Property values

Winter Park residents should be suspicious of rhetoric claiming that historic preservation is taking away their property rights, because in reality those shrill voices claiming “property rights” are actually threatening all of us.

Park Avenue (courtesy Winter Park Public Library archives)

Winter Park has some property rights which we enjoy, namely, our high quality of community which is reflected in our high assessed value.  Even if you live in a medicore ranch house, it’s worth more than that mediocre ranch house across the border in Casselberry.

Why?  Because it’s Winter Park.  We paid to get in and we want to preserve our property values, right?

Unfortunately, the debate about historic districts has degenerated into fearmongering and shouting.  Those who have a shrill voice scream about their rights, and drown out everyone else.If we don’t all speak up and say “hey we have some rights, too” then what I predicted will come to pass:  the historic fabric gets decimated, our quality of life gets diluted, and Winter Park becomes just like everywhere else.

Arthur Pigou

Our property values are higher because we live in a city that has historic character.  This historic character has a “spillover” effect onto non-historic properties.  Everyone knows this – the realtors, the developers, and especially the newcomers who want to make Winter Park their home.  We all bask in this character, at least indirectly (Pigou)

A new historic district will have a positive effect on property values, this is well documented and beyond argument.  Winter Park residents should be suspicious of rhetoric claiming that historic preservation is taking away their property rights, because in reality those shrill voices claiming “property rights” are actually threatening all of us.

Worse, these voices are attacking the property values of our children and future generations.  By cashing in on current market value, any future higher return is foregone.

Their biggest fear is a restriction in perpetuity, i.e. an historic district.  This is, in reality, an asset.  No historic district in the country ever, ever has been seen as a mistake or waste of money or something to extinguish, so that is a completely false argument.

In reality, a historic district will reduce the transaction costs of individual real estate owners by reducing the risk that today’s valuable property will be tomorrow’s loss.  It will reduce fluctuation in land values…anyone remember 2010?  It is doubtful anyone wants to repeat that year.

The government hasn’t been effective in the slightest in regulating the banking industry so a housing bubble will surely come again, it’s just a matter of when.  Do you want to be caught in the freefall of another real estate collapse, or do you want to live in a place that has some assurance that land values are stable?

One analogy is a diamond ring.  You wouldn’t pull out and pawn the diamond in your wedding ring, would you?  That diamond makes it valuable, the ring is worthless without it.  So why would you take a treasure like a neighborhood of historic character and make it temporary, easily extinguishable?  The surrounding community would be worthless without it.  No one does that.

John Hicks

Another analogy is the farmer’s dilemma.  Your orange grove produces profit.  You would produce even higher profit if you sold the fruit, and then cut down the trees for firewood.  But then you wouldn’t have the trees for fruit in the future, and your profits across a period of time would be less.  In fact, they would be zero.  Well if you have historic homes, but then un-designate them and demolish them, you are doing the same thing.  No one does that. (see Hicks).

Ron Coase

The last analogy is the radio station.  A radio station sets up in an empty storefront on Fairbanks, and starts broadcasting on 91.5 FM.  They make a lot of money selling ads but they block another station.  The station owner fights it, but the profitable radio station has enough money to hire lawyers  and eventually they settle, and the smaller station shuts down.  The reason this does NOT happen is because the government regulates the airwaves!  Yes, government regulation has some usefuless, and the FCC tells the other radio station to pick a different frequency.  Well if developers want to come in and build so badly, the government can tell them where to buy up the dirt – west of 17-92, for example, would be a really good start…or along Fairbanks between Orange and Edgewater.  Government should have some backbone here.  (Coase)

So if your property values are important, fight for the right of Winter Park’s citizens to democratically vote for historic district status in a simple majority.  If you are conservative by nature, then your desire to conserve property values, reduce the volatility of transaction costs, and make Winter Park’s real estate a stable asset for future generations should lead you to this conclusion.

This is not the normal argument I would make for historic district status.  Basically, if I have to choose quality over quantity, I choose quality.  What I see, however, is too much irrational rhetoric and too little reasoned analysis of the case.  This irrational rhetoric ignores the real economics of this issue laid out by the three gentlemen above, and recognized by economists today as the real world in which we live.  I trust that this is a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing discussion about Winter Park’s shared vision.

