February 28, 2017 | Liz Austin

Discover how adaptive reuse promotes entrepreneurial activity and diversity across urban settings.

With new construction in the works on practically every corner in booming American metropolises, the reigning philosophy of urban development seems to be “out with the old and in with the new.” But is this constant race towards bigger, better, and shinier projects really beneficial to city residents and visitors?

The Atlas of ReUrbanism, a project created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab, set out to answer this question by “[examining] more than 10 million buildings of all ages and [scoring] urban areas by the median age of buildings, the diversity of ages in an area, and the size of buildings and parcels.” Cities with a mix of older buildings and new development were assigned a high ranking on the “character” scale; places with a homogenous landscape of largely new development were given a lower ranking.

The study’s findings were telling. “According to the report, areas with only new buildings are less likely to promote entrepreneurial activity, density, and diversity than areas with a mixture of new and old.” As it turns out, new development may not always be the answer to fostering rich urban communities. To build cities that truly work to promote the satisfaction of their residents, urban developers should consider the many benefits of adaptive reuse.

The Argument for Adaptive Reuse

The concept of adaptive reuse is simple. Rather than building a new structure from the ground up, a firm can turn an existing building into a unique, new-purpose venue, thus conserving resources and maintaining the historic value of the original structure. Adaptive reuse is the perfect mode for achieving “high character” cities, as unused or abandoned buildings are resurrected for new purposes.

The benefits of such re-purposing are plentiful. First, there’s the aesthetic argument: though not as all-encompassing as historic preservation, adaptive reuse preserves the character and historic charm of significant sites. In addition, the practice discourages urban sprawl by reinvigorating the urban core, thereby keeping the city physically in the city. Finally, it reduces the large amount of waste involved in the total demolishment a standing structure.

Given these benefits, there’s no limit to the potential for revitalization of underutilized, decaying structures through adaptive reuse. Typically, multi-story warehouses and factories are the best candidates because they already contain the hardy structural backbone of reinforced walls, columns, flat roofs, and large windows. That said, developers have also opted to pursue flashier projects, such as a water tower converted into an apartment building in Denmark, and a concert hall built from an old railway tunnel in London — proving that the limitless possibilities of adaptive reuse are being implemented on a global scale.

The Social Impact of Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse is about more than just preserving charm on city streets, however; the Atlas of ReUrbanism study points to its significant impact on the surrounding community as well. Examining urban areas around the country, the study found that neighborhoods that contained a heavy mixture of older, smaller buildings and new development were more diverse and opportunity-rich than urban areas primarily made up of new development only. These mixed-structure spaces had a higher concentration of women- and minority-owned businesses — in Houston, for example, high-character areas are home to 50% more women and minority-owned businesses.

High character areas also play host to more affordable housing options — in Chicago, these areas have 25% more affordable rental housing units than their low character counterparts, while in L.A., they have double the number. Plus, small businesses tend to thrive in these neighborhoods. Philadelphia’s high character areas have more than twice the number of jobs in new and small businesses than in other areas, and have seen $2 billion in private investment.

Adaptive Reuse in St. Louis

You don’t have to go as far as Denmark or London to find examples of creative adaptive reuse projects; in fact, developers are repurposing old structures in cities across the nation, including right here in St. Louis.

Green Street is one such pioneer of adaptive reuse, incorporating the practice into a large majority of our building projects, like the second brewing and bottling location of Urban Chestnut Brewing Company. The brewery is housed in a 70,000-square-foot space originally built for Renard Paper, an industrial cleaning equipment and paper supplier, in the 1920s. Under Green Street’s watchful eye, the building became LEED certified, drastically decreased brewery operational costs, and was outfitted with a new exterior that contributed character to the area’s streetscape.

Through adaptive reuse, old buildings like the Renard Paper facility can be rewoven into the fabric of city life, helping to create thriving urban communities in St. Louis and beyond.

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