Posts Tagged ‘economics of preservation’

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.


Plainfield: Historic?

April 7, 2010

Another downtown bites the dust – or should we say drinks the Kool-Aid? The latter phrase has been overly misused the last decade or two but it is quite appropriate. Historic downtown Plainfield – a lovely Will County town west of Lockport, has voted down historic landmark status, despite a 21-20 majority of downtown property owners being in favor of it. This was reported in the Chicago Tribune today.

Despite the slim majority of owners in favor, Village trustees voted 4-2 against the district, essentially caving to a minority. Negative motivations – like fear – tend to trump the positive motivations, like the economic security provided by knowing what kind of downtown you are going to have in the future. Another negative motivation: fear of the frightening property regulators, who have somehow not interfered with two renovations of this historic property owned by Pat Andreasen, listed on the state, national and local registers.

Actually, the economic motivations of historic districts are complex, because they are on both sides of the issue. Historic districts have ALWAYS been motivated by a desire for economic stability – to reinforce the investments people have made in their property and to insure the value of their property’s surroundings. This is natural, because real estate is an asset whose value is almost entirely external – it is based on location, location and location. Historic districts create a palpable, physical security about location.

Yet the opponents also have an economic motivation. But it is not a rational, steady economic motivation but more of a “dropped-from-heaven” fantasy motivation that works wonderfully in the abstract and JUST often enough in reality to keep hope alive. Because while historic districts insure and protect and enhance value, they also limit WINDFALLS, those magical moments when the property you owned your entire life suddenly becomes the object of desire of a heaven-sent hotel-condo-highrise developer and you are able to finally realize the POTENTIAL value the zoning board so generously gave you six decades ago.

It is sort of like the lottery – it happens, just not to you or me. But there is enough hope there to keep some people dreaming, and their dreams fuel a sometimes rabid opposition to historic preservation – even the kind that DOESN’T prevent demolition – which is the kind proposed in Plainfield. Repeat after me: this historic designation DOES NOT prevent demolition. But it might force you to talk to your neighbors.

So, here is the pull quote, from local property owner John Bates: “I’m not opposed to historic preservation. I’m opposed to something that limits the options for me to maximize my investment.”

Dude dreamt the dream and drank the Kool-Aid. Sorry, Mr. Bates, but you ARE opposed to historic preservation. You can’t have it both ways.

Preservation as the road to recovery

December 18, 2009

One of the gratifying things about being in the historic preservation/heritage conservation field is that it is future-oriented. Usually the position preservationists take – which may seem radical at the time – becomes the mainstream position later. So all those blogs of mine earlier this year about preservation as the road to economic recovery? Here is it from the AIA today:

“Embracing the Economics of Historic Preservation: Reusing and
renovating already-constructed buildings can lead the way out of this

Thanks to Joan Pomaranc at AIAChicago for forwarding this!

2016: Chicago Plan or Chicago Way?

August 7, 2009

On the front page of the Chicago Tribune today is an article about a Chicago Olympic committee member who is also a real estate developer and how the Olympics will help him develop numerous parcels near Douglas Park, an Olympic venue site. On page 11 is an article about the city’s landmark commission voting against landmark status for the Michael Reese hospital complex, site of eight buildings by Walter Gropius and site of the proposed Olympic Village, which the city will deliver to another developer after spending about $100 million on acquisition and demolition.
MRH friendS
This is all more of the same, a familiar pattern in Chicago, which has every right to become a world city but seems intent on doing so without disrupting its long reliance on politically connected real estate deals. Not surprising, not necessarily illegal, but disappointing because it treats the physical fabric of the city as a liquid asset, not a character-defining element.
lsd s f north ave2S
This is the 100th anniversary of the Plan of Chicago, the 1909 Burnham and Bennett document that crafted such a compelling vision for the future of the city that we still refer to it more often and with more affection than any city plan since. There are two pavilions spending the summer in Millennium Park as part of the celebration of this centennial, along with a whole slate of other activities.
loop and south aerialS
Chicago’s strong candidacy for the 2016 Olympics should be an opportunity to rekindle the visionary spirit of Burnham and Bennett, and there are aspects of the plan that do so. I am enough of a realist to understand there will be deals cut and politicians will take advantage. To a certain extent they did that 100 years ago, but what survives today is a bold plan that rose above petty temporal interests. What will we leave for 2116?