Zombie Architecture

If the curse of the 1960s was dingbats – those faceless apartment buildings stuffed onto small lots – the curse of this new era of false prosperity is something I call zombie architecture.  Massive facades with empty windows facing the street characterize these homes, and perhaps also the inhabitants within.

Brick zombie

The body of a dead person given the semblance of life…that pretty much sums up the style of architecture of all of these pathetic creatures.  Will-less, mute, with unseeing eyes, these undead populate the streets of our community.  The dead styles of yesteryear – Spanish Mediterranean, Colonial, Victorian, Queen Anne, and so on – are forced to roam the streets, with no free will to be what they want to be.

What makes these things open their giant maws and devour so many consumer goods?  You can drive down streets and see them with their garage doors open, mouths stuffed with kayaks and bikes and racks of old clothing and unused exercise equipment and boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff.  What causes these zombies to gobble so much material?

Stucco zombie

Voodoo capitalism has forced builders to mass-produce thousands of these horrid things, in order to move huge amounts of matter and energy through the system.  These aren’t even enriching Wall Street lenders that much, with low interest rates. Instead, an odd witchcraft that has cast a spell on us, urging us to buy new, buy more, buy now.  We rush to get a zombie, move in, shutter the windows, turn on the air conditioner, and then bask in the reassuring glow of our electronics.  Or maybe mix a smoothie in our kitchens, admiring the view of the screened-in pool from safely within, and browse Amazon for more stuff.

Yellow zombie

To what evil purpose have these zombies been let loose upon the land?  There are zombies everywhere – Colorado, Rhode Island, Arizona – and they are gathering force, a kind of stucco-clad zombie army.

zombie

Does not Selena’s forehead resemble Florida residential stucco?   Is the zombie takeover imminent?  There seems no way to kill these foul, lifeless carcasses, these mindless, reanimated corpses of the architectural past.  They just continue on and on.

You may doubt the connection between the Zombie of folklore and zombie architecture.  If there could be any proof, look at all the older structures getting demolished on a daily basis, making way for more zombies.

These zombies are ultimately metaphors for our slavery to materialism.  We act as walking slaves to our gadgets, our machines, our clothes, and our experiences.  This contemporary 21st century slavery is not marked with a collar or leg iron; instead it is marked by a simple note.  Yes, a note, as in a mortgage note, which is a sacred witch-doctor pact that you make with an anonymous banker somewhere who stands to get very, very rich off of all of these zombies.

Still, no sign of land…

After exhausting the local libraries for Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsburg, Bowles, et al, an immersion into American fiction and poetry of the 1940s and 1950s has made newer fiction particularly bland.  I’ve tried newer stuff – novels that have won all sorts of awards – and find them to be soupy, warmed-up oatmeal compared to what was going on right after World War 2.  In 21st century America, our anxieties and fears have made our stomachs so twitchy that soupy, warmed-up oatmeal may be the only thing we can really digest anymore.

Oddly, I find recent architecture the same.  Knowing how the software works, I see the buildings celebrated in magazines as sketchup models, or Revit masses, and not particuarly well designed ones either.

A house under construction close by here has a splitface concrete block pillar, with a girth about eight feet or so.  It rises up behind a “frame” and is now being decorated with a little medallion of reclaimed wood. This passes for modern architecture today, I suppose.  There isn’t much reason for the pillar, except to stop the rather bad chi coming at the house’s front from a cross street.  It seems like gestural architecture.

What was once a design ethic, a “no-style” style, has now become just another half-hearted manipulation of hipster materials like reclaimed wood, draped onto forms that are easy to create in Sketchup.  Make a floating rectangular mass, offset the four faces by a foot or so, push the center rectangle in until it becomes a void, and hey presto! there’s a form.

Meaningless Modernism isn’t half as bad, however, as the ungainly, flat traditional housing that passes for shelter elsewhere in the city. The marketplace has reduced every historical design style down to a vague, generic box with lots of gables facing the street, large windows out of proportion to the size of the building, and a kind of demoralizing noncommittal character.  They are usually finished with wattle-and-daub (stucco, or whatever you may want to call it) and are busy and awkward without fitting onto their lots or sharing any dialogue with their neighbors.

