March 2, 2017 | Liz Austin

Adaptive development and reuse of historic buildings tend to spur economic revitalization, particularly in Rust Belt cities emerging from recession.

In cities all across the nation, historic buildings once left vacant have found new life through adaptive development projects. Adaptive development, or adaptive reuse, is a process by which buildings are refurbished and repurposed, preserving the best elements of the old structure while adapting the project to meet more modern needs and standards.

A Brief History of Adaptive Reuse

The first adaptive development project was New York’s Jefferson Market Courthouse, or “Old Jeff,” an 1870s Victorian-style building in Greenwich Village voted the fifth most beautiful building in the country in an 1880s poll. But after the courthouse closed in 1945, the Old Jeff, aside from some seasonal use for police riot training, remained empty until the early 1960s.

When the adaptation of the building into a public library was first proposed in 1961, the concept seemed alien to many. “New Yorkers didn’t consider buildings in the city as a part of history…they were thought of as utilitarian,” says Alex Herrera, Director of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Even when buildings were reused, they generally continued to serve the same purpose as they had in their previous incarnation.

But with the case of the Old Jeff, the concept of adaptive reuse took hold; and with improved restoration techniques learned from European immigrants in the 1970s, adaptive reuse has become a major force of creative development and economic sustainability — in New York, and beyond.

Rust Belt Revival

In particular, adaptive reuse has become a boon for re-emerging neighborhoods in Rust Belt states. For many decades, these neighborhoods were suffering in the shadow of the Great Recession, as well as the national shift from manufacturing to the service economy. “This is the American heartland…You look at these cities today, and they are struggling,” urban expert Alan Mallach explains, “but at the same time they have incredible assets and have incredible resources for this country.”

Now, cities that have taken on adaptive reuse construction, even in the midst of hard economic times, are experiencing a rebirth. In Buffalo, a city that has struggled since its sustaining industry, steel production, began to lag, the city’s historic old canal is developing into a vibrant venue for “live musical performances, dining and skating in the winter, as well as growing its waterfront properties.” The Rust Belt cities of Covington, KY, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Louisville now play host to hotels built from historic buildings, whose past lives range from tractor warehouse to department store.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has highlighted St. Louis for its plethora of adaptive reuse projects, including Union Station’s revival as a 539-room hotel, shopping mall, and restaurant complex (today one of the city’s most visited attractions), as well as the more recent transformation of the power plant at St. Louis’ City Hospital into a climbing gym.

These kinds of projects are becoming increasingly common across the city, which has has helped to sustain affordable housing, investments in growing industries, and stable workforces, thereby attracting young college grads as well as estranged Rust Belt natives to return to these neighborhoods.

Though these projects have certainly had a beneficial effect in boosting these cities’ economies, the spirits of city residents have also been lifted in these long-neglected areas. Rep. Brian Higgins, a proponent of the waterfront development in Buffalo, commented, “What has happened in the last seven years in Buffalo is that it has regained the confidence it lost after many decades of economic decline.” When the outlook for a city seems dismal, “people retreat unto themselves, they become very territorial and don’t embrace the larger vision,” making it harder to accept fundamental changes in the economy. He continues, “what’s changed is that people are seeing tangible proof” that things are on the upswing.

Though reusing older buildings can come with its own costs and complications, the returns make it a worthwhile investment for cities in need of revitalization.

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