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“suburban development is an experiment” – Growth Ponzi Scheme – Strong Towns



This article, by Charles Marohn, on The Strong Towns web site, presents a clear and concise perspective on the unsustainable American Dream. As San Antonio considers allocation of funds to be raised in the 2017 municipal bond process, public discussion has never been more important. The past 70 or so years of urban development in San Antonio represents the only pattern most of us are familiar with. We would be better able to make decisions for a more sustainable future if we understand the larger context of our sprawling urbanism. Sprawl is the only urban development pattern most Americans have ever experienced. Please read this, San Antonio. (You might even consider joining in what will undoubtedly be a spectacle of a public forum regarding the bond.)

We often forget that the American pattern of suburban development is an experiment, one that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us. But our own history — let alone a tour of other parts of the world — reveals a different reality. Across cultures, over thousands of years, people have traditionally built places scaled to the individual. It is only in the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile.

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Changes to prevent hasty demolitions – San Antonio Express-News

Photograph by ALMA E. HERNANDEZ

Volunteers, David Bogle, Doug Smolka and Jean Mothri help clean out Miguel Calzada’s home Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in preparation for renovations. City Councilman Roberto Treviño said he wants the city’s building demolition process to include more of a “human side,” to protect seniors, veterans and chronically ill homeowners from demolition of older, potentially historic houses.

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‘Architecture is now a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its social mission’ – Architectural Review

Waterwijk housing, designed by OMA integrates multiple housing types aimed at various income levels.

Waterwijk housing, designed by OMA integrates multiple housing types aimed at various income levels.



With each announcement of a new “luxury” apartment development along the Mission Reach, or in the low-density pockets around downtown San Antonio I look beyond the images and lists of amenities in the advertisements to find little distinguishing it from the speculative houses and apartments being built for more “affordable” markets. Is the architectural form, material or design quality more enduring or, rather, merely more endearing? I am reminded of the linked article I read few months ago. While I have learned a little something about the economics of cities over the years – about the commodification of our cities and the ability of the relatively few real estate interests to powerfully affect how cities grow and redevelop, I was struck by some of the economic ideas and connections cited. The author, Reinier de Graaf, casts a bright light and a long shadow on architecture and the division of wealth in this essay. Specifically, he looks at architecture in the context of Thomas Piketty’s economic analysis from Capital in the Twenty-First Century which postulates that “inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism, and can only be reversed through state interventionism.” Put very simply, wealth itself is far more efficient at producing more wealth than good-ole hard work, or, from the article, “Those who acquire wealth through work fall ever further behind those who accumulate wealth simply by owning it.” While it has been clear to me in the past how architectural production itself can play a role in the continuing trend of income inequality, the idea that there is no alternative is disconcerting.

….it becomes relatively easy to dissociate a (high) selling price from a (low) cost base and reap record profits as a result.Ironically, this development affects both rich and poor. With sale values exceeding production costs to the current extent, quality no longer resides in the product, but in a potential profit through selling. The whole notion of physical luxury is superseded by a value on paper. However, the value on paper in no way represents the real material value of the product. The price of property is created by a combination of size and location. Unless major technical flaws come to light, the material or technical quality of buildings barely plays a role. As long as the hype continues, the ‘investment’ is safe.

This shows some of San Antonio's inner-city neighborhoods relative density mapped by zip code.

This shows some of San Antonio’s inner-city neighborhoods relative density mapped by zip code.

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Public meetings, Public input at San Pedro Springs Park

Roberto Trevino, Delia Cardenas, Diego Bernal, David Bogle and ___, left to right.  Photo courtesy City of San Antonio Transportation Construction and Infrastructure (TCI) graphic designer Shannon Pacheco-Caldera.

Roberto Trevino, Delia Cardenas, Diego Bernal, David Bogle and ___, left to right. Photo courtesy City of San Antonio Transportation Construction and Infrastructure (TCI) graphic designer Shannon Pacheco-Caldera.



I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the improvements at the park last week, and was surprised when our former District 1 Council representative, Diego Bernal asked me to join them in the shovel line. “Diego,” as he insists all his constituents refer to him, was the driving force behind the initial bond allocation for the park and subsequently found additional funding that was required to round out the scope of work to include perimeter improvements along North Flores Street. It was rewarding to have been asked to join in for the photo alongside our new District 1 representative Roberto Trevino, another neighbor and CoSA Parks and Recreation.

Through several public meetings, public input managed to help steer the design development of the project. I, along with several other neighbors and professionals, voluntarily advised the neighborhood association, as well as the councilman, on some of the technical and urban design-wise aspects of the improvements. Some of the benefits of citizen involvement included a revisiting of the San Pedro Springs Park Master Plan (abbreviated as it was) with public input, promotion of native plant materials, prevention of construction that would later be required to be removed when future phases of work gets funding, and removal of the existing perimeter sidewalks along North Flores Street where the most popular street parking is.