I’m not all about architecture that has to shout “look at me,” and I feel like buildings that behave well together do make a nice neighborhood.  So many of the newer contributions to our streets, however, regardless of style, seem to be deaf and dumb, with empty eyes wide open staring at the street or the sky in a kind of atavistic wonder.

It is the combination of the primitive and the very affluent which is the deadening effect.  These houses are not even dingbats.  They aren’t big enough to be mcmansions; instead they are just zombies.

And speaking of zombies, the new America of the 21st century has taken some getting used to.  Gone are the quirky little side streets…gone are the people who live in the swamp, off the grid and disconnected from the mainstream…gone are the unpretentious pockets of honest architecture in small towns.

Instead, we are now all six-laned, large-turning-radius, long-traffic-light America.  We are now the America of the Commercial Strip.  We have managed to obliterate regionalism, in favor of the American Road.  You don’t have local color anymore, because local color just gets you into trouble.  All the tiny little restaurants must now vy for facebook likes and off-the-beaten-path hipster chic social media feeds.

Instead, I am learning to love our new culture.  American culture is Starbucks and Target Urbanism, and our brands give us sanctuary.  If you do try something local and independent, it better measure up to these standards, or woe to the retailer who tries to carve a different pathway.

I am learning to love an America that just feeds off of itself, in a sort of cannibal consumerism that remains the envy of the world.  Thronging sidewalks are not found in downtown Orlando, or downtown anywhere, because in downtowns, they still produce stuff – lawyers produce lawsuits, financial types produce wealth, and generally service industries produce, well, something useful.

No, in our new, 21st century America, our most intensely populated urban scenes are places like South Beach and Downtown Disney.  Today, at downtown Disney, the avalanche of visitors was clearly a sign that we have arrived.  Urbanism is now a fine leisure activity, and we have reached the level where we consume urban experiences as the most elite way of expressing our prosperity.

We drive, park, and then walk along the downtown Disney boardwalk, not for a service, not for a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with work colleagues or to make widgets in a factory.  Instead, we do this just…to do it.  We lick ice cream, avoid strollers and plod along the sidewalk because we like it.

The 21st century America is one with unprecedented leisure time and wealth, and we are using this to dine, entertain, and shop with our fellow human beings.

This is a highly complex, sophisticated 21st century America.  Regulations have never been higher.  Every aspect of our lives has some kind of code or law governing how we deal with it, whether “it” is food, a service, driving, parking, walking, seeking healing, expressing ourselves in different ways.  Dozens — no, thousands of laws and codes govern each step of our journey, much like the airwaves vibrate with thousands of unseen radio frequencies.

We are paradoxically moving at a frenetic pace, and yet we feel so often at a standstill, a paradox that produces a uniquely 21st century anxiety and fear.  We are paradoxically free to prosper any way we can, and yet we are so constrained with laws and codes, further increasing our anxiety and fear.   The boredom and lack of variety that arises from the triumph of American consumerism is also a curse.  And yet we revel in it.

I’m trying real hard to love it.

The other side of south Florida

South Florida connotes a certain lifestyle in media and popular culture.  Miami’s bright, tall energy has always been intertwined with the Florida Everglades’ quiet, flat landscape – low, grassy plains soaked with swampwater and edged by dense jungle. The seam where these two opposites meet is neither active nor passive; it is, instead, a third thing, where man’s activity has subtly modified the landscape, and nature has slowed man’s pace closer to its own.  My recent experience at the edge of the Everglades had a sort of off-kilter Caribbean or Central American sense of place that felt exotic and familiar at the same time, a pleasant tension that reassures me there is still an edge to Florida where the scratchy blanket of protective regulation is thrown off to reveal informal, naturalized structures that blend beautifully into the natural environment.

Southwest of Miami lies the city of Homestead, Florida, famous for being the front door through which Hurricane Andrew entered Florida in 1992.  Today, Homestead is an exurb of Miami, with a relentless street grid extending west and south.  Homestead’s suburbs are newer vintage housing, schools, and commercial strips grown after Andrew’s devastation, stopped only by the hard edge of the Everglades National Park.  Along this line, the housing and farmland stops, and the wide River of Grass takes over.

