The discussion in class of Jane Jacobs and new vs. old buildings got me thinking. In an era of radical urban renewal, tower in the park architectural ideas, and a more is more mentality, Jacobs voiced a strong opinion that these projects were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. She noted the impact of community, of public streets, of diversity of use and economy, things that we again consider crucial to the design and development of our cities. Of particular note in our class discussion and in my thoughts in the years since first reading Death and Life of Great American CIties, is her position on the need for old buildings.
“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation–although these make fine ingredients–but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”
In my exploration of adaptive reuse, ailing historic neighborhoods, and the like through my architecture thesis project (unfortunately not published), it becomes clear that the biggest obstacle facing old buildings is the outdated floorplates, build-outs, and structural systems that are difficult if not financially impossible to modify. Also, the out of town investor mindset that favors 5 year return on new construction over the supposedly riskier return on a low-to-moderately performing existing building.
New buildings are great. They are good indicators of a healthy market, the fill needs of a changing market, and let’s face it, they’re cool. They are usually state of the art with finishes, construction, and style. The line to get into the Arcade launch party at the Bullitt Center was around the block last Friday. I guess I’ve always thought that if new buildings are an indicator of the current market trends, the intermix of old buildings is an indicator of diversity.
Diversity is great for cities. Diversity of primary uses, diversity of transportation options, diversity of people, services, and places. These cross connections create an incubator for innovation (as A-P mentioned). Without diversity, the city is less active, less productive, and less creative.
Old buildings provide a secondary economic level for residential and commercial use. These spaces have affordable rents for artists, corner stores, places that small businesses can try out, and places that immigrants can afford. Old buildings provide the low rent spaces in the center of the action that are stepping stones to the American Dream.
But, give or take old buildings. What if we could find other places (in the action!) for a secondary economic tier. Alleys could work- small spaces off alleys that are locationally inferior but still in the heart of the action. Second floor or basement uses could perhaps work, although it’s difficult to get pedestrians off the sidewalk plane.
What are other options?