I regularly share with my students the October 1992 issue of the journal Chicago Enterprise, in which Rob Mier and Laurel Lipkin interviewed seven major figures in Chicago real estate. They were asked what their vision for the city was as they redeveloped it in the decades after the Second World War. In their own words, they professed NO VISION AT ALL. Harry Chaddick, who wrote the city’s second zoning code, defining its land values and development potential for a half century, said “I took on the job of rezoning Chicago because Parky Cullerton asked me to when he couldn’t get anyone else to do it. I worked on it for five years, developing a complete inventory of the city’s land use. I did it with no vision in mind, merely figuring out how the city’s land was being used.” Ferd Kramer, who redeveloped huge swaths of the South Side, said “I never had a vision for the city exactly. I guess you could say I had one for the communities I worked in.” Marshall Holleb described “street deals” that developed loads of lakefront land and Miles Berger said “I can’t take credit for any kind of vision for Chicago.” Phil Klutznick, who built Park Forest and Water Tower Place, claimed the latter “was not a visionary project” and Marshall Bennett said of postwar development: “It didn’t take vision because the market was fantastic. You had to be an idiot not to make lots of money. Really. I’m not kidding.”
west loop 60s
Well, I guess that’s the Chicago Way. And that is why we don’t remember the plans made since 1909. Maybe the developers who have reshaped the city in the wake of the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s would come off better if asked the same question today, and certainly Chicago’s positive trajectory since the 1980s stands in contrast to the decline that preceded it. But reading the newspaper today gives little cause for hope.

2016 could be the opportunity for another grand vision for the Sustainability Century, one that encourages the reuse of city fabric and requires development to reveal its true costs to taxpayers and to the environment. Or not.

Obama Economic stimulus: getting it right

December 7, 2008

Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama announced a massive jobs stimulus package for the economy, which many have compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway building program of a half-century ago. While the scale of the comparison may be apt, it is essential that Obama’s team makes this a 21st century stimulus and not a repeat of the 1950s.
Investment in roads and infrastructure seems like a good thing, but there are limitations. Highway building only produces half the economic spinoff of building rehabilitation – preservation – for example. The reasons why are easy to see: it is a machine-and-material based job that kicks a lot of cash to concrete and surfacers. The ratio between labor and materials/machines is not nearly as favorable as building rehabilitation.
I would hope that some of the stimulus could be aimed at improving the rail corridors that have become so busy the last five years or so – the proposed expansion of CN along the Fox River valley is causing a lot of outrage, much of which could be addressed by that most expensive of infrastructure improvements: elimination of grade crossings.
Obama wants a lot of the jobs to be in environmental cleanup and energy efficiency, which is a good thing to want. Let’s make sure the produce-and-waste manufacturers don’t take charge and pervert the thing like they did with “green”. Fix things, upgrade things, improve things. Once you start replacing things and throwing out the old ones, you are repeating the mistakes of the old economy.
Obama also talked about upgrading federal buildings and schools with new heating systems and CF light bulbs. Again, a good idea, but let’s not make the obvious mistakes most homeowners have made: change all your lightbulbs and then buy a flat-screen TV that uses 5-6 times the electricity of your old one. No net gain in many situations.
Plus, we know from the General Services Administration that pre-1920 government buildings are ALREADY more energy-efficient than those built from 1930 to 2000. Historic buildings typically used 27% less energy than “modern” ones (pre-2000). The economics of the 1950s – what Eisenhower famously termed “the military-industrial complex” – favored waste. This was the period of single-glazing and energy inefficiency and it coincided with one of the rare times in history that energy was cheap: 1945-1973.
every-19thA few stats from the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
– Building a 50,000 square foot building from scratch uses the same energy needed to drive a car 20,000 miles a year for 730 years.
– The Brookings Institution projects we will demolish and rebuild 82 billion square feet of buildings by 2030. If we saved just 10% of those buildings, we could power the state of New York for over a year. If we demolish them, we will landfill the equivalent of 2600 NFL stadiums.
– It will take up to 65 years for a new energy-efficient building to offset the demolition of an existing building.
The 21st century is the opposite of waste, so let’s hope Obama’s team incorporates preservation – the re-use of the good things we have and the employment of people to fix things that last, not things we throw away.

Home Economics

March 20, 2006

bai archit

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In the last month I have read two articles both titled “Home Economics” and both might be said to be profiles of anti-landmarks persons. The first was in Chicago magazine and profiled a local lawyer who helped quash landmark designation in the Sheffield/De Paul neighborhood. Her argument was that designation would hurt property values and cause all sorts of expenses for homeowners.

The other “Home Economics” profile was of economist Ed Glaeser in the New York Times, and he said just the opposite.

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published an article about the proliferation of local historic districts driven by residents’ desire to raise their property values. That counters our Chicago attorney-cum-economist, but it supports Glaeser.

