Monday, February 25, 2008

So Long, Vale-Rio Diner

Over the weekend, the Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA served its last least for awhile. Its owners have decided to sell the property it stands on (also occupied by the historic Fountain Inn) to a developer who wants to put in, surprise surprise, a CVS and a Starbucks. The Starbucks would at least reuse the first floor of the old inn building, and I imagine it could be really cool if they do a good job (I'll spare you the rant about chain coffeehouses displacing local businesses). But instead of keeping the apparently-not-as-lucrative-as-they'd-like historic diner where it has been since 1948, and building a CVS on other property they own down the street (which, incidentally, already has a couple of chain drugstores within a short distance), the owners want to relocate the diner somewhere else in the borough and build a CVS at this prime location.

As at least a few people have pointed out, if you want your historic property to be a commercial success, how is moving it to a yet-to-be-determined (but most likely less prominent) site going to help? Especially when you factor in the costs: cost to buy more land, cost to relocate the building and prepare a new site, the cost of loss of historical integrity from being on a new site, the cost of losing and having to win back your loyal clientele, the cost of firing your existing staff and then having to find a whole new workforce at the new site... Never mind the cost to dozens of employees, who are essentially losing their jobs because management got sick of running a diner and wanted to cash in.

The Inquirer article I linked to contains some interesting details about the reasoning behind this fiasco. The owners are now whining that people they approach about buying a new site are jacking up land costs right and left because they know the owners are obligated to put the diner there. Cry me a river. I say, keep jackin' up those prices, folks. The owners got greedy and made the diner their sacrificial lamb, essentially selling out hometown character to placate the gods of big chain-store developer bucks. Phoenixville as a community should be doing everything it can to thwart these people.

To reopen, the Puleos said, they must also find a way to cut some of the hidden costs. For instance, since heating and cooling an uninsulated stainless-steel structure is very expensive, Francis Puleo said, they might put the diner inside a larger building.

He also said the Vale-Rio would likely be modeled after a Cracker Barrel, where merchandise supplements the diner's revenue.

"You have to have another economic tool to make a diner work today," he said."

Um, guys? Part of the point of a diner is to be visible from the street, with a recognizable shiny-faced facade. How is putting the diner inside another building going to help draw people in? Also, diner owners nationwide, many in much more severe climates than Pennsylvania, have these same HVAC costs, and they aren't using that as an excuse to close up.

Also, if the place wasn't making money, were there other things that could have been done to change that? If you ask me, the diner's surrounds could have been spiffed up considerably to attract new customers and make it more of a destination. It sat in a sea of asphalt next to the run-down looking inn building, with a seasonal ice cream stand on the other side, and this trio of properties always seemed a little forlorn and seedy. Better food and better PR would have helped too. Instead, it was like excruciatingly slow demolition by neglect.

Further, with Phoenixville becoming a revitalized dining and entertainment destination in recent years, why not be a good community steward and catch that wave at the same time? If the owners had invested more in upgrading the site and finding a better tenant at the Fountain Inn, the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn could easily have been part of the Phoenixville revival. They stand at a major gateway to the historic downtown commercial-industrial zone. Now that gateway is going to be marked by CVS and Starbucks. Welcome to Phoenixville, where we have the same chain stores as every other suburb!

Finally, if the diner owners were so sick of dealing with running these money-losing commercial properties, why not sell the entire property to new owners willing to take on rejuvenating the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn and maintaining them as a community asset, instead of to a developer whose clients are chain stores? Maybe you wouldn't make as much money as selling to the developer, but you'd earn serious community goodwill. I'm obviously not a land investor, but to anyone in business, that's got to count for something.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The greening of suburbia

All right, this article in the Washington Post on "Can Big Be Green?" has gotten me all riled up. The premise is that even oversized new houses can be more "green" than small old houses. Basically, the article gives high-end developers and their clients the opportunity to justify building McMansions by insisting that even though they consume more land, raw materials, and energy than smaller/older dwellings, it's OK! Because they're sprayed with impermeable insulation and virtually draft-proof! So you can have six bathrooms and not feel guilty, or even have to worry about your heating bill!

