How Redevelopment Can Stay True to Community Culture

October 11, 2018

With vacant lots becoming scarcer and more expensive, developers across the country are struggling to meet intensifying demand for more modern housing and amenity-rich communities. Similar to other urban meccas, “Here in Boston, there’s nowhere else to build,” said Ellen Anselone, principal at Finegold Alexander Architects Inc.

Urban Land Institute's Fall Meeting in Boston

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Panelist Peter DiPrinzio, far left, presented a reuse project he worked on in Baltimore, turning an old auto body shop into a food hall. The project, he said, entailed a modern interior design meant to “complement the original building but not replicate it.”

She and other thought leaders in the architecture community made the case during the Urban Land Institute’s 2018 fall conference—being held in Beantown this week—for repurposing existing buildings as a way to satisfy consumers’ real estate needs. But property reuse projects such as church conversions are most successful, they said, when developers put less emphasis on ROI and focus more on preserving and enhancing neighborhood character through redevelopment. “Repurposed buildings have automatic authenticity,” said Bryce Turner, president and CEO of BCT Architects. “You have to search harder for ways to make new developments look like they belong in existing communities.”

Turner mentioned several redevelopment projects in Baltimore that helped businesses integrate seamlessly into neighborhoods, including a nursery that retailer Urban Outfitters repurposed into a cafe and gift shop—with nursery items for sale. Developers also are eyeing reuse projects for mixed-use purposes. “We know that the uses of a building are going to change as leases expire,” Turner said. “If you create an excellent sculptural space that can accommodate several uses, people will want to be there, no matter what it’s being used for.”

Other ways to achieve authenticity in redevelopment include:

  1. Look for ways to achieve social change in property reuse. John Renner, vice president of development at Cross Street Partners, has been involved in turning an abandoned, burned-out factory in Baltimore into a Center for Neighborhood Innovation, a collaborative space for civic- and business-minded people. The center, which is located in an economically depressed neighborhood, has become a home for local thought leaders to develop community initiatives. Renner’s company is also currently involved in turning a shuttered Baltimore orphanage into a community health center for a medically underserved area and in transforming a historic Los Angeles home into a sober living facility for recovering addicts. “The geographic possibilities for adaptive reuse opportunities is probably much larger than most people think,” Renner said.
  2. Complement, but don’t try to replicate, the original building. Peter DiPrinzio, director of operations at Seawall Development Corp., helped to turn an old auto body shop in Baltimore into a food hall and launching pad for local emerging chefs. The project involved gutting the interior and creating a chic, modern aesthetic that complemented the building. But “we didn’t want to use old car parts in the design,” DiPrinzio said. “You don’t have to keep the original identity of a building intact in order to be authentic. It’s more authentic to recognize when a community needs something totally different and to give that to residents.”
  3. Recognize when redevelopment goes too far. DiPrinzio’s company is currently working on redeveloping Baltimore’s Lexington Market, a longstanding space for dozens of food vendors that became prone to crime over time. The city, DiPrinzio said, wanted to shed the market’s reputation with an all-new glass box building, a sharp departure from its historic look and the neighborhood’s aesthetic. With education and guidance, DiPrinzio said, the city has instead agreed to preserve the historic building and turn it into a mixed-use property.

“It’s often not about the building itself but the way you use it,” Turner said. “It’s all about the programming.” Anselone, who has worked on many reuse projects in Boston, added that it’s important to “take the blinders off” and explore all options regarding uses of repurposed buildings. “Often, developers have preconceived notions about what a building can and can’t be used for, and we help them rethink and expand on that,” she said.

—Graham Wood, REALTOR® Magazine