September 28, 2007
Saving energy ... by building like a beetle …
Which steps will be the most successful in cutting greenhouse gas emissions? While the media focuses on low-emission vehicles and technology for power plants, one of the most promising trends is the development of new technology for the most voracious category of greenhouse gas users –- buildings. This article in the Economist explains how designers are using techniques and lessons from nature to develop building systems that use much less energy and impose fewer adverse environmental impacts. It may become an integral part of “green building.”
Among the techniques are ventilation systems based on anthills, which during warm days draw in cool air at the bottom and vent warm air out the top. Lessons from beetles allow buildings to capture condensed water from humid air. And a system of gills, modeled on camel nostrils, can desalinate saltwater without the huge energy costs of traditional desalination systems.
Law could foster successful techniques through a judicious combination of requiring “best practices” and setting up a system for trading energy savings. As energy prices continue to rise, expect to see more governments stepping up to help the market advance these energy-saving measures in our built-up world.
September 27, 2007
L.A.’s Cocoanut Grove to meet the wrecking ball …
The most compelling argument for preserving historic buildings is that, like endangered species, once they are gone they can never return. So it’s understandable that preservationists are upset over the decision of the Los Angeles Board of Education this week to tear down the building that housed the Cocoanut Grove. The famous nightclub was a focal point of the city’s nightlife and entertainment scene for decades. It was part of the old Ambassador Hotel, which witnessed the fatal shooting of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; the hotel was demolished by the school district, which owns the land, last year. The plan is to build a large new school complex on the site.
The chief reason that the school board decided to demolish the nightclub building is that it appears unsafe in its current condition, and that renovations to make it withstand earthquakes would impair its use as a building. The loss of the historical structure is sad, but safety is paramount in today’s America (even the name “Cocoanut Grove” brings up harrowing lessons of safety). And I’ll suggest that buildings that witnessed history but that are not particularly architecturally distinguished (as the hotel and nightclub were not) deserve a lower priority in preservation than buildings whose walls and windows themselves provide inspiration.
September 26, 2007
The case of the fixed … and mobile … little Mexican food stand … in St. Paul …
How can one sell enchiladas from an open-air trailer on one’s own lot in St. Paul? That was the dilemma faced by Jose Ponce, who ran a food business called “Mi Pueblito” in the Minnesota capital, and may do so again after winning a land use case yesterday against the city government (Ponce v. City of St. Paul, No. A06-1883 (Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 25, 2007)).
From my reading of the facts, Ponce got stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side, St. Paul’s zoning ordinance required him to get a conditional use permit to operate a “fixed” and “outdoor” business; on the other hand, he was in effect told by the city that he shouldn’t apply for a renewal of the permit because his stand violated a state law against operating a “mobile” stand for more than 21 days. (In fact, this appears to have been a misreading of the law). After losing a hearing and decision before an administrative law judge, Ponce appealed to the court and finally obtained relief. Because he was in effect misled about violating the “mobile” law, he was unfairly dissuaded from renewing his conditional use permit. The Court reinstated his permit to allow him time to reapply.
This is the sort of case that restores our faith in due process, and shows that every person may, through perseverance, earn their just sopapillas.
September 25, 2007
Of mosques and minarets ...
The construction of mosques is one of the most contentious new issues in land use law. In both the United States and Europe, growing Muslim populations demand more mosques, while opponents use a variety of techniques to stand in their way, including seemingly “neutral” zoning rules that have the effect of making new construction difficult. Here’s an interesting essay in the Economist.
This Friday, a large new mosque in Boston will hear its first prayers, after a long legal struggle. Similar controversies are bubbling in many European cities, many of which hold large Muslim populations. The Economist points out that, despite the supposedly closer relations of many European countries to Islam, the United States holds one of the world’s strongest freedom-of-religion laws, which makes discrimination against mosques (when proven) clearly unlawful. This is not true in some European countries.
Some opponents of mosque construction fear that the houses of worship will become centers for the dissemination of extremism. A powerful counterargument, however, is that denying a population a place to worship would likely stoke the flames of extremism more than would tolerance.