Embracing Adaptive Re-use as Urban Development Evolves
By David A. Schultz, DAS Partner
In cities across America, there is a scramble to decide what to do about the 20-40% of office space that remains vacant due to changes in the post-pandemic business environment. For some, the answer has been to turn to converting old office buildings into residential uses. While this trend has been well-documented and can be great when you have the right building, it’s not a cure-all and leaves other opportunities off the table.
Not every city will have such a wealth of old buildings at its disposal, but Philadelphia happens to be one of them. An amazing mix of modern and classic, 19th and early 20th century buildings that deserve to be repurposed, these buildings offer the city an incredible opportunity to activate entire neighborhoods and bring new life to the city.
If you look at European cities and how they’ve treasured and preserved their historic buildings for centuries while continuing to add contemporary architecture that energizes the community, you can see a clear path forward. The key to preservation is creative adaptive reuse and understanding how to make contemporary yet complimentary additions to historic structures.
Twentieth-century modern buildings also offer a wide spectrum of adaptive reuse opportunities due to their more flexible floor plates and continuous perimeter window walls. New and cost-effective construction techniques and modern technologies can help make many existing buildings suitable for renovation and adaptive reuse. In some cases, these large office buildings can be redesigned into mixed-use communities offering everything from residential to restaurants to flower shops to daycare and useable green spaces.
As markets evolve, opportunities for adaptive reuse can breathe new life into urban centers and neighborhood communities. The mixing of old and new can create a dynamic atmosphere of historic character and contemporary rebirth. The future of cities is bright. You just have to know where to look.
In an older city like Philadelphia, there is a distinctive character to the older neighborhoods that are part of the fabric of the city. The small scale of the historic pedestrian streetscape is part of that character, with parks and green spaces providing important respites to busy urban life, just as important as retaining the historic fabric of the city. Rather than seeing development spin-out from the city core or fleeing to the suburbs, we can increase the density of downtowns. This is not simply for profit or to maximize land use for developers. The more people living and working in a neighborhood, the more vibrant they become.
Population density offers residents the urban lifestyle they’re looking for, where retail shops and restaurants combine with residential and office uses, creating dynamic mixed-use neighborhoods. Retaining original buildings by repurposing them or building over them allows us to provide more density without overwhelming the scale of the street. Building over or behind original buildings in ways that maintain the scale of the original streetscape protects neighborhood character and promotes light and air.
We have long known that mixed-use is the best solution for building vibrant urban centers, and conversions can help make neighborhoods a 24-hour place, as opposed to rolling up the sidewalks at the end of the business day. These active and energized mixed-use neighborhoods blending office and residential uses with retail and restaurants, coffee shops, and services can promote an active safe environment.
Energized mixed-use urban neighborhoods with great streetscapes are attractive and naturally in high demand. “People care more about what’s outside their front door than what’s inside,” explains developer John Connors, president of Brickstone Realty. “The prices go up the closer you get to the park.”
Development is Looking up
At DAS Architects, we have been fortunate enough to have been involved in an assortment of adaptive reuse projects over the years that have ranged from transforming older historic buildings into something altogether new to designing hi-rise towers over existing structures, allowing us to blend the old with the new. In Europe, they have been doing this for decades, possibly even centuries where long ago, Europeans have been modernizing historic town centers by contrasting and complementing their unique tapestry of heritage and culture with contemporary design.
Most of the historic buildings in Philadelphia were built prior to World War II and, consequently, were constructed to last and support heavy loads—like tanks. Many of them are perfect for re-use and able to support something entirely new. Rather than trying to deconstruct these old bastions, or God-forbid tear them down, we can build on top of them or over them. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We just need to look up.
There are always obstacles to overcome when you are attempting to reuse something, but that’s what gives a project character and personality and allows it to exist beyond its original purpose. Architecture is part of the soul of a city and a wonderfully complex texture that defines its personality. A building with history and character will always offer something more unique than a new building that doesn’t fit its neighborhood context. The obstacles and challenges are what promote innovation and character. Owners and architects should embrace these challenges.
Rich Gottlieb, President and COO of the Keystone Property Group, has a long history of redeveloping old buildings with adaptive reuse. “The one thing I can always be sure of is that things are going to change. You never want to be stuck in one way of thinking. The world moves on. You either move with it, or you get left behind.”
A Bright Future Requires Better Planning
The most successful cities are the ones where developers partner with city planners to create dynamic neighborhoods that are safe, enjoyable, lively, and sustainable. To attract the type of investment required to design and develop sustainable projects, developers and city officials should work together to ease the burden of red tape and myriad of regulations. City leaders should look to innovative developers to work with them to create vibrant neighborhoods with unique projects that add to the city’s character.
While certain types of older buildings are ripe for redevelopment, given suitable allowances, even newer buildings could be repurposed to bring new life to the city. Newer technologies and construction methods are allowing for greater efficiencies to create innovative spaces for residents to work, live, and play.
DAS Architects is committed to the future of America’s urban centers and is excited about the prospects of the coming year. It takes a holistic approach to envision an activated urban neighborhood that offers many things to different people, where urban dwellers can live and work together, and co-exist in exciting urban centers.
We see great things in the future because adaptive reuse and urban development are looking up.