The new lighting will have LED technology lamping, but in matching “historicizing” lamp poles. Along the new walking trail and around the perimeter of the park, this should provide a visible improvement to the night time atmosphere of the park. The hope is that this near-perimeter fitness trail feature and lighting will attract more activity to the park and health to our neighborhood. The next time bond money becomes available for park improvements, I hope there will be funding for a planning process to update the park master plan and develop a prioritization from public input before the decisions about what will be built next are made.

KENS5 reporter interviewing David Bogle about the public input process.

KENS5 reporter interviewing David Bogle about the public input process.

Diego Bernal addressing attendees.

Diego Bernal addressing attendees.

District 1 Council Representative Roberto Trevino and fellow Alta Vista neighbor Delia Cardenas.

District 1 Council Representative Roberto Trevino and fellow Alta Vista neighbor Delia Cardenas.

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Treasure Hill Residence – Part 3 – “a moment becomes a movement”

Press release announcing proposed changes to city's demolition procedures.  Councilman Roberto Treviño proposes changes to the city's code enforcement procedures and policy to reduce demolitions of buildings like this historic home.

Press release announcing proposed changes to city’s demolition procedures. Councilman Roberto Treviño proposes changes to the city’s code enforcement procedures and policy to reduce demolitions of buildings like this historic home.


The community effort to save this Treasure Hill residence from demolition (#SaveMiguelsHouse) has inspired our city council representative to propose changes to the City of San Antonio policies and processes. The changes are intended to slow the enforcement process for long-time residents, veterans and the elderly, and reduce demolitions. Additionally, it could lead to better-educated Building Standards Board members that participate in code enforcement procedures. A press conference was held at the house to announce the proposed changes, and I would like to thank Councilman Roberto Treviño for his work on behalf of our client’s case. Thanks also go to Vianna Davila of the Express-News and Page Graham of the Rivard report for their coverage of this continuing story. See links in the right-hand column on this page.

Another exciting development is that we filed an application for landmark designation of the house on the same day. Here’s some of the history we found for this prominent site overlooking the San Pedro Springs and downtown San Antonio.

• (February 2, 1906)
Treasure Hill Plat filed for record, owned and subdivided by Adams, Kirkpatrick, and Nicholson (J.E. Adams, J.H. Kirkpatrick, and B.F. Nicholson). Includes Lot 21, Block 1, N.C.B. 3030 (now 1123 W. French Pl.). Nicholson releases several properties within plat to Adams and Kirkpatrick. However, Lot 21, Block 1 is not mentioned in these deeds.

• (1907)
Various properties within N.C.B. 3030, including Lot 18, Block 1, (now 1135 W. French), sold by B.F. Nicholson to one T.E. Hawkins. Deed for Lot 21, Block 1 not found.

• (1908-1911)
Various properties within N.C.B. 3030, again including Lot 18, Block 1, (now 1135 W. French), sold by T.E. Hawkins and wife G.L. to one G.B. Hawkins. Deed for Lot 21, Block 1 not found.

• (March 21, 1912)
Ten properties, including Lots 18 and 21 of Block 1, N.C.B. 3030, sold by G.B. Mitchell and wife L.E. to one J.S. McNeel, (James), a prominent real estate figure in town at the time. The following year’s directory lists the house at 1123 W. French Pl. as owned by J.S. and Emma McNeel.

• (1916)
A widowed Emma McNeel, wife of J.S. Sr., retains ownership of 1123 W. French Pl.

• (1922-1923)
The house at 1123 W. French is listed as owned by William P McNeel, City Fire Marshall and son of J.S. Sr. One Kathryn McNeel is also listed as an owner, and is assumed to be his wife. Emma McNeel is listed as a renter at this time.

• (1924-1930)
1123 W. French is listed as owned by Frank and Angelina Liberto. Frank is president of Frank Liberto & Co., a wholesale grocer and roaster of peanuts and coffee.

• (1931-1937)
Home owned by Andrew and Stella Mae Dilworth. Andrew Dilworth is a partner of Thomson, Dilworth, and Marshall Title and Trust, and is vice president of Union Title & Trust Co.

• (1938-1939)
The house at 1123 W. French is rented to one Marion A Olson and wife Martha. Marion is a lawyer at the Frost National Bank Building.

• (1940-1947)
1123 W. French is rented once again by Orvis E Meador and wife Mildred. Orvis works as a dentist in the Nix Professional Building.

• (1948-1958)
In 1948 William J Lytle is listed as owner of the house at 1123 W. French Pl. At that time, one Hortense E is also listed at said property. In 1958 one Mrs. Susan Lytle, named widow of William J, is listed as owner of the house.

• (1959)
The house at 1123 W. French Pl. is listed as vacant for the first time since its plat.

