Sometimes, the Better Alternative Is Not to Build New Things
My first encounter with saving a building landed me in handcuffs and a trip to the Long Beach Police Department. A friend and I were frustrated that our hometown was demolishing good buildings—because they did not conform with the current style of architecture—only to replace them with parking lots! All in the name of “progress.” In 1988, when we learned that the Jergins Trust Building, a Beaux-Arts beauty, was slated to be torn down with no plans for the site, we jumped into action and chained ourselves to the building to stop the wrecking crew. Our efforts kept it up another four hours. And then it was gone forever.
Saving older buildings and adapting them to a new use is not a new concept. In college, I studied art at the Les Ecoles d’Art Américaines in Fontainebleau, France, and made excursions to Paris every weekend I could. While visiting cultural institutions, I kept encountering amazing buildings that had changed use over time. I learned that the Louvre was converted from the royal residence to a museum in 1793, and that the conversion of a train station to the Musee d’Orsay occurred in 1986. Both museums are highly popular with Parisians as well as tourists.
The adaptive reuse of existing buildings is becoming increasingly relevant in the U.S. and can provide many benefits. For a developer, it may provide a route to quickly gaining community support, thus reducing the time needed to entitle a development. The existing structure may accommodate greater density than if it were demolished and replaced with new construction, and may also be more cost-effective than new construction. Reuse can create unique places commanding higher interest and value.
For neighborhoods and the public, adaptive reuse allows for existing buildings to be restored, sometimes many times over in mature neighborhoods, contributing to a unique sense of character and history that can remain intact. This kind of authentic visual and cultural continuity cannot be recreated from scratch. Perhaps most important, renovated buildings minimize the impact on the environment: demolition requires tons of materials to be dumped into landfills and into the waste stream. New construction requires more energy to create materials, distribute them, and erect them.
At Studio One Eleven, where I am a partner, our interest lies in repurposing existing buildings when the opportunity arises, because that is how neighborhoods and cities are built over time. As we see it, there is so much opportunity in recrafting existing buildings to help contribute to solving today’s urban issues.
Office-to-housing conversion is an important topic right now. With the demand for housing strong nationwide and the use of currently leased office space at less than 50% occupancy, the opportunity for older office buildings to convert to housing is greater than ever. Conversions can focus on affordable, student, or luxury housing, depending on location, demand, and the characteristics of the structure itself. Many cities are considering incentives for office conversions. In fact, a new community plan in Los Angeles is close to adoption. Known as DTLA 2040, it would make it easier to build housing downtown, including property conversions. In June, state officials set aside $400 million to offer developers incentives to convert offices to affordable housing over the next two years.
Likewise, we see opportunities to convert retail spaces into creative offices. Despite the work-from-home revolution, offices are not dead. But in today’s climate, offices need to be more than just offices. Today’s work spaces need to be comfortable, flexible operations that can be used for different purposes and become places for community. Retail spaces that were once places of consumption can be reimagined into creative offices and places of production. This kind of transformation can be catalytic for a neighborhood. When our firm converted a defunct retail space in downtown Long Beach into a new office space in 2017, the vacancy rate for adjacent retail plunged from 60% to 4%.
There’s also an increasing opportunity to convert underutilized institutional structures into housing for vulnerable populations. The city of Los Angeles returned more than $150 million in federal funds recently because it was unable to spend the money due to the protracted timeline for construction and completion. But what if we were able to leverage existing underutilized structures, like warehouses, to house the unhoused? There are hundreds of outdated prewar and postwar warehouse facilities, sprinkled in or adjacent to residential neighborhoods, that no longer meet today’s standards. Building within an existing industrial structure, at least in California, means that architects and contractors can use the “self-certification” process, eliminating the need for plan check. Due to self-certification, one of our projects was able to move from ideation to completion and move-in in only five months; as a direct result, the homeless population in the city of Bellflower declined by nearly 90%.
The sad fact is that empty or outdated structures equate to blight for most people, who then surmise that demolition and new construction are the only options. This is a short-sighted view. There are important benefits that come from reusing existing building stock, like preserving the past and creating a rich layering that ultimately makes our cities more interesting and unique. Taking an adaptive reuse approach can instill neighborhood pride and helps build more interesting, resilient cities. Not to mention that in some cases, it can be faster and ultimately leave a smaller carbon footprint.
So whatever happened to the Jergins Trust Building site in Long Beach? Thirty-four years later, it is still empty and an eyesore in a revitalized and bustling downtown. Some of the historic elements and pieces were saved and stored in the city yard, where they lay forgotten for almost three decades. When rediscovered by a neighborhood group representing the next generation of residents, the community demanded that the city share these pieces with the public by incorporating them into a gateway that leads to the Los Angeles River, illustrating the community’s point of view on the importance of our past. So, yes, as an architect, I love to design buildings. But in the long run, I think architects could build better cities if we didn’t build new buildings all the time.
Featured image: Studio One Eleven converted underutilized retail into their creative work space, for 135 employees; adjacent local and crafted retail can now better flourish. The project spurred the city of Long Beach to rejuvenate Harvey Milk Park, allow for multiple street decks for outdoor dining, and encouraged several high-quality public art installations by POW! WOW!. Photo courtesy of Studio One Eleven.