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"It's a beautiful building."

Original post made by Martin Engel, Menlo Park: Park Forest, on Aug 15, 2007

A recent conversation with a neighbor brought this to my attention: He was admiring the sketch of the proposed 1300 El Camino project. "It's a beautiful building."

Familiar words, previously spoken from the Dias of the City Council in regard to the Derry project. "It's a beautiful building." Hence, worthy of support.

1300 El Camino. "It's a beautiful building." 1906 El Camino. "It's a beautiful building."

But wait, we haven't seen the actual building yet since it hasn't been built, only this promotional sketch. Of course it's made to look good. The developers want us to love it, support it, promote it. They are not appealing to our head; they are appealing to our "emotional eye."

Think. How many buildings have we walked into, with the drawings on display in the lobby? The building is, to put it politely, ordinary, undistinguished, dull. Yet, the drawings are dramatic, exiting, elegant. Well, of course. The drawings are intended to "sell" the building and so look snazzier than what will become the real thing. Sketches that come to the city staff, Planning Commission and Council are advertisements. They create an image of possibilities that won't necessarily become realities. That's called salesmanship.

When realtors advertise a house for sale, don't they get professional photographers to take the best possible view of the building, best lighting, best angle, and they conceal out-of-frame or distort what is not so great? Then, when we to go to see the real thing, what a disappointment!

Do you see where this is going? We are the victims of the "it's-a-beautiful-building" problem. The point is that pictures and sketches don't tell us what we need to know. They provide emotional, not substantive images as a basis for decision making. We all need to stop being fooled this way.

An alternative source of much more reliable information about a project would be how much is actually going to be spent on construction per square foot. Which is the better building (all other things being equal), the one on which the builder spends $100. per foot or the one on which he spends $300. per foot? While this metric may not always hold true, it certainly becomes more reliable than sketchy sketches that are meant to seduce.

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