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Posted by Jessica Ruscello on Monday, September 15, 2014

Adaptive Reuse

Earlier this Summer, the New York Times published an article about the new homes Tech firms are finding in San Francisco. More than three million square feet of office space—square footage in the league of New York’s 1 World Trade Center—has been taken over by companies such as Twitter, Square, Air B&B, and Yelp.

In a tightly packed city with highly-regulated development, where are they getting all this space? Unlike Apple or Google, who built their sprawling suburban campuses, these firms found the room they needed right under their noses—in the middle of the city. For years, the office space had been disguised as an auto-body shop, an old Victorian, an empty warehouse, an abandoned office building, or in the case of a SoMa corner, an old church.

This is just the latest wave of “Adaptive Reuse” and San Francisco boasts some of the most nationally impressive examples of this with the Presidio, Fort Mason, and the Ferry Building. And while there are now slim-pickings for the remaining Market Street structures in this latest wave, the trend isn’t going anywhere.

In fact, adaptive reuse is a powerful commercial and residential movement that should be a driving strategy as development shifts from ever more expensive San Francisco to new opportunities in Oakland and elsewhere across the Bay. Foundries, factories, warehouse space, military installments, Port Authority buildings, auto repair shops, banks, public buildings—in the East Bay, there is no shortage of old bones awaiting new life.

Adaptive reuse gets popular attention because it offers an en vogue architectural aesthetic suggesting character, history, and authenticity. It’s quaint and interesting to gaze on archaic structural details and forms that no longer serve a function. When every office space designer is still recovering from the cereal-box sterility of the 1970s, adaptive reuse offers the chance for distinction.

But adaptive reuse offers more than pretty vintage cornices. This is about more than aesthetic distinction or appreciation. For cities like Oakland, it will be key in:

• Revitalization: Master-planned community and economic growth that uses historic buildings offers the possibility for urban renewal--without a bulldozer. Long-term residents don’t have to part with spaces that are part of their neighborhood’s fabric. Instead, they welcome new food & dining, office & light industrial, local retail, education and even non-profit neighbors. Adaptive reuse offers an urbanized use of space that inherently recommends mixed use. When small businesses and non-profits can share a space, and workers can afford to live near where they work, economic development becomes sustainable long term.

• Historical preservation: Most people easily identify landmark buildings worth preserving. Places that saw major historical events, ones that were built or occupied by key figures, ones that represent major points of change for a city—people will protest to save those. But what about the ones that mark how we have lived our daily lives in our cities for generations? Talk to a life-long resident of any town or city by the Bay, and they’ll wistfully recount what used to be. where. “That creamery is where we got our milk… That mechanic’s shop was where my brother had his first job… that factory was where your grandfather worked.” As Potrero Hill residents have identified, even those boring corrugated metal structures have significance and still offer creative possibility. Faced with the blight of dereliction, cities have often tried to tear these structures down. Adaptive reuse is a less destructive answer to the possible decay. These places might not ever be what they were, but they also aren’t gone.

While some spaces can’t be fully reused, it doesn’t diminish the craftsmanship that marked the work of yesteryear’s architects and builders. It’s a shame to see their fine work destroyed. Thankfully, adaptive reuse can be as simple as incorporation of these fine details, like the Beaux Arts dome that sits atop Union Square’s Neiman Marcus.

• Energy efficiency: A report from the National Trust for Historic Preservations Green Lab concludes that renovating old buildings usually saves far more energy over the long term than does the construction of a green building adhering to the highest sustainability standards. “Renovated buildings outperformed new buildings on energy savings in every category: single-family homes, multifamily complexes, commercial offices, mixed-use structures, and elementary schools. Though the conclusion may seem counterintuitive in an age of ambitious LEED standards in many new buildings, consider that it uses more energy and creates more impact to construct an entirely new building than to fix up one of the same size for the same purpose. The only exception to the lab’s finding was converting a warehouse to a multi-family dwelling, which required enough extra materials that creating a new building was the greener choice.”

• Lower-cost development: The price of land limits development in the Bay Area more than the price of a building. Developers who need space can’t employ sprawling designs and local limits on building higher prevent vertical expansion. Existing multi-story structures circumvent some of those pesky planning codes. Furthermore, reuse offers a host of tax-breaks. The Federal Historic Preservation Tax, Low-income Housing Tax Credits, and local density credits give the extra cash to fund that startup. The decline of American manufacturing life may have left some economically depressed urban areas, but reusing those factory spaces might be the most economical access to marquee locations. If Oakland developers buy up and in to reusable properties, they may have the margin they need to expand their projects.

• Unique market offerings: In special cases like Oakland, preexisting architecture actually facilitates future growth. Oakland’s industrial history left behind buildings with a construction-and-makers DNA. As the Makers culture in Oakland expands, it needs structures that can withstand the process requirements for these grassroots industrial artisans. What better to sustain the welding, metallurgy, and assembly demands of modern-day CAD-using builders than an old foundry? For the Oakland makers, form begets function and function begets form, and they have both been on site for a long time. How much more creativity is fostered when the artisans share spaces? How much more work can artists produce when they are able to live near their studios?

Clearly, Adaptive reuse goes beyond exposed brick, apartment lofts, and other warehouse era hand-me-downs.

As buyers and developers consider growth opportunities in both San Francisco and Oakland, they should consider what the location already has to offer. When they see historic forms in historic neighborhoods, they should see the possibility for creativity and innovation in the space. Need to build something? Look around you. Maybe 100 years ago, somebody already did.


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