceptual shorthand that might help us understand things, but given the political environment of the last 35 years[1], actively obscures how things work.

This is especially true when you look at the development of the United States, starting with canals, which were financed by the sale of government-granted land.

vw to lock 8s

 Illinois and Michigan Canal, Aux Sable, Illinois

This was followed by railroads (financed by government land grants) and colleges (financed by government land grants).  There is of course the original government role in economic development – which is security.  You wanna trade?  You need a safe place from bandits.  That is the starting point of all economic development and the rationale for the single government expenditure that is larger than all the others put together.

tuystan axesS These were used for those who refused to pay the tolls and the taxes.  Also, they were paid for by the tolls and taxes.  Neat, huh?  (Tustan, Ukraine, c. 1500)

Now in the 20th century we shifted to a consumer economy so the government rebuilt Europe and covered the U.S. with the most important subsidy the private “sector” has ever seen, a subsidy so massive it shifted how we shop, how we live, and how we move through space.  I’m talking highways.

view fr twr along highwayS

drvg into sf2Draw a grid on this photo and then count up the squares for “private sector” and “public sector”. 

These so-called “sectors” are especially vexing when you deal with the built environment because so much of the built environment is ostensibly “public” in the form of roads and canals and highways and railroad tracks and schools.  I know we have spent the last three decades privatizing things – like every parking place in the city of Chicago – but there are still parks and roads and even if we are paying private lawyers (like Richard M. Daley!) to use them, they are functioning as public space.

Our landscape is BOTH AND, not EITHER OR.  We call the University of Michigan a STATE school even though the state provides less than 3% of its budget, and we call real estate a PRIVATE enterprise even though ALL of its value comes from public roads, sewers, water, police and fire protection.  Not to mention land reclamation, drainage and harbor improvements.

bay aerial mid penDid you know that real estate provides twice as much of the U.S. GDP as Information?[2] In the Information Age! (Also three times as much as either Transportation or Construction.)

Oh, and zoning. I have written many times before about how zoning – a government regulation – gives property value.  That’s why we have teardowns.  And really wealthy zoning lawyers.

wabash to trump13

Indeed, most of the second generation big city zoning ordinance in the late 50s and early 60s were designed to impel development.  Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance basically doubled the land value in the city in the hope that people would build more.  New York’s (1961) planned for 16 million residents by the 21st century and similarly upzoned much of the city.

DSCF6451Except where the residents were organized to save their historic architecture.  And their investment.

Greenwich Village (pictured above) had been organized so early that they insured lower zoning in the original 1916 zoning ordinance, thus reducing the possibility of a new subsidy that would lead to teardowns.  They did it again in 1961, having just conserved a building that not only the city but even the architectural historians hated.

gv jeff mkt cthsSJefferson Market Courthouse.  Unloved by all except THOSE WHO LIVED THERE.

Now, you might criticize this as NIMBYism, but that is yet another misleading category, like gentrification.  Some places can become “owners’ clubs” and some other places can become development firestorms, but there tends not to be a pattern that reinforces the category but a highly specific playing out of forces in each unique place.

lemoyne spiteIn spite of everything.

I would always tell my students that there are two constant truths, which remain equally true despite their seeming contradiction:

  1. No one wants to be told what to do with their property.
  2. Everyone wants to tell their neighbor what to do with their property.

So, any attempt by a community to influence the disposition of the built environment will require actions that cross the artificial borders between public and private.

Madison_indiana_main_street_08_2007-1Madison, Indiana – one of the original Main Streets.

Main Street was a National Trust for Historic Preservation program that started in the 1970s to conserve historic commercial buildings.  The Four Points of Main Street, still used today, could be characterized as largely “private” sector initiatives involving Design, Organization, Events and Economic Restructuring.  In fact, these four points each cross the public/private category over and over.  Design might be seen as regulatory, and if Main Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there were (and are) tax incentives for sensitive rehabilitation.  But there was also a recognition that the original design had a value, and that if everyone on the block could harness that externality, every property would add value.  Organization meant working together, in a way that the big shopping malls did because they were under one owner, so that falls toward the private sector (if we ignore the public roads and automobile subsidies that made the malls possible).  Events helped promote the area, so you could call it advertising, although depending on the event it might be more like a gathering of the public commons.  Economic Restructuring recognized that the market had changed (largely due to subsidized private transportation) and pushed formerly individuated businesspersons to work together to create a healthy mix of businesses.

state st lkpt

Now, contrast this 40-year success story with the knuckle-dragging antics of the Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures who are trying to ban historic districts because they are government overreach.  They are so focused on the “public” side of the equation that they will fail, because EVERY economic equation has both public and private in it.  Time for the mature minds to step in.