South Florida Map by National Park Service

Homestead’s western frontier is a jagged edge, a sort of squared-off, rasterized curve defined by a patchwork of rear property lines and rural roads.  On one side, houses pop up in between rows of beans; on the other, a jumble of ficus and palmetto.  At more than one location, abandoned asphalt strips crumble into the jungle’s interior, a subdivision extended a little too far.  Here, no one ever built a home, the empty lots passing into a suburban archeology of rusted street signs and vine-choked fire hydrants, a developer’s dream faded away.

Back in the agricultural areas, open fields with crops alternate with tropical fruit groves.  Mango, papaya, banana, and coconut bloom in the spring, wafting fragrant scents in the early morning air.  Workers in the field are dwarfed by the flat landscape, a world away from the America’s eighth largest metropolitan area.

Early morning, Homestead

In this farmland area, the vernacular building style colorfully mixes shipping containers, chickees, and barn tin in a deliciously un-Miami-like way. The traditional Seminole chickee lends a tropical, exotic flair to this spotty rim of humanity pressed against nature’s vast size.  Thatched palm fronds create a natural insulation barrier blocking the sun’s heat, and the fully open sides allow the tiniest of breezes to move air through the space underneath.  This native response to the land is more appropriate than the thick-walled, stucco-buttered architecture imported from arid Spain and grafted onto Florida’s natural character.

The Seminoles take the opposite approach:  Work with nature, have a light touch, and when a hurricane blows it away, build it again.  This zen approach to fulfilling man’s need for shelter is decidedly unmodern and soft, and its presence at the edge of the Everglades lends a certain amount of respect to the power of nature just beyond.

Prototype chickee hut (drawing by RTR)

Unconsciously, civilized life is stripped away layer by layer on the margin of the city.  Abandoned subdivisions and Native American architecture both mark man’s over-reach into the wilderness.  Yet another marker can be found on buildings constructed by modern means, where layers of veneer are stripped away, revealing raw materials, unpainted and unadorned, standing crude and timeless against the trees and the sky. The edge’s presence can be sensed where structures start to dissolve into informality.

Unpainted structures common to the edge of the Everglades

Everglades National Park is a hard, urbanized boundary on the map, but on the ground it is an ironically blurred zone where the slow-moving river of grass influences human activities.  The nuanced edge continues into the Everglades themselves, where Florida’s subtle water-nature is uninterrupted.  Water flows in a gentle, slow sheet across Florida’s flat limestone bed coated with organic material barely thick enough for life to cling to.  Where the limestone base dips a few inches, grass fails to grow; where a nub rises up above this hard plain a few inches, unique tree islands gather.  These islands are so densely vegetated as to admit no human, their edges wrapped in a thick tangle of branches and leaves, a sort of bonsai-forest in miniature.  Urban civilizations of insects, birds, and other small creatures inhabit these infrastructures, city-states of nature out of man’s reach.

Tree islands dotting Shark River Slough

In between approaching jets and the distant rumble of airboats, a larger silence takes over.  Penetrating the membrane between inside and outside makes possible a certain perspective on the question of man’s activities in the context of the larger world.  Confining our efforts to areas that are already strongly modified by human activities suddenly makes sense.  Boundaries, once created, harden over time, and the softness of the western edge of humanity against the eastern boundary of the Everglades seems destined to harden.  In its current state, this snapshot of the feathered, nuanced edge of civilization seems to be delicately balanced between the rural and the natural.  Agricultural industry on the periphery of the great conurbation of Miami moves at the pace of seasons and rainfall, making a rhythm that is in between the seasonal flow of the Everglades and the nanosecond street culture of contemporary western civilization.

Florida’s ubiquitous industry, tourism, mixes with agriculture even here with airboat rides, fruit stands, and alligator wrestling shows peppering the edge of the wetlands.  The Everglades vernacular architecture is not quite agricultural, yet not quite contemporary Florida either.

The Everglades vernacular

The flavor of these places has more connection to the Caribbean tropicalism one finds on islands like Puerto Rico, Barbados, and Hispanola.  Endlessly adaptable shipping containers sit cheek-by-jowl with chicken coops and thatch awnings to create an ad hoc pedestrian space under palm trees.  All is a little too clean and, well, inspectable to be really offshore; but it’s also a little more relaxed than the strangely uptight postmodern built environment we’ve come to expect in America.

