Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"O v. P."

This post was scheduled to run yesterday, but something happened.  For maximum effect, try to read it like it's Tuesday.

A psychological test I read about proves/indicates/suggests/it’s only one test so what do they know? that optimists are worse predictors of task-performing outcomes than pessimists, the optimists believing that they are more competent performing the task than it turns out they are, while the pessimists’ predictions of their performance are considerably closer to the mark. 

Optimists believe they are being realistic in their assessments, but, by definition – “real” being what is actually the case – they aren’t.  The people who are more realistic predictors are the people optimists – and pretty much the world – dismiss disparagingly as pessimists. 

That’s the setup.

FLASH BACK TO 1981.  (I just typoed 1081; that’s too far back.)

Dr. M, her daughter Rachel and I are living in a condo located two blocks north of a distinctly dilapidated California-style bungalow.  Dr. M, who has an eye for exceptional architecture, is carpooling to work with a woman who lives in that house and, having been inside it, she is instinctively aware of its potential.

Thump-thump-thump.  (A rapidly beating heart.)  Dr. M really wants that house!

One day, Dr. M excitedly informs me that there’s a “For Sale” sign in front of the house. Cognizant of her interest, I encourage her to find out the asking price.

(Background:  The owner of the house, built it 1910 – which is old for Southern California where they knock everything down and put up ugly condos in their place – had just succumbed in a retirement home.  The house was most recently occupied by an indeterminate arrangement of hippies, who rented the premises and divided it into separate living areas, including the garage, which served as the home/slash/studio to a karate teacher.)

Shortly thereafter, Dr. M, returned with the unsettling news that developers were bidding on the house, with the intention of knocking it down and replacing it with yet another unattractive condominium. 

(Note:  The house sits on a double-sized lot, making it ideally suited for redevelopment.)

Dr. M told me what the developers were offering, and asked me if I was interested in bidding against them.  I informed her I was not.  It is imprudent to bid against developers, who invest in property for profit, and are therefore willing to bid higher than a person in show business whose career could evaporate at any moment.  Which is not really the issue, though that agitating obsession is rarely far from my mind. 

As an overarching rule, regular people do not bid against developers.  Developers know bank presidents.  I know cash machines outside the banks on the wall.

Though understandably disappointed, Dr. M agreed with my decision not to compete with the developers.

And that’s the end of the story.

Or it would be, if it were just me making the decision.

Dr. M commiserated with her friend Ruth, who is an acclaimed artist and was for years the Dean of Art at the University of Southern California.  The two of them determined that, rather than letting the house be demolished, they would initiate a campaign to have it declared a Santa Monica landmark, due to its being one of the few remaining Craftsman Bungalows in our beachside community. 

Their thinking was that, if the house were designated a landmark, you were legally prohibited from knocking it down.  And if you were legally prohibited from knocking it down, the developers would immediately lose interest in the property and rescind their offer.  And if the developers rescinded their offer…

The house go back on the market!

Their strategy was incredibly optimistic.  Or, as pessimists would call it,


The thing is, barring some kind of miracle, the house was a goner.

Let us now consider the infinitesimal smallness of the eye that this “Needle of Desperation” would have to pass through.  For us to end up with the house, not one, but all of the following steps would have to be successfully accomplished:

1)  A substantial number of possibly indifferent, apathetic and disinterested neighbors would have to be persuaded to sign a petition, supporting the idea of the City Council’s declaring the bungalow a Santa Monica landmark.

The petition amassed over a hundred and fifty signatures.

2)  Acknowledged authorities – architectural historians and respected journalists in the field – would have to to be solicited to come and check the house out, and if it was deemed meritorious, write supporting testimonials, attesting to the fact that, in their informed opinions, though it was currently in a state one might expect it to be in having recently been occupied by an indeterminate arrangement of hippies, the bungalow should unquestionably be preserved.

Multiple experts wrote glowing recommendations.

3)  A comprehensive proposal for landmark designation would have to be submitted for determination to the Santa Monica Landmark Commission, several of whose members had ties to real estate concerns and were committed to suppressing the emerging preservation movement, as it was inconsistent with their financial best interests.

The Landmark Commission, by a “squeaked by” tally of five-to-four, recommended that the house be accorded landmark status.

4)  The Santa Monica City Council would have to accept the Landmark Commission’s recommendation, and there was no certainty they would, as the heirs to the estate – who had retained a lawyer to argue on their behalf – were against the designation, because if the house were declared a landmark, it was, “Goodbye, Developers”, “Hello, Regular Bidders.”  At a considerably deflated price.

The City Council accepted the Landmark Commission’s recommendation.  The house was now a Santa Monica landmark.  The developers immediately withdrew their bid, and went quietly away.

5)  We were now in a “probate” situation, involving sealed bids, the highest of which would be announced by a judge in a courtroom.  If anyone bid seven percent higher than the announced highest bid, an auction for the property would immediately ensue. 

We submitted the highest offer we could afford, and agreed we would not enter into a “bidding war.”  Our bid would have to be the highest, or, for us, it was “Game Over.”

Our sealed bid was the highest.  We held our breaths.  Nobody in the courtroom bid higher.

And that is why, last Sunday, from noon till five, over two hundred visitors passed through our home, a participant – with four others – in the Santa Monica Conservancy-sponsored “Living In A Landmark” house tour.

Was it pessimistic to believe we would never get the house?

No.  It was realistic.

It was also wrong.

(Postscript:  The optimist/pessimist dichotomy may not be at issue here.  Some people just do things.  Are “doers” natural optimists?  Maybe.  Though, more likely, they don’t even think about it.)  


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; I agree with your doer judgement. Some folks just have a knack (or luck) at making things happen.


pumpkinhead said...

Can I get a credit on my bill for yesterday's outage? (good story by the way)