I was heartened to read a report that my old hometown, Rotterdam, has managed to take over a quarter of almost 6 million square feet of empty office space off the market in less than two years. It did this in the usual, social democratic manner: by redesignating, taking over, and otherwise using the heavy hand of the government to solve the problem that the market (albeit with many government incentives) had created.
Almost a million square feet of empty space became either hotel, housing, school, childcare, or medical practices. Another half a million is quasi-empty, but now consists of so-called “creative gathering spaces” that the city has made available to start-up firms and sole practitioners in art, design, and other creative industries.
It then occurred to me that my current hometown, Cincinnati, is seeing something similar happen. A failed downtown mall is turning into a parking garage that, in a only somewhat convoluted chess game, will let the old, dilapidated parking structure across the street become a 13-story condo tower with a new gourmet food market in the base. The new owner of a largely empty office building is exploring ways to turn it into housing, and an old newspaper office is slated to become a boutique hotel. The city is playing an active part in all these developments, but in the usual, behind-the-scenes manner that in the United States lets developers take the lead and then, as in the case of the parking-garage redevelopment, pays for about 20 percent of the project through tax incentives or direct subsidies. A local business-city group, 3CDC, has been extraordinarily successful at revitalization projects here, partially because they are very smart at identifying the many tax incentives and other subsidy programs available to distressed inner cities.
These stories are being repeated all over the world. Office buildings in downtown areas are turning into places to live in a wave that echoes the one several decades ago when inner-city factories were turned into living lofts. I am no expert in this area, but it seems logical to me: Things work, and we work, in ever-more-ephemeral and networked ways, so that we need less and less fixed space; at the same time, we want more space to live, and we want to be close to services, restaurants, and others.
It is not just a downtown story: Silver Springs, Md., is seeing a proposed new development that would bring housing to that suburban node. This is all well and good, but will it make for better urbanism? On the face of it, having a more-mixed-use downtown, one that makes use of existing services, and one that operates both night and day, is a good thing. It is even better when that kind of life comes to suburban nodes. We should not kid ourselves, however: Very few downtown dwellers work within walking distance of where they live, and the same is true in the suburbs. Our lives remain as complex and spread out as ever, and will remain so. Just as important is the quality of what is constructed or converted.
The good news is that most residential structures of whatever type have operable windows and tend to be more varied in their appearance, just by the nature of having so many different units. Such variety, though, is no guarantee for architectural quality, and few of the projects I have seen rising in urban cores contribute anything to our built environment beyond reusing otherwise wasted structures or lots. So we rejoice, but cautiously, and in full awareness of the greatest problem with all of this: It works for generally white, educated, high-income people. Those with fewer means are, through this very process, exiled to places where they are far away from services, jobs, and just about every other opportunity. That is where the Rotterdam model, where much of the housing is reserved for immigrants and lower-income groups, is, in the end, a better one.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.