Thursday, September 16, 2010

Historic Preservation: Where's the Juice in That?

There's a danger in contemplating the existence of a discrete, well-connected network of symbiotic contractors, financiers, attorneys and political operatives in terms of counting up whether those individuals get too many of those government contracts which happen to exist. You know: did that one go to a Network guy? How about that one? Was it competitive at all? What is their batting average?

This kind of thing is so much more interesting:

Despite Pittsburgh's rich history of preserving and reusing old buildings, local preservationists say political officials pay little attention to the effort.

"When you look at the mayor's history, you can see that he's been in favor of new development, no matter the cost," said Scott Leib, president of Preservation Pittsburgh, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the region's historic, architectural, cultural and environmental heritage. "It's definitely not surprising, but it is disappointing." (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

It's very hard to imagine why any self-respecting contractor network would seek to foster in its governments feelings of deep respect and inspiration over the possibilities which historic structures might offer. After all, preserving and adapting these mean less total conventional work, less total bond issues, less total churn and upheaval, and less total that is potentially at one's own disposal.

This isn't about the Civic Arena or an Aldi, and it certainly isn't simply about historic preservation. I'm more interested in what happens generally, in terms of the broadest of policies, when our leaders take as their most trusted advisers -- mentors from day one -- members of an ambitious network of service providers (who, incidentally, are in it for the long haul).

I feel like we've only scratched the surface.


  1. The thing is, there is lots of evidence that preservation improves overall property values, and those in the Pittsburgh development game long-term have a potential interest in seeing that result. The problem is that what you really want is to have the preservation rules apply to everyone else but you . . . you want the one modern 50-story tower surrounded by well-preserved 5-story Victorians. But if everyone is an exception then there isn't a rule and everyone loses the benefit.

    So it is a collective action problem, and potentially public authorities can play a positive role in coordinating and enforcing an appropriate response. And thus I think it is fair to complain, even in a realpolitik analysis, if a public authority is failing to provide such leadership when needed.

  2. actually, preservation is often a more expensive option. which results in more work, financing and general churn. but even the 'network' is limited by costs. and the focus is always ona developer/investor bottom line. so buildings come down, and heritage is lost. especially without much dedicated subsidy for preservation and strict rules.

    sure, you make a stronger case when seeking public funding for preservation/brownfields. but not so much of a preference that you will be funded before a new project. then there are your connections. bakery square is much more the exception than the rule.

    unfortunately for our entire nation, real estate is finance and not community building. we learned this the hard way with the residential mortgage crisis. and will see even more when the commercial real estate bubble one day bursts.

  3. Michael - Yeah, I hedged that by throwing in the descriptor "conventional"... not my area of expertise, but I imagine it's much more of a pain for the Usual Suspects to appropriate a specialized architect creative enough, and laborers / equipment specialized enough, to capitalize on many preservation opportunities -- especially considering they'd sometimes be settling for a use that provides something less than the most optimal possible *short-term* turnover or flip-value, or a use different than that which those one happens to be schmoozing with presently are interested.

    At any rate, the network framework really explains why prevailing wage turned into such a explosively bitter issue, huh? I mean, why risk slowing down the pipeline at all, or be finicky when it comes to such back-end issues?

    Finally, why focus on business districts and new or existing individual business owners, who are likely to fritter resources away however they each may choose, when you have the option of pursuing whole "developments" and "developers" who can then channel capital resources around the horn in tidy bulk?

    And we didn't even get to economic development VS. public infrastructure VS. services yet. To what degree do we think it's reasonable that the contractor network would e-mail each other late into the night worrying about potholes? Bridges? Libraries? Shootings? Do we have any idea how many of them live in the city? We have a general race and gender breakdown I suppose.

  4. The Mellon Arena is an ugly pile of poop

  5. And at least one of them is finally growing skilled in the ways of Internet commentating.

  6. i understand bram. was just pointing out to be fair. (unfortunately) it is my area of expertise. certainly not advocating for the network and their way of business. while a certain part of what occurs in this space is natural, and not entirely bad, things are waaaayyyy too shady.

    do you mean the PW issue for service employees? action that slows the pipeline is certainly a concern for something like the network. that said, one can also argue it is bad for the city/region as a whole. there are many problems with blindly implementing such a policy. like those encountered when developing a multitenant building on spec. the obvigation isnt on the developer, but future tenant. a tenant who often is not based here. though i agree that people should earn a living wage for their work.

    i totally agree with the point about 'project development' versus organic growth in commercial areas and businesses. yes, of course the network would focus on such projects where the benefit is so focused. on the other hand, the subsidy model is geared for projects. so its an easy system to abuse. made even easier when people want a target instead of ma and pa's good ole shop. all these make the network easier to implement.

    im actually going to be trying to change that model of development and incentives in a neighborhood (or two). one that has 'turned around' with several large projects. but you can argue its been at the expense of immediate commercial and residential neighbors. we will see how that goes. maybe one day ill comment on it.

  7. I heard that the threat of a prevailing wage law is what stops them from building light rail from Oakland to downtown.

  8. Prevailing wage law was a different kind of network. Supporters lobbied members of council, made financial contributions, used heavy handed tactics to pressure politicians.....