The article defines "green" as follows:

"Generally speaking, a house is called green if it uses energy, water and natural resources wisely and offers good indoor air quality. "

What the article does not mention is that oftentimes, particularly in a couple of the neighborhoods specifically mentioned (Somerset, Chevy Chase DC), the only way to build a new house is to tear down an old one. Oftentimes that old one is a perfectly good and serviceable house, maybe a bit small or needs work, but probably has potential.

I need someone to explain to me how bulldozing such a house (which might contain excellent-quality old-growth wood and other natural materials) and throwing it in a landfill, then tearing out all the remaining trees in the yard so a builder can come in and construct a large, towering new house as far out to the property line as possible, using particleboard and Tyvek and pressure-treated lumber and vinyl, is being "green." How is that a wise use of energy, water, or natural resources?

At the very least, this is a colossal waste of resources, even if the old house was not particularly energy-efficient. It's also replacing natural materials almost entirely with chemical-infused manufactured ones, which may or may not be healthy to live in (time will tell). Finally, such an immense infill house inevitably has negative physical, aesthetic, and fiscal ramifications on an established neighborhood, although that's a rant I'll save for another day.

Even if the new superdwelling is built in a vacant area and no old houses were hurt in the filming of this eco-movie, its big footprint is occupying land which once absorbed rain, thus decreasing permeable soil and causing more runoff into area waterways (or neighboring properties). Since most new houses usually have a good-sized paved driveway and/or parking area for the three-car garage, the permeable surface is even further reduced. In terms of reducing runoff and pollution of our waterways, it would be more green to reuse and expand an existing building footprint than to create a new one.

Call me crazy, but I don't understand why anyone would want to live in a Thermos-like dwelling. Old houses may have drafts, but this also serves as a passive ventilation system. Houses built before the advent of air conditioning and modern climate control often have built-in design features to maximize winter heat retention and summer cooling. Air circulation through the exterior envelope, and cross-ventilation through the room arrangement, was a given. These features cost nothing to use, and have worked well since humans first lived in a built environment. If your new house is completely draft-proof, how exactly do you plan to get fresh air circulating through it? Why, an HVAC system! Which requires materials to build and energy to run! Maybe your air quality inside will be good, but is it truly fresh?

The article does not mention that the reason we have black mold, and black mold lawsuits, is precisely because new houses these days are built to be so airtight. Wrapped in Tyvek and vinyl siding, or slathered with synthetic stucco, and sealed with vinyl thermal windows, they don't have the passive air circulation of an older frame or masonry house with wood windows. Houses need to breathe and exchange air, particularly since they are exposed to varying levels of moisture from the inside and outside. When moisture gets into a wall and cannot escape, you get mold. What happens when the wood used to build a house is waterlogged by rain or insufficient curing/drying before the Tyvek and the spray-on insulation goes on? How will it dry out if your exterior walls are sealed like a Thermos? Ever smell a moldy Thermos you forgot to empty and wash for awhile?

So basically, I think it's great if you are going to build yourself a McMansion no matter what and you decide to jump on the "green/sustainable" bandwagon and stick a few solar panels on top. But it would be even greater if realtors, developers, builders, suppliers, consumers, shelter magazines, home-improvement TV shows, and Ty Pennington would recognize the value and potential of reusing existing buildings rather than putting up new ones. Sustainability, like preservation, is about long-term value and stewardship over generations, not the "I want it all and I want it now and I'll throw it away when I'm done with it" culture we live in these days.

This would be a more balanced article if the author had talked to some preservationists, instead of just the National Homebuilders and the LEED people. And it's crystal-clear to many of us in the historic preservation field that national environmental policy needs some help. My friend Richard in DC blogged about this a few days ago and has some additional salient points.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Blog Abstract

I decided that my interest in historic preservation issues was probably a little off-topic for my personal blog, so I have started this new one. Over there, we'll talk about the news, the family, life in general. Over here, we'll talk about a variety of preservation issues, including maintenance of a 200-some-year-old house, why vinyl windows are a scourge, examine preservation issues in the news, and explore why TV is so biased in favor of preservation-unfriendly "solutions" (I'm talking to you too, This Old House). The blog title is a jab at the stereotype formulated by all those people who get mad at us when we protest the demolition of some forlorn old building. Most of us are not hysterical, and are actually pretty mellow people most of the time, but we can get pretty passionate about old-growth wood, quirky vernacular architecture, and property owners who neglect or destroy valuable historic resources. So, welcome to all visitors.