Thursday, August 23, 2007

Does silence equal sinister?

I have recently had an interesting and informative conversation by email with a building owner who was rather distraught by my incorrect posting that his building was being torn down without a thought, as the owners have apparently labored and spent in vain to repair it over the years. After several back and forths, we got the situation settled, and I've updated my pages accordingly.

It points out one of those ways that business has tended not to keep up with the times, however: owners of landmark buildings would be well advised to be more public with their intentions for their properties.

With the rise of the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, the public now has a practically unlimited voice. This is generally a good thing; the more public input can be brought to light, the more likely that plans for cities and buildings can be made humane, accomodating, and beautiful.

But there is a danger, as well. It is indeed possible for well-intentioned persons -- myself included -- to rush to print with incomplete or inacurate information. I only know what I know, and if the people who know the most -- the developers themselves -- remain silent, it's hard to do anything but speculate.

And in St. Louis, speculation is often fueled by pessimism. Too often, silence has been the tool of developers and businessmen who know their plans will meet with harsh criticism, or who simply don't care about public opinion. When the survival of our historic architecture and urban environments are at stake, that sort of intractability should be met and fought at every turn.

If that silence leads to incorrect assumptions, it is up to the building owners to correct it -- not by attacking outspoken members of the public, but by put ting out accurate information. There's very little reason not to do so -- blogging is easy, fast, and free. A few simple posts, a few short but accurate paragraphs, can do wonders for a building owner's street cred.

Too often, I suspect, this doesn't happen because businesses are held back by the need for bland corporate perfection: nothing can be said till it's been vetted a hundred times, watered down by meaningless business buzzwords, and reduced to saying virtually nothing so that nobody will have any expectations.

But those days are done. If the "exciting new development opportunity" will mean tearing down a historic building, someone's going to call you out for it, even if you don't mention it in your press release. There's no way around it, and rather than continue an adversarial relationship with the public whose domain is affected by developers' decisions, it's high time those developers became more proactive about announcing their intentions, if not their exact plans.

Nobody expects to know every detail, nor to "save every building" -- witness the recently deceased Switzer Building, whose demise was unfortuate, yet widely accepted as unavoidable after the damage it sustained. If the public knows a building owner is making a good-faith effort to save a building, they might be a lot more accepting when it doesn't happen in the end. And if the public is met by silence, what reason do they have to think that good faith exists at all?

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