It was a Victorian mansion turned tenement on a city street turned state highway. Six kitchens and bathrooms had been nailed to its backside long ago. Except for the occasional extension cord, all the wiring was original knob and tube. They needed a site plan, or rather they needed to know how much parking they could create. And they needed someone like me to ‘restore’ the tenement to a commercial office use.
On a construction visit, I walked in on Barbara finishing up a conversation with two tied and suited men. I could tell they were just finishing business by the clicking of the locks on their briefcases. I was introduced. The lead John was selling Barbara on the tax advantages of historic preservation, and offering his services in the procurement of advantage. Good deeds like preservation and environmentalism were becoming institutionalized through regulation, and the doing of good deeds was becoming professionalized, and profitable.
That year the state legislated that large development projects should prepare reports describing all the significant environmental impacts that might result, and defining what ‘mitigations’ might be necessary. But it allowed each city or county to define what constituted a ‘large’ project, what impacts were ‘significant’, and what ‘mitigations’ were sufficient. Further, elected officials could decide that there were local ‘overriding concerns’ that made the project worth the impacts. Discretion is the plum of politics, and Environmental Impact Reports were unsliced pies waiting to be plumbed.
John was among the first to see gold in those ills. When he bumped into Janet and I downtown one summer afternoon, he was glad to see us. He’d been hired to prepare the EIR for a new computer chip manufacturing plant on the Westside. He was the windshield contractor on this one, the middleman. He’d subcontracted out all the scientific and pseudo-scientific work to people with degrees and resumes and word processors, but he wanted to know if I could handle the visual impacts. In fact, he wanted to know exactly what visual impacts were, and how they were measured and mitigated.
I didn’t have the answers. I didn’t believe that a visual impact was necessarily bad. They didn’t teach us that in architecture school. A lot of buildings liked to be noticed. Was it a matter of size? Color? Proportion? Style? John didn’t know. Nor did I. Nor did anybody, though millions of dollars and thousands of hours would be spent writing up sites for sore eyes.