Living Green: City must be steward of its buildings
by Christina Frankel
Jan 04, 2013 | 4058 views | 5 5 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There is an ongoing discussion in Tracy and other communities about what to do about blighted properties.

The definition of blight varies with the variety of people having the discussion. Blight in an upscale area can simply mean a vacant property with the lawn not mowed.

But blight is meant to describe a tough and ugly situation of long-term neglect, vacant or not, whereby the area is prone to vandalism and crime. It should not be used to describe a building waiting for the right owner.

In our disposable society, we are impatient with waiting. In boom years, waiting for a building to be designed and built well is excruciating to most, although for the longevity of a building, design and build quality are the two most critical components.

As an architect, I argue that if the building is designed well, designed for the right place, built well and built to last, it doesn’t matter what the economics are — it will stand the test of time.

However, building styles still fall out of favor, just like fashion. Many buildings

become unwanted just because they have the wrong ornamentation or are built in the wrong location or in an area that changes with gentrification.

In bust years, buildings that are not built well or in the right location are often the ones left behind first.

Demolishing a building because it stands vacant — setting 180 days as the threshold was discussed in Tracy — is absurd.

When we are talking about our neighborhoods, we shouldn’t be quick to eradicate a building simply because it is vacant. There are serious ramifications to patchwork demolition that affect the vitality of the community and actually spread the disease of blight faster than leaving the vacant building standing.

Downtown Stockton is a good example of emptiness sapping vitality.

To use a dentist allegory, pulling the bad tooth makes the smile worse.

In Tracy, we would have lost the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts and the Opera House under those guidelines. Now imagine our downtown without those cornerstones.

Buildings, both commercial and residential, account for 40 percent of our resources, including the operations to run them.

What it took to build a building is called embodied energy — we already spent the energy and time to build it, which means when it was built, it had great value. If it doesn’t now, does that mean we should not have built it in the first place?

Consider the embodied energy.

In older buildings, the materials used for the building are gone, or are now rare. We are already dealing with the ramifications and pollution that stem from improper harvesting and manufacturing of those materials.

When we demolish, all that embodied value is lost, forever.

Yet we would still pay the consequences of those buildings, standing or not, and continue to incur resource debt when we start over again.

We need to take a different approach with our building environment.

On the planning side, we need to slow down and make the right choices before we build. The choices of our neighbors affect all of us —

we are interconnected.

We need to ask if the building serves the community.

Can we, as residents, support the expense of the water, sewer, power and public safety to support the building? Can the building be reused and remodeled and adjust to the future world?

We need to stop looking at our buildings as meal tickets for city coffers, gorging ourselves on developer fees now and deferring the consequences later.

For those buildings already in our community, we need to take a radical approach to support infill.

Why not make a three-tiered fee structure that supports the buildings and systems we already have? If you remodel or add on to an existing building, you get the lowest fee structure — and fee waivers if the building is vacant.

An even more radical

approach would be to offer incentives for infill growth. We already pay a premium to safeguard them; why not improve them? If you are building new on vacant land, surrounded by development on three sides, you get a middle fee structure. And if you want to build new, outbound of the city, you pay the highest price — painful and commensurate with long-term burden it will place on the community.

Will it slow outward growth? Yes, but it will create

more vitality within our

existing neighborhoods — the best long-term, sustainable solution for the vitality of our community.

With this approach, the Levand Building, a Tracy historical landmark might have been saved.

For a change: Support local businesses. They create the vitality and tax dollars our community needs.

To make a difference: Try to repair before buying new.

To make a stand: Plan your build. Look at long-term factors, such as affordability of the operations. If you can’t afford to maintain it, water it and repair it, then it will likely fall into disuse.

• Christina D.B. Frankel has lived in Tracy for more than 22 years and is an architect and mother of three. Her column, Living Green, runs every so often in the Tracy Press. She can be reached at
Comments-icon Post a Comment
January 06, 2013
While I agree with some of the statements in this article, others are maddening. Which, of course, is probably what the author wanted.

Nobody could debate the first two paragraphs, but then right after acknowledging that "blight" means different things to different people the author goes on to imply that her definition, the one in paragraph 3, is the correct one.

I agree with the comment below that saying that the economics dont matter is insane. Economics is often why buildings end up empty.

"Demolishing a building because it stands vacant — setting 180 days as the threshold was discussed in Tracy — is absurd."

Amen. This is an insane idea. The decision on when to demolish should be strictly up the the land or building owner.

"Buildings, both commercial and residential, account for 40 percent of our resources, including the operations to run them."

I am not even sure what this means. Is the author trying to say that 40% of our resources are buildings. It is hard to imagine identifying all of our resources (air, water, land, vehicles, people, etc and saying that buildings constitute 40% of that). And 40% of what measure? Volume? Weight? Number?
January 06, 2013
Or is she saying that 40% of our spending of resources goes to buildings? I find it hard to believe we could quantify that with any reasonable measure of accuracy either.

"Consider the embodied energy."

I hate this phrase. Its fluffy, hippy speak at its finest. Cant we just say, "consider all the energy that went into the putting the building up and exists in its structure." Yes, its longer. But at least it doesnt sound like something dreamed up by a 1960s stoner.

"When we demolish, all that embodied value is lost, forever."

Not true. The material can be recycled, burned to produce energy, etc..

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"The choices of our neighbors affect all of us — e are interconnected. We need to ask if the building serves the community."

I would agree for publicly owned buildings but for private buildings the rights of the individual or company involved, unless of course, I magically woke up in communist Russia this morning. Not that there arent limits on what a landowner can do. I wouldnt argue for a moment that a person can murder or rape as long as it is on their own land. However, in general the goal should be to give maximum control to the owner.

"more vitality within our existing neighborhoods"

Say what you mean, more over-crowding and people being jammed in like sardines. Not my idea of a quality lifestyle.

"To make a difference: Try to repair before buying new."

Cant disagree with the sentiment but I wouldnt say I repair things rather than buying new in order to "make a difference." Its more about making wise personal finance choices.
January 04, 2013
According to the author when designing a building " doesn't matter what the economics are" ????? Really? Is this advice from a working architect as I can't imagine her clients, if there are any, would agree with this. Embodied energy? So whether the building or renovating an existing building makes economic sense doesn't matter and "WE" should quantify the community value and "WE" should subsidize. Not interested.

The rest of the article is NOT worth commenting on. Honestly, I feel dumber for reading it.
January 05, 2013
It does matter when designing a builging. If you listen to some people they say two opposing things.

One they say it does not matter to justify spending more money on the building.

Two they say we should spend a lot of money on designing a bulding.

To categorize this in terms of psychology, those are what is known as "cognitive dissonance".

Fact is that sometimes it makes sense to start over.
January 10, 2013
"The rest of the article is NOT worth commenting on. Honestly, I feel dumber for reading it."

All of her articles affect me that way.

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