[1] Since 1981 incomes in the United States remain statistically flat while GDP grew 77%.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product by Industry, 2014.


Historic Districts, Economics and Misconceptions

January 30, 2016

One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions.  My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none.  Imagine.
lock 8 houseSeverybody loves them some locktender’s houses

So, I was a little confused that Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan were trying to get rid of historic districts in the name of “property rights.”  This is odd, because when I wrote my dissertation on historic districts, one of the reasons I looked at districts and not individual landmarks was that they tended to have broad political support because they treated everybody – or every property – the same.  A true libertarian can’t stand individual landmarks because they require an owner to save a property while letting all his neighbors do whatever they want.

cleve ot panOld Town, Chicago.  One of the case studies in my dissertation

Given the ideological fumbling of said state legislatures, we can write these actions off as the attempts of a political junior varsity to go after some low-hanging regulatory fruit.  Historic districts are government actions after all, right?

pv-water-bottle-storeSo is water, but that issue is a tad sensitive in Michigan right now, so best to look elsewhere…

The quotes are typical of our facts-be-damned era.  Feature this:

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”

Senator you are KILLING it!  40 whole pages!  That’s like almost as big as a newspaper!  “A government committee” that it turns out is made up only of your neighbors?

Paint color regulation in Wisconsin????  Are you (something) kidding me??

main drag.jpgactual Wisconsin historic district.  Paint superfluous.

And windows….oh lord help me.  Dude, if you are replacing your windows, have at it, because you have already lost.

To even things out, one of the writers at Citylab – which is generally one of my favorite feeds – decided to attack districts from the other side of the aisle.  He said that historic districts prevent affordable housing by keeping values high and excluding people.  He said we should only designate individual public landmarks and then ranted about how Charleston (SC) is ruined now that its historic district is 85 years old.  See the article here.

100 wesley eastSmy historic district, protecting my property values.  we have awesome parties too.

How cool is this!  Historic districts are hurting people’s property rights!  Historic districts are raising values and thwarting affordable housing!  Historic districts are government overreach.  Historic districts are walls keeping out the poor!  (Got whiplash yet?)

carlos thropp torSexcept when they are community planning tools in underserved areas.  BURN!

No, historic districts do not restrict density (or use) and they do not prima facie restrict affordable housing, assuming there is local legislative requirement.  I live in a district full of houses that have been turned into 5-10 units without running afoul of the landmarks commission.

215 grov 406eS

Now, in fairness to the dude, this stuff is not known by most people.  So let’s break down the common misconceptions about historic districts, zoning, and real estate economics.

Real Estate Value

Real estate is the only asset whose value is entirely externalized.  This is obvious, but our nagging and inaccurate common sense always wants to pretend there is a zero-sum game out there.  But there isn’t.  A house can be gorgeous, important, even nicely fitted out, and if its neighborhood sucks mightily, it will have NO VALUE.  Ain’t nothing you can do to reclaim the value of that asset unless you fix the whole damn neighborhood.  Here’s proof:

waller 98 2844s

This is one of the Waller Apartments, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1894.  I bought this property 25 years ago for $1.  I paid $40,000 too much for it.  You got that, cowboy?  It had a NEGATIVE value because of its neighborhood, Frank Lloyd Wright be damned.

emeryville raised vicsEmeryville.  Too late, you missed it.

Yes, historic districts are like zoning, and yes, they preserve value.  People invest in their properties and want to preserve or enhance their investment.  That is why zoning was upheld by a really conservative Supreme Court in 1926.  Interestingly, because historic districts are more precise and individualized than zoning, they are a more useful tool for community activists.