• (1960-1966)
Solomon Sfair and wife Hasna are listed as owners of 1123 W. French. There is little occupational information regarding Solomon Sfair listed in the respective city directories. According to Miguel Calzada, current owner, the Sfair family owned the “Navy Club” downtown San Antonio, a 24-hour club of some notoriety.

• (1967-
Vincente and Francisca Calzada are listed as renters of the home. Later in 1970, Miguel and Guadalupe’s names are included in the directory.

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Treasure Hill Residence – Part 2

Treasure Hill Residence workday gathering.  December 13, 2014.

Treasure Hill Residence workday gathering. December 13, 2014.


This week, more news coverage of the neighborhood effort to Save Miguel’s House (see Part 1) came out in theRivardReport (online) and in the San Antonio Express-News. It centered around the volunteer work day organized by Bob Comeaux, and it was nicely covered by two neighbors, authors Jessica Belasco in the San Antonio Express-News article and Page Graham of The Rivard Report in #SaveMiguelsHome – The Work Begins. The work day was a success thanks to approximately 50 persons who came to help.

Click here for the Express-News article on SYNCROSTUDIO which appeared on the front page of Monday’s paper (in case you don’t have a subscription to read it at The Express-News website.)

1906 Treasure Hill Plat

1906 Treasure Hill Plat

We’re calling this project Treasure Hill Residence, after the original name of the subdivision created in 1906. Legend had it the early Spanish explorers hid treasure here, but the name has been overshadowed by “Beacon Hill” which abuts this property on the north and is the current name for the whole neighborhood. The elusive treasure, however, is being mined today in the trove of neighbors and folks from all over the city generously donating to the cause. E-mail Bob Comeaux at bobtheunionguy “at” aol “dot” com if you want to find out more about how you can help.

Detail of 1911 map showing Treasure Hill Residence and outbuildings.

Detail of 1911 Sanborn map showing Treasure Hill Residence and outbuildings near Blanco City Road.

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The Human Face of Gentrification

Contemplating the possibilities if he could move back into his home of 50 years.

Contemplating the possibilities if he could move back into his home of 50 years.


Thanks to Page Graham at the Rivard Report for covering this story and using my photographs. This spacious, one-story home has stood here on “Treasure Hill” since prior to 1911 overlooking the San Pedro Springs Park valley and downtown San Antonio beyond from its south east facing front porch. We were asked by neighbor Bob Comeaux to help the owner, pro bono, to determine if it can be saved from demolition. After a quick walk-through it was obvious to me and our team that there could be no good reason to tear this virtually all-original house down.
100 year old house in need of repairs.  View of the front from the southeast.

100 year old house in need of repairs. View of the front from the southeast.


I am looking forward to working on design of the selective renovation soon. Currently, we’ve just completed the Repair Scope of Work developed with the assistance of our structural engineering consultant, Patrick Sparks, P.E., of Sparks Engineering Incorporated.
Interior of the front room, south east corner.  This is where everyone slept in the summer time, before air conditioning.

Interior of the front room, south east corner. This is where everyone slept in the summer time, before air conditioning.


Fundraising is underway, and the greatest news of today is that Donna Bertolacci, of D.B. Home Repair completed her proposal for the repairs and is donating her time, overhead and profit! A very generous proposition from a great homebuilder and her team who I just had the pleasure of working with on the Olmos Park Residence. Please contact Bob Comeaux, bobtheunionguy@aol.com, if you can contribute.

Comeaux sums up the situation best by saying, “How can we help the Miguels of the world, as opposed to tearing down their houses?”

Looks like that is what we’re figuring out. How to filter the gentrification process so it allows residents stability if they want it, and mobility if that’s their choice.

More on this story in Treasure Hill Residence – Part 2.

via Save Miguel's Home: The Human Face of Gentrification by Page Graham for the Rivard Report.

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The case for urban density, Part 1


Austin Comprehensive Plan - Growth Map

Austin Comprehensive Plan – Growth Map


Mike Greenberg “gets it,” to quote an e-mail from a friend. Greenberg’s second installment on this article is now also posted, so check that our after you read part 1.

I read a local politician’s editorial earlier this week who stated that in 2000 no one could have foreseen the [land use and] transportation problems San Antonio now faces. He does not “get it” and probably did not read Mike’s piece. Anyone who has studied the American city since 1977 could have foreseen the [land use and] transportation problems we face today.

“Urban” and “density” have been bad words across the suburban cities of America for many years. Planning has been out of fashion in Texas for as many. Comprehensive planning has been on the back-burner in San Antonio for far too long. Suddenly, with the death-blow to the streetcar, it has been touted that the lack of planning is why we should not build a streetcar! Now, it appears “planning” may become a tool of the auto-oriented, pro-sprawl real estate oligopoly. For this reason, if for no other, citizens should participate in the public planning process. If we participate, then we can (hopefully) trust the public planning process. We need to keep up “the case for urban density.”

