Preservation Does Not Have to Come at Expense of Progress

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The Tower Life Building finished construction in 1929.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The City's Historic and Design Review Commission in December considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a proposed, nearby development.

One of the greatest misconceptions regarding heritage conservation raised its head earlier this month in the form of an editorial in the Rivard Report.

This particular misbelief goes like this, and has for more than a century: If we focus too much on saving the past we won’t have a future or any new development.

Author Ed Glaeser made this argument regarding Manhattan in his book Triumph of the City earlier in the decade. I loved the book, with its myriad of brilliant insights but his assertion of this misbelief was so simplistic it required no response. Manhattan has been saving tons of its building inventory for three generations with no ill effect to its vibrancy or economy. Just visit Times Square.

No city in the United States has designated as landmarks more than about 3 or 4 percent of its buildings. So is the argument then that development is such a precarious and precious business that it can’t survive on a free-fire zone that covers 96 percent of the landscape?

Come on.

The really fascinating thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed in 30 years. Yes, more sites and districts get designated as historic (and keep developing, by the way), but plenty more new stuff gets added. The whole reason Glaeser went after Manhattan is that the statistic there is much higher, although when you include all five boroughs it is back to normal.

So here is the misperception in its unadulterated form from Robert Rivard’s April 1 commentary: “It could reach a tipping point where just about anything and everything is accorded historic status. In a world where everything is historic, nothing is historic.”

The view of the Tower of the Americas from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The view of the Tower of the Americas from the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

So where is that? Where did that happen? And if it didn’t happen anywhere, why is it a valid argument? Where is it about to happen?

Chicago designated one mile of downtown building frontage 15 years ago. Contrary to our “favorite” misconception, this has actually inspired development (including a supertall on a vacant lot) and investment. If San Antonio were to cover the 40 percent of its downtown that is currently surface parking, then we might need to worry about a slippery slope.

Now, to be fair to my friend Robert Rivard, the impetus for the piece was the proposed viewshed ordinance, inspired by the development near the Hays Street Bridge, to protect iconic views. This would seem to potentially thwart projects that aren’t designated.  Interestingly, Austin – not a town known for preservation – has one of the most complicated viewshed protections in place for the Capitol.

It turns out the viewsheds being proposed in San Antonio will affect 2 percent of downtown.

The Texas State Capitol in Austin Texas.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Texas State Capitol in Austin is protected by one of the state’s most complex viewshed protections.

The reality is that any protection system functions not as a prohibition but as a site of negotiation. This already happens with the Historic and Design Review Commission, which considered viewsheds of the Tower Life Building in reviewing a new development at South St. Mary’s Street and Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Good planning is buttressed by landmark laws and viewshed laws, not because they prohibit, but because they provide a review platform that integrates development into the urban fabric.

Disclosure: I serve on the City’s Viewshed Technical Advisory Committee, so I am well acquainted with the specifics of how viewshed ordinances work. This information, like all knowledge, aims to dispel fear, especially of this misbelief. 

The Council’s Arts, Culture, and Heritage Committee will consider changes to the viewshed ordinance on Tuesday. A date has not yet been set for a Council vote on the issue.

7 thoughts on “Preservation Does Not Have to Come at Expense of Progress

  1. Interesting commentary. Agree that fearing the spread of “historic” designations is wrong. However, take a look at the way the “community” comes together. In King William, for example, the “neighborhood association” representing roughly 25% of the residents, put out a statement about short term rentals, demanding exemptions for historic districts, a position that is illegal under the current state law, and wrong for all sorts of other reasons. A small group of residents spread the ill-conceived position and demanded that the position be promoted. It doesn’t represent the majority of residents, and it certainly is not well-informed.

    Look too at the Hayes Street bridge recently, which became a lightning rod for anti-growth sentiment in Dignowity Hill. Some demanded that the land be set aside as a park, and protested just about anything that came up regarding the development proposed under the bridge. The HDRC demanded and received concessions from the developer, then disapproved the project anyway, making a total sham of the process. Never mind that the developer and owners dispelled all of the false narrative about a park or any restrictions, and that many of the protestors were not residents.

    We face an atmosphere of fear-mongering and hatred, a community unable to discuss and compromise, when one side “offends” the other, in the name of growth, “gentrification,” viewshed, and “historic preservation.” It is ugly, mean-spirited and wrong.

    • Thank you, Mr. Vincent for a wonderful article. The experience and vision of a professional in historic preservation is what we need in the City right now.

      I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Burns’ apparent belief that one or more historic district is fostering fear-mongering and hatred, which are strong words indeed.

      The King William Association is a not-for-profit whose mission is to preserve the residential and historic fabric of the King William Historic District. It is not a homeowners association. It understands that development is constant and among its many efforts to manage change has a volunteer committee of professionals who provide free architectural advisory services.

      As for KWA’s requests regarding short-term rentals, it has yet to be proven that they are “illegal.” While zoning law prohibits disparate treatment within similarly zoned property, the City has repeatedly taken the position that its STR ordinance is not a zoning ordinance. Additionally, there could be creative solutions, not tied to historic designation, to address the flood of STRs in the inner city (where historic districts are typically located), and several council members have called for creative solutions. Moreover, almost everyone appears to agree that hotel occupancy tax is due on short-term rentals, thereby proving that the activity is commercial and not residential.

      In sum, Mr. Burns disagrees with the position of the KWA and is perhaps upset with the activities of individual residents of King William, but the KWA’s adherence to its mission is hardly fear-mongering.

  2. Although I am prejudice, this article is a great response to those that think preservation stands in the way of progress. So proud to have Vince Michael as our Executive Director for the San Antonio Conservation Society.

  3. Vincent, I think the revised recommendations on viewshed corridors are actually not unreasonable when compared to the 20 sites that were being considered earlier. I think the argument comes in when every single project must be brought before a highly politicized and unpredictable “commission” of folks who will judge a host of ambiguous aspects of a development such as “character” or “compatibility.” The comparison city you mention, New York, can still thrive in the midst of its historic preservation because it doesn’t require developers to somehow fit the mold of the old stuff. As in New York, you’ll see in cities around the world the juxtaposition of old stone and brick buildings abutting (sometimes literally) steel and glass modernist structures. It’s part of what makes cityscapes so interesting. The key is to be (very) strategic about the viewsheds that must be protected, establish your rules for how buildings address the street at a human scale in downtown (which admittedly is done poorly in many cities including SA), and then get out of the way.

  4. The author argues that until the 40% of downtown parking lots are built on, that these restrictions have no meaningful impact.

    But in fact, the whole issue of Viewsheds stems from a proposal to build on vacant land, not razing a historic building.

    You’re can’t have it both ways: you can’t protect historic buildings, and prohibit building on vacant lots, and still claim that those restrictions don’t affect development.

    The tower life building is a tall building that can be seen from lots of points throughout downtown. But from some vantage points, a two story building will block someone’s view of the Tower Life building.

  5. Agree with Ray, but I’d add a provision that provides a tax abatement allocation for any property that gets restricted due to the view corridor. That way, owners don’t get pillaged by the tyranny of the majority and can still sell their property for a decent amount.

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