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 firstname.lastname@example.org.