Incentivize Adaptive Re-use

KCK Projects 1

by Ka-Chung Kwok

The well established opposition between preservationists and advocates of development each hold valid arguments in the shaping of our future cities.  On the one hand preservationists want to preserve the human scale, diversity and range of human experiences that currently exist in defining the unique character of neighborhoods; while developers support reconstruction and densification to support a city’s growing needs for additional housing and to relieve demand and supply imbalances.  While considering the pros and cons of both arguments, I decided to take a look at some successful adaptive re-use projects around the world to see if some lessons could be learned.

Upon one celebrated Adaptive re-use project after another, I noticed that the success of each project was based on a tight integration of sound economics with good architecture – A Market economy based Real Estate concept took advantage of opportunities provided by great historical architecture.  Not only did this allow projects to be enhanced by an elevated human experience for the neighborhood (and in some cases the entire city), but also resulted economically sustainable “historical preservation” as a by-product.

This observation planted a thought in my mind in that maybe there is no inherent conflict between these two opposing forces when conditions are right and opportunities are well aligned.  Maybe the traditional approach of historic “preservation” had placed too much emphasis on the “preservation” of hardware without enough consideration for balanced economic “software” to allow coherent self-sustaining and re-birth of historical buildings.  Policy should advocate adaptive re-use not simply as a “mandate” based on landmark review boards, but a form of preferred development type through government incentives – because social benefit could be gained from redevelopment projects which substitute innovation for maximum FAR.

Below are a few suggestions that I have that I hope could start a good conversation –

  • Establish a preservation and adaptive-reuse masterplan
  • Create a more strategic system to preservation – identify and prioritize
  • Provide additional tax incentives for adaptive re-use projects
  • Government/state/city funding – to supplement traditional project financing
  • Link new development projects to an “adopted” historical building within the  neighborhood and require a long-term sponsorship (develop and trade)

Currently adaptive re-use projects are considered higher risk to traditional sources of project finance due to the potential unknowns, uniqueness of conditions and less predictable outcomes; But these also happen to be the factors that contribute to “urban grain” and the valuable “neighborhood” feeling that most of us treasure and appreciate.  An alternate source of financing either from local non-profits, government or the city must be established to make these projects viable until they become mainstream.  It could also relieve developers from maximizing developable FAR to offset the risk of redevelopment by having alternative incentives.

One should always remember that cities were built upon layers and layers of changes that occurred over centuries to achieve its current state.  To preserve its unique character and to allow its continuous growth requires a strategic method to preserve and redevelop.  Landmarking a large amount of old buildings without further consideration of it’s future potential and re-use is arguably just as irresponsible as demolishing it and building a non-contextual new building in its place.

Lastly I would like to share a few Inspiring adaptive reuse projects that I came across in the writing of this article this week –

  1. The Arcade Providence (Oldest Indoor Shopping Mall in America) – Redeveloped into affordable micro-apartments
  1. Xin Tian Di (Shanghai) – Converted a historic Chinese village into the retail core of a large-scale mixed-use development project
  1. Wharton Business School San Francisco Campus – From 1920’s coffee plant into state of the art education facility
  1. Starbucks Roastery – Former abandoned car showroom converted into coffee roaster, retail, tasting room and restaurant
  1. Queen Anne High School –  Former High school converted into luxury condominiums
  1. 178 Townsend (San Francisco) – 4 story – 94 rental housing units added on top of former lighting production facility

KCK Projects 2



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