The Question is Moot

Before we get started, I'll offer the latest in soap opera that is New Mexico Basketball. Not one week after inking a ten-year contract extension, our coach has jumped ship to be the man at UCLA. Unbelievable. But, he was crap when it counted most this year, so happy trails. In happier news, Alabama kicks off against Virginia Tech in 152 days, 14 hours, 22 minutes and 37 seconds.
When I was about twelve, my friends and I discovered Saturday Night Live. I do not recall how I got to watch it, as it was (and is) on well past my bedtime. Although I can’t remember if I did this with parent’s approval or on the sly, I have vivid recollections of seeing some great skits (even if some of the humor was over my head at the time). The next morning at church, my buddies and I would reenact the scenes and tell the jokes we saw the night before. Most of the really funny skits involved Eddie Murphy. Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, the Little Richard Simmons Show, Buckwheat, and Gumby (dammit) are all classics. One of my favorites skits, however, had nothing to do with Eddie, it starred Jesse Jackson and was called “The Question is Moot”. (You should go watch it- its funny, and it will give a frame of reference for this post). To this very day, the image of the Right Reverend saying that phrase pops into mind when I see that a point has been missed.

In the continuing saga of the P-word on North Market, it now seems that the public and the C-7 Review Committee feel that they have been duped. It appears that the community and Committee were under the impression that the sub-urban building they approved was to be built entirely of brick. However, the plans that were approved show CMU’s being used for large portions of the building’s exterior. When faced with the prospect of being forced to use brick throughout, the developer threatened to cut back on landscaping citing the fact that he is spending over a million dollars on design requirements. In the end, the committee agreed to accept some brick columns on one of the block walls. After reading Ellis’s account of the situation (Lord knows I didn’t attend the meeting), it appears that there are a few questions... each of them moot.

1. Will the shift to a more modest building material now make this a bad project? The question is moot. What the building is made of, is in this case, far less important than how it is configured and sited. Once the decision was made to allow the current sub-urban configuration in violation of the C-7 guidelines, the real battle was lost. The few plants, a brick front facade, and non-functioning windows are merely lipstick on the proverbial pig. A sub-urban building is a sub-urban building, no matter what material it is rendered in.

2. Why would the developer use cheap concrete blocks on what is supposed to be a “quality” development? The question is moot. There are no innate qualities that make brick “good” and concrete block “bad”. There is certainly a perception that brick is better and perhaps this is simply because it costs more. What makes a building material “good” or “bad” is all in how it is used. If a material is used in a way that takes advantage of the inherent properties of the material and mitigates against its weaknesses and is done so in way that it is sustainable, isn’t that good? I happen to think that concrete block is every bit as beautiful as brick when it is executed properly. I also think that much of the brickwork out there fails to live up to the potential of the material.

3. Why is the committee trying to make developer spend more money on design? The question is moot. The act of design need not cost more money. In fact, good design can address a problem and actually save money both in terms of first costs and life-cycle costs. It is a fault that these concepts are not brought to the fore before the process starts when design and solutions are cheapest. Unfortunately, many developers do not recognize that design is an integrated process and not simply an appliqué to be layered on top to make something pretty.

4. Should the developer put his money into brick or landscaping? The question is moot. Once again, the elements of a project should be considered as an integrated whole, not as an a la carte menu. Trading off one window-dressing for another based on cost is not a means to achieve good design. How on earth did the C-7 guidelines end up in a place where the developer now dictates the conditions of the development? (That question is also moot. It is clear that our design review committees are more likely to bow to political pressures than they are to stick to their guidelines).

5. Why didn’t the committee fully understand what they were approving in the first place? The question is moot. As I have written about again, and again, the design guideline concept is fraught with peril. In order to create a piece of legislation that everyone will agree to, it has to be watered down to the point that it really only exists to stop the most egregious examples of bad design. And even in those cases, sufficient political or economic pressure can circumvent the watered-down guidelines. It is nigh upon impossible to create a system that is both widely accepted and that prevents things from falling through the cracks. (As a side note, I applaud the Downtown Design Review folks for developing an innovative process that is based on a points system rather than prescriptive guidelines. The downside to that process, however, is the overwhelming potential for unintended or unknown elements coming to light as projects take shape. I suspect that we will end up hearing an awful lot of “I didn’t know we approved that”.)

Despite the fact that I have written about it, again, I’m not really fired up about the P-word. I happen to think it’s a poorly designed project, but I have an ambivalence borne of the fact that my neighborhood is very close to having a locally owned, neighborhood grocery store in a well-designed, urban building. For my part, I choose to frequent establishments that share my values. So, will I end up spending money at the new P-word? The question is moot.

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