The Public Space
September 10, 2014
the tyranny of maintenance
by Ken Mayer
Anyone who has ever owned a hard asset knows that it needs looking after. Some more than others. One of my grad school finance professors offered some sage advice on the subject. He said, “Never invest in anything that needs to be fed or painted.”
It wasn’t that he was opposed to owning houses and critters. It’s just that both require a lot of groceries and care to keep in good shape and might not be the best way to get a big return on your investment.
The notion that you don’t really have a choice about upkeep is sometimes referred to as the tyranny of maintenance. It’s more than a little important to our public spaces and classic buildings. Often, even our public parks are hard to keep up. If it weren’t for the efforts of many neighborhood organizations, many would be in dreadful shape.
I saw this years ago when I lived on 16th Street. Some considerable design and construction had gone into the patterns laid into the intersections. The brick suffered badly under the weight of many buses a day through the corridor. Sometimes, rather that pull up bricks and replace them, concrete or asphalt patches were applied.
Apparently the funds weren’t available to do it right, and the Tyrant of Maintenance won.
Confronting the Tyrant is key to preserving historic architecture as well. We can’t sustain buildings if we don’t take care of them. Worse, if neglect or incompetence go on long enough, there’s no turning back.
I had the experience of living in an historic building in downtown that went condo. Since we had a top floor corner apartment with spectacular views, we seriously considered purchase. I asked for an inspection report on the building’s structure, roof and shared mechanicals such as the elevators.
The owners replied that they would not oblige my request and seemed incensed that I would have the temerity to even ask for such a thing. I was forced to conclude that there might have been, shall we say, some deferred maintenance. We declined to make an offer on the unit and moved out. Rumor had it that a few months later, the condo association was forced to impose a 5 figure assessment on each owner to fund replacement of an elevator.
Sometimes the Tyrant can have some sharp teeth. Those teeth get sharper in the company of information asymmetry. Caveat emptor indeed.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the Tyrant might have been at work on the Page and Clarinda buildings. As I watched public access coverage of the council meeting on their historic status, I kept hearing terms like “botched” or “failed.”
As a longtime preservationist, I was hoping the council would vote to save the buildings. But as the debate continued, I began to become increasingly disappointed with the state of affairs. I know some of my friends in the preservation community won’t like this, but I came away with the impression that the cause was lost long before it reached the council or even the preservation commission. The Tyrant went to work long ago. Now, it was too late. He had run up a tab that couldn’t be paid.
Maybe this is a cautionary tale. If we really value sustainability and preservation, we need to be vigilant enough to prepare for the Tyrant of Maintenance. And to meet him with the quality that historic buildings deserve.
It wouldn’t hurt to be ready to defeat stupid as well. You can often fix neglect, but you can’t fix stupid.
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.