….City Council decreed in 1979 that the city should not plan future growth, but should “accommodate” growth, after the fact, wherever the developers wanted to put it — mostly on cheap land far from existing infrastructure. That’s a very expensive and frankly stupid way to run a city, and its repercussions are still being felt today. The current controversy over proposed toll lanes on US 281 is one consequence.

One reason why “the overwhelming majority of us live in the suburbs” is that San Antonio’s “establishment” — comprising almost exclusively suburban interests — would not allow the majority any other option. Only in the past decade or so has the urban core gained a countervailing concentration of economic and political power sufficient to make the center thrive once again. There is still much work to be done. Only when that process is far advanced will “choice” in housing be a full reality, rather than an empty slogan.

Austin Comprehensive Plan - Growth Map Legend

Austin Comprehensive Plan – Growth Map Legend


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Housing Is Recovering. Single-Family Homes Aren’t. – NYTimes.com


Luxury apartments under construction in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Luxury apartments under construction in Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Michael Appleton for The New York Times

Apartment units make up the lions’ share of the recent increased activity in the housing industry. Though this article does not go into much of the back-story on why this trend is taking place, many of the comments it has drawn are from those who seem to understand. Single-family home building is on the decline compared to multi-family housing for many reasons, most of which are under the umbrella of sustainability. Energy and material conservation, compact urban development supporting public transit, social and economic benefits of urban lifestyles, and preserving agricultural land and the earth’s ecology come to mind. Apartment construction does not contribute as much, per unit, to the economy, so potentially slower (more steady?) growth of the economy may be a result.

Add it all up, and traditional, suburban stand-alone houses — and the construction of them — appear poised to play a smaller role in the economy, and Americans’ living situations, for some time to come

A version of this article appears in print on May 17, 2014, on page B2 of the New York edition with the headline: Housing Is Recovering. Single-Family Homes Aren’t.

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Physical 3D Models


2014 view of Broadway Corridor model presented to City of San Antonio in the year 2000 by Alexander Carragonne and Carolyn Safar Peterson

2014 view of Broadway Corridor model presented to City of San Antonio in the year 2000 by Alexander Carragonne and Carolyn Safar Peterson


Below, and in the article linked in the right hand column, architect Sir Terry Farrell is calling for planning debates over physical 3D models. I find it reassuring that in this digital age there is still a continuing need for physical models over which people can share and discuss the built environment. Recently, the Westside Development Corporation inquired with AIA San Antonio and at UTSA’s College of Architecture about developing a budget for a physical model of San Antonio’s Westside. A couple of us from AIASA offered to show them an urban-scaled model of part of San Antonio. It was my first visit to see this well-crafted solid hardwood model of the Broadway Corridor, from downtown to Brackenridge Park. Currently, it is housed by the City of San Antonio Downtown Operations offices, but is not readily viewable by the public. At the scale of 1″ = 100′, architectural forms can be modeled and there can be a great understanding of urban space and scale and relationships among streets, parks and buildings.

While I now use primarily computer modeling in my practice, there is a time and place when only a physical model will suffice. Physical models are particularly beneficial for bringing people together to evaluate urban scale redevelopment proposals. Digital or computer modeling can be used to create physical models, yet the process is still skilled-labor intensive and involves relatively expensive equipment. Stockholm has invested in one! I hope Westside Development Corporation decides to move forward with their plans for physical modeling. We need more public rooms where we can look at our cities together and collaborate on progress.

The architect Sir Terry Farrell has called for architecture to be taught in schools, the listing of buildings to be decided by popular support, and the introduction in every town of “urban rooms” where planning can be debated over 3D models.

Launching his review of architecture and the built environment, commissioned last year by the culture minister Ed Vaizey, Farrell said the 200-page document should “be a catalyst for change and the start of a big conversation about our built environment, making it a major public issue like health and food”.

At the core of the report is a call for a fundamental shift in UK planning culture. “Planning, in the true sense of the word, is simply not done in this country,” Farrell said. “In many other places, such as New York , the height, bulk and use of a building is all determined in advance in detailed spatial plans, but here everything is on the table, with every possibility debated every single time. You could buy a plot of land, get lucky, and have a Shard built in your back garden. The tallest building in Europe was never on anyone’s plan, yet it stands there today.”

His guidance, detailed in 60 recommendations produced after extensive consultation over 12 months, focuses on a holistic approach, or what he terms Place (an acronym of planning, landscape, architecture, conservation and engineering)."Our weakness has come from the separation of heritage and transport, design and infrastructure, in separate silos," he said. "Design reviews should be replaced by Place reviews, ensuring all aspects are given equal consideration in a joined-up approach."