Like most economists nowadays, Glaeser is a fancily-dressed bomb-thrower, famously lobbing one at New Orleans saying it shouldn’t be rebuilt. His big argument is that regulations like zoning and landmarks laws have contributed mightily to the recent rise in real estate values. It is the kind of argument that tickles the curlies of right wingers eager to dispense with environmental regulation and return to the urban paradise of the Wild West boom town.

At first I thought, this is crazy – everyone knows zoning caused huge upticks in value in the 1950s and 60s. I have spent my life fighting to save buildings – like the Berghoff – saddled with double-for-nothing-zoning. In Chicago in 1957 they doubled the zoning downtown. New York did the same thing in 1961, planning for a city of 16 million by 2000. Talk about government largesse.

Now, Glaeser’s tipping point is actually 1975, long after the postwar zoning ordinances had doled out their added value. The year corresponds to the triumph of the community planning movement, which started in the late 1950s when community groups decided they should have as much a voice in their environment as any downtown professional architect or planner.

I love economists and economic historians because they don’t get swayed by the mythologizing and ideologizing that plague most people. But they also make the fatal mistake of assuming that all commodities can be alienated. Historic buildings and districts and cities are particular, non-transferable and inalienable. Their value does not correspond to rules of supply and demand. Glaeser’s enterprise consists of progressively stripping away variables until he can declare that regulations have restricted supply.

Now, I ain’t as smart as this guy and God knows he’s got me beat silly in the silver cufflinks, three-piece suits and cigars department. So maybe he is right and indeed highly regulated places like Manhattan have become geographic luxury goods, surviving their oppressive regulatory hell only by virtue of a stock of human capital supplied by universities and businesses.

But why do the humans stick it out? Why do they stay in Boston or New York or Chicago when they could be like everyone else and enjoying their 48 minutes of daily automobile commute in Houston or Las Vegas? Maybe there is something to PLACE that can’t be alienated and quantified on a commodity basis. Maybe the kind of thing that makes people buy a three-piece suit when everyone knows two pieces will do fine.

Glaeser loves Jane Jacobs, whose most wickedly good argument 45 years ago was that the urban experts were using 200-year old science: Newtonian mechanics that dealt with simple problems of one or two variables. Jacobs said that modern science allowed us to deal with problems of disorganized complexity – multiple variables impossible to isolate but possible to predict in aggregate. This is how much of economics works – they don’t know what I’m gonna buy but they can tell you how many cufflinks they will sell to people my age.

But Jacobs said cities were neither simple problems NOR problems of disorganized complexity but biological problems – issues of organized complexity insoluble by statistics – organic and particular problems akin to genomes and mitochondrial markers. I wonder if Glaeser is pushing economics toward this type of analysis? If he does he’ll be bombing us for a long time to come.

The Expense of Preservation

February 9, 2006

Preservation is often characterized as expensive. Why? Because it is a good excuse, even for the richest.

One of the preservation tragedies we have been awaiting these last few years is the demolition of Bertrand Goldeberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, a mighty and evocative design from the 1960s, the last era of optimism. A Quatrefoil in plan, it took the stem-and-petals constructional idiom of Goldberg’s signature Marina City and evolved a powerful flower of a building, four cylindrical lobes of beautiful 60s concrete studded with rounded windows – for a guy Goldberg was pretty good at channelling the lost feminine tradition in Modernism and he was certainly an intellectual leader in recapturing that tradition from the Miesian hegemony.

The building will be demolished by Northwestern Memorial Hospital for all of the usual excuses: too old and inefficient, too much maintenance (as opposed to new buildings that don’t require maintenance???) and of course too expensive. We all know preservation is too expensive – it is drilled into our heads through repetition (as opposed to reason) just like we know that we all need to replace our windows. The “too expensive” mantra is then followed by a false appeal to the angels of preservation “if someone had enough money…”.

Okay, here is the lead from a Tribune article by Bruce Jappsen in today’s business section:
“Long the envy of area hospitals, Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s cash position recently hit $1 billion for the first time…”

That’s not equity or assets – that’s cash, bro.

They can pay all of their bills (health care bills!) for the next year and a half NO MATTER WHAT. I can’t say that – can you?

Too bad there isn’t someone with money who could preserve this building.

Oh you can go through the footnotes – they have $1 billion in capital expenditures coming up the next five years (it ain’t cheap to tear down landmarks and it costs even more to build dreck in their place) and Medicare will soon vanish and so on and so forth and don’t stop talking or someone will call you on it

When the wealthy and powerful whinge they do it with such…humanity. It’s almost convincing.