Home economics

Here is the most economically illiterate sentence in the whole article:

“Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation.”

Whoa.  No.  Commercial and institutional properties are poor candidates for preservation because they have to make the rent.  They have to put a third down and convince a bank that they can offer a beige product that someone will buy NOW.

roper interior

People will spend money on their houses in a completely irrational manner because it’s their house.  There would be no pools, no doggie doors, no projection TVs, rec rooms, home theaters, basement bars or carpets if houses had to follow the same rational economic rules that other buildings do.

Urban Economics

The argument that both liberals and conservatives like to lob at historic districts is that they affect the real estate economics of the city.  This is what dude says about Charleston, which is apparently just ruined by entitled historic district owners and too expensive.

View east from KingEwww.

Ed Glaeser made the same argument about Manhattan, so it is good to see the liberals and conservatives united in opposition to preservation.  Except that this argument betrays a failure to understand economics at scale.

aeri ny8 v-z

Charleston and Manhattan are actually your best bets for making this argument, because if you take most cities and suburbs and look at all the properties and find out how much is encumbered by historic districts, you are lucky to hit 3% of the land.  You can hit maybe 15 or 20% if you look only at Manhattan or Charleston’s downtown peninsula, but once you include the rest of the city you are sitting back down in the single digits.

Which is why historic districts preserve value for the communities that seek them out (which is basically how it happens).  They are a technique to defend against larger, impersonal real estate issues rolling across the other 97% of the land.

curbcut class burlingSWhich means you can build loads and loads of these.  Blair Kamin calls them Curbcut Classicism.  I call them Lollapalazzos.

There are real estate forces at work that are much bigger and more powerful than historic preservation.  That is why all sorts of non-landmarked parts of Brooklyn have rocketed in value.  Indeed, in the late 1980s I saw Wicker Park in Chicago get landmarked and the adjacent non-landmarked neighborhood of Bucktown tripled in value in one year.  It took landmarked Wicker Park a decade to catch up.

bucktown newbersBucktown!

dodger hdonDemolished in Bucktown, 2006.

So how do you define success?  Low real estate values?   High real estate values?

This is one of those tricky issues – like gentrification – where you want to have a neat and clean reaction but you can’t.  Because it is messy.  I would like to have everyone who lives here stay here.  I would like to protect my property’s value.  I don’t want to be told what to do, but I REALLY want to tell my neighbor what to do.  Also, a pony would be nice.

sewickley hunt dogs2Sorry, we can’t afford a pony.

You want affordable housing?  Legislate it.  Here is some in Palo Alto, where the average house is about $2million.

801 alma PA w

The left and the right should both stop using historic districts as a whipping post.  These are tools that communities use to help determine their destiny in a more precise and individual way than is possible for most communities.  Also they save precious resources from filling landfills.  And grant a bit of beauty, grace and depth to our lives.

UPDATE: 24 Days later – Source of Michigan legislative illness revealed!

Turns out the Michigan law came about because the wealthy of East Grand Rapids defeated a local historic district last year and decided no one else should have one either!   Check out this article.

Sore losers I can understand.  But sore winners?  That’s just mean.

Maybe it’s just typical 1% thinking:  “Look Mom, I did something clever!  Now let’s scale!”

I saw the EXACT same thing happen in Winnetka, Illinois, 25 years ago.  Made a stink for awhile – even used the same analogies.  It died down as soon as the lobbying funding did.  Which is predictable because there are two truths this law fails to recognize:

  1. How real estate economics works (see above).
  2. How these districts got created in the first place, which was BY and FOR homeowners trying to protect their investment. That’s pretty much the ONLY WAY it happens.

Indeed, that is what happened in East Grand Rapids, except the community split over the idea of an historic district and kiboshed it.  So why would you spoil it for everyone else unless you were, say,  a developer who wanted to make your job easier.

Did I just answer my own question?

They also hired marketing gurus who came up with this whopper lie about how historic regulations work:

“Modern technology allows builders to make historic-looking home exterior parts out of aluminum or plastic, argues Afendoulis, but district commissions rarely, if ever, allow their use regardless of how closely they mimic wood.”

You know, if you are spending this much money you might do a little homework.