Heading east out of the Everglades is a somewhat wistful journey forward in time.  Mango-treed rural roads abruptly give way to fruit processing plants, which back up to grocery store strips, and the standard parade of global brand names enters the windshield, a gateway back into contemporary America.  Stoplights take longer, traffic pace quickens, and today’s Florida, like a hairshirt, envelopes you in a cocoon of highly regulated infrastructure put there for your own protection.

Boiling hippos

Awash with newfound prosperity, pent-up demand unleashed like a pack of hungry wolves, this post-recessional period is superficially similar to postwar America.  Returning GIs, who suffered deprivation for as long as fifteen years (first the Great Depression and then the war effort), bought cars and houses and anything they could get their hands on.  Today, we’re officially in the same place.  Unofficially, however, we are in a very different place and this inside-outside contrast will direct us into a very different future.

Postwar prosperity was accompanied by a belief in science and the acceptability of exploring very interior themes. Science, as we all know, won the war!  And Freud and Jung taught us all about the subconscious and the inner self.  Both frontiers were fresh, new and exciting.  Today, having been burned at the stove with the atom bomb and psychoanalysis, we’ve drawn our hands back and petulantly suck our burned fingers, not sure where to put them next.
For a brief period in the 40s through the 60s, the interior of the human psyche was freely explored by artists and writers.  I’m looking for the very beginning of this trend.  I think I’m close.
Reading the postwar writers is like like taking a hot shower after standing naked in the snow.  Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsburg, Paul Bowles, J. D. Salinger, Paul Goodman and others seem infused with both optimism about the future and confidence in exploring the frontiers of interior existence.  After reading a Bowles novel, coming back to the reality of the early twenty-first century is a deceleration into a sense of quiet dismay.
At any time has society experienced such a loss of faith in the future as today? We imagine global warming, nuclear apocalypse, the end-times; we stand by and allow our children to be gunned down, for god’s sake – we stand by while the greediest class ever has stolen our financial future and created a permanent class of paupers.  The early 21st century will go down in history as having lost faith in the future and, as Kenneth Boulding said, will soon lose its capacity to govern itself in the present.
People seem blissfully unaware of this predicament.  We will stumble forward into the future some way, somehow, without realizing what is missing until it is gone.  Like the apocryphal hippos boiled alive in their tanks, we seem helpless to escape, fatalistically tied to our fate as a circus fire rages all around.

Theories of public design

When Dr. Barry Allen (’79 U. Penn) lent me Design Activism by Anne Thorpe, it planted a seed that has quickly sprouted.  Here in Central Florida, design activism is urgently needed to heal so many broken conditions, but very few experiments have been tried to fix the problems.  I’ve been involved in four early attempts at urban activism and, after reading Thorpe’s book, I believe it is time to share more publicly some of the thoughts and needs to make Central Florida a better place to live.

About the same time that I read Thorpe’s manifesto to start designing public spaces, I was drafted into a public urban design question, and I attempted to plant seedlings of public design.  The result was met with more than a little bit of dismay and skepticism, so I’ve retreated to contemplate how better to nurture their growth.  I’ve shown a few close friends some tiny flowers blooming on this seedling, but since then, never taken it out into the sunlight.  Here in Florida, the strong sunlight is not for every plant – this particular one, being imported from London, might not make it.  The soil is also quite acidic here, making it difficult to grow.  And finally, I’ve watched the same seedling get planted, grow a bit, and then wither and die.  So my reluctance is protective.  But I really think these flowers need to be seen here, perhaps more urgently now than ever before.

In 2012, I proposed, as a part of a panel discussion with Klaus Heesch, a design paradigm for the area between I-4, Highway 50, and North Magnolia Street, which we nicknamed the North Quarter.  We presented our ideas to ReThinking the City.  A disappointingly small audience, one of whom stated that he “came for the beer”, was the result of no promotion on the part of the venue.  Nevertheless, we bravely soldiered on.

