In New York's City of Poughkeepsie -- headquarters of Scenic Hudson, the organization I head -- a former department store that sat empty for decades recently was transformed into apartments and offices. A dozen miles down the Hudson River, in the City of Beacon, the thrilling art museum Dia:Beacon, which wows visitors from around the world, fills a former Nabisco box-printing factory.
Luckey Platt building, Poughkeepsie, N.Y. / Wikimedia Commons
Why am I writing about old buildings? Because they're excellent examples of adaptive reuse -- rejuvenating existing structures for new purposes -- and in addition to revitalizing downtowns, such projects benefit the environment. They relieve development pressure on forests that offer recreation and sequester carbon, and on working farms supplying fresh local produce. They also lower the natural resources consumed by construction -- 35 billion board feet of lumber annually alone.
Studies show there's a pressing environmental need to concentrate growth in municipalities. The National Wildlife Federation has estimated that sprawling development imperils one out of every three rare or endangered species in the U.S. Data also indicate people solidly support such "smart growth." According to a National Association of Realtors survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents favored funding improvements in communities over new development in outlying countryside.
Why are so many empty buildings languishing, while new construction goes on apace? Part of the reason is the permitting process. A recent article in Next American City magazine noted that Detroit's permit fee to rehabilitate a 22,000-square foot building was about $7,000, while a license to tear it down cost $108. At the same time, zoning regulations and building codes often make it prohibitively expensive -- or downright impossible -- to rehab older structures that can't meet requirements for, say, a proscribed number of on-site parking spaces or emergency exits.
Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y. / Wikimedia Commons
Fortunately, cities are taking steps to make adaptive reuse more attractive. Some have adopted "smart" building codes that take into account a building's pedigree and offer some leeway, while ensuring the structure is safe for occupancy. Other municipalities permit buildings to be used for purposessuch as cultural centers, apartments or officesnot allowed under current zoning. Tax breaks also can take a bite out of the oft-higher costs of rehabilitating an older building. Los Angeles' excellent Adaptive Reuse Program takes advantage of all these strategies. As a result, thousands of new housing units in long-empty lofts are rejuvenating neighborhoods.
When you think of the direct benefits derived from breathing new life into old buildings, adaptive reuse is a no-brainer. For starters, it helps communities drive down steep social costs associated with abandoned buildingssuch as increased vandalism, vagrancy and arson, which in turn lead to reduced property values, lower tax revenues and higher crime. At the same time, improving the heating and electrical performance of even a portion of America's 300 billion square feet of existing building stock would significantly reduce energy consumption. And since many older structures were designed to take full advantage of natural light and ventilation, they have built-in energy efficiency missing in much new development.
Just as important, restoring and reusing these old buildings helps jump-start downtown economies, providing the catalyst for new shops and restaurants that entice people to come back to Main Street. It also restores residents' pride in their communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Lexington, Kentucky, where the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation has published a self-guided walking tour [www.bluegrasstrust.org/PDF/LexingtonWalkingTour.pdf] of the city's adaptive-reuse successes.
So for the sake of our environment and our cities, adaptive reuse is one instance where it's best to think inside the box.
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