Heesch and I recognized that the area was about to receive an injection of major residential projects (which has since been built out), and needed an identity and a neighborhood character.  We proposed The North Quarter.  We defined the neighborhood’s boundaries, how you enter and exit it, where its prominent features lie, and how to enhance them.  We identified a major deficiency – the adjacent negative energy of Interstate 4 – and proposed a solution.  Our audience, by the end of the slide show, consisted of the beer fan and one other person who works for the local authority having jurisdiction over the area, and dismissed the ideas, seeming to express dismay that a volunteer group would be so bold as to perform urban design, rather than passively accept whatever the official city planners roll out.

If design activism raised the hackles of the nomenklatura, I’ve since come to believe that we were on to something.  Design, in our contemporary life, is nearly universally a result of a private transaction between a single owner/interest and a design consultant, who solves the problem that his client presents.  The city, for example, needs a new building.  The city hires an architect and gets the design of this building.  This is about 19% of all design commissions. About 81.9% of the rest of design commissions are when a private entity – a corporation or an individual – hires a designer to provide a logo, a website, a house, or a commercial facility.  That is the current model.

Public design, which currently makes for 0.1% of all design commissions, is what Anne Thorpe is talking about, and which we were talking about with the North  Quarter.  This is when a set of clients (plural) have a shared public problem that could be solved by design.  Thorpe puts it like this:  “architecture & design can help us transition from a system that prioritizes consumerism and economic growth to one that addresses real wellbeing.”  It is all about making our stuff better, not making more stuff.

I experimented with public design while teaching at Rollins.  There, in urban design classes, we went about identifying conditions where the city had a problem, and proposed ways to heal the problem.  In Sanford, we found a plaza that suffered from open space blight, and proposed uses and structures that banished the ugly parking lots and unified the open space.  In Winter Park, we took an awful city-owned set of triangular blocks and proposed a new way of circulating people around a new use for the land.  And so forth.  Each of these problems is a shared-ownership problem; impossible for a single entity to commission, impossible to fund.   Each attempt got closer and closer to the truth, and the flowers started to blossom.

Since then I’ve solved other urban design problems the same way.  I repurposed some discarded metal and playground parts, and made them into bike racks for my neighborhood.  This was funded by a grant.  (the bike racks promptly got stolen before the city came along to fasten them down.  Every single one of them.  Again, the authorities having jurisdiction unwittingly defeated public design).

Look, Orlando has a pleasantly inoffensive atmosphere, but this belies several serious problems.  For rankings of negative attributes, Orlando tends to rate high.  For example, it remains one of the deadliest places for cyclists.  For another, Orlando continues to earn a spot in lists of America’s 100 most deadliest cities.  If you are looking for rankings of positive things, like walkability, Orlando scores last place.  Something insidious is going on here, and this might explain a different phenomenon, one that has been troubling me and many other designers for a long time.  It might at least partly explain why Central Florida seems to act, not as a collector of good design ideas, but rather more like a sink.  Good designers constantly flow in, but the nature of the sink causes them to continue on their pathway down the drain, off to other places.  The pleasantly inoffensive face of Orlando, like the hard porcelain sides of the sink, are slick and cannot be clung to.

Design cannot fix everything.  But design and society are intertwined, and design activism has a place which deserves to be explored.  Thorpe, in her book The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, discusses how designers have, in various locations, have made some changes.  And her blog, designactivism.net, is a kind of an inventory of interesting ways designers have tried to solve public problems with good design.

A few years ago I tried to start the Winter Park Design Bureau, thinking that a group of like-minded people might want to write grants and crowd-fund design solutions.  The mission was to be a profitable business working within the context of capitalism.  As a social business, its objective was to define certain urban problems that could be solved with good design.

These problems have not gone away, and in fact they continue to grow larger.  For every year that passes without solving them, incrementally more and more money and effort are required to correct them.  Some of these problems include:

Restore balance between man and nature.  Some of the design assignments might include opening up biological corridors between local ecosystems, and creating species circulation systems (species other than man, that is).  The annual drama of bear cubs seeking their own territory is growing and instead of it being a shoot-em and cage-em problem it could instead be treated as a design problem.

Reduce road rage and vehicular homocides.  Some of the design assignments might include traffic and walkability design solutions.

We have other ideas that will be explored in future articles.  These are just a few, and if we start locally, they might just converge into something interesting and positive, retaining some good people here for a little while longer.  The vision of a flower might blossom and grow into a field.