How Older, Smaller, Mixed-Age Buildings Make a Difference in Tucson

By Mike Powe posted 12-05-2016 16:42


My first visit to Tucson in 2014 was full of surprises: 111 degrees is hot, but it doesn’t kill you. Mexican food in Arizona is entirely different than Mexican food in my native Texas. (Both are delicious, for the record.) And, man, does Tucson have beautiful older and historic buildings that bring its neighborhoods to life—thanks to a mighty community of proud preservationists protecting that built heritage. A public presentation of past Preservation Green Lab research in July 2014 drew an audience that packed the ballroom of the Hotel Congress (now a favorite place of mine) to capacity.


The sun sets over Tucson’s older and historic buildings on Congress Avenue in Downtown Tucson. | Credit: David Graff (Flickr) under CC-by-NC-ND-2.0 License.

Today the Preservation Green Lab is proud to release a new report, Older, Smaller, Better in Tucson: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality in a Southwestern City. Building on the mapping and statistical analysis that was established in the 2014 Older, Smaller, Better (OSB) report; refined in the 2015 and 2016 Partnership for Building Reuse reports; and leveraged in the recently released Atlas of ReUrbanism, Older, Smaller, Better in Tucson demonstrates that neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings are more economically resilient, culturally dynamic, and downright livable than those with only larger, newer buildings. Funding supporting the study came from the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office, the City of Tucson, and the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission.

Whereas the original OSB report focused on Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., the new report explores a city with a very different history and development pattern, and it includes analysis of some locally significant data points.

Mesquite and palo verde trees provide relief from the sun in old neighborhoods like Armory Park, a historic district south of Tucson’s downtown. | Credit: Mike Powe, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Tucson’s older and historic neighborhoods and commercial districts are literally cooler.

Areas of the city with older, smaller buildings and a fine-grained mix of old and new buildings have more tree canopy and cooler average surface temperatures than areas with newer, larger buildings. On average, the oldest parts of the city have more than twice as much tree canopy as areas of the city with the newest building stock. In areas with older buildings and blocks, the average surface temperature is nearly a full degree cooler than in those with mostly newer buildings

Areas of Tucson with older, smaller buildings are more walkable and more streetcar accessible.

Areas with older buildings and a mix of old and new buildings are significantly more walkable and more accessible by Tucson’s Sun Link streetcar. Sixty-two percent of areas with older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks outperform the citywide average walkability composite score, compared to just 34 percent of areas with predominantly large, new buildings

The “Best of Tucson” can be found where old and new buildings sit side by side.

Tucson’s older commercial areas house more than 65 percent of the businesses and public spaces listed on Tucson Weekly’sBest of Tucson 2015” list. Tucson neighborhoods with top-rated Tucson Weekly or Tucson Lifestyle restaurants were twice as likely, compared to the citywide average, to also contain buildings constructed before 1945.


Two popular local restaurants occupy an older building at the Five Points intersection south of downtown. These culinary enterprises contribute to the distinctive food scene that led Tucson to become the first U.S. city to be recognized as an international City of Gastronomy by UNESCO in 2015. Credit: Mike Powe, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Areas of Tucson with older, smaller buildings are resilient job generators.

Areas with older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks have greater concentrations of jobs per square foot of commercial space than those with predominantly large, new buildings. On a per-commercial-square-foot basis, areas of Tucson with older buildings or a mix of old and new buildings gained significantly more jobs during the beginning of the economic recovery (between 2009 and 2013) than areas with mostly new buildings

Areas with older, smaller buildings support concentrations of jobs in small businesses, creative companies, and start-ups.

On average, areas with older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks have about 49 percent more jobs in small businesses than areas with mostly large, new buildings. Areas with at least one building constructed before 1920 have an average of 5.6 jobs in new businesses, compared to an average of 2.5 jobs in new businesses citywide.

More than 80 percent of restaurants and retailers in areas with older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks—and more than 90 percent of those in areas with buildings constructed before 1920—are independently owned (versus being chain businesses). This compares to a citywide average of 66 percent non-chain restaurants and retailers. While only 5 percent of the commercial fabric of the city has at least one structure built before 1920, this small total area is home to more than 14 percent of the city’s women- and minority-owned businesses. Similarly, while just more than 25 percent of the commercial areas have at least one building constructed before 1945, this one-quarter of the city contains nearly half of its oldest businesses.

Older, smaller commercial buildings house small local businesses on North 4th Avenue. Future research could dig more deeply into the full economic impact of these businesses, including the degree to which dollars spent in non-chain local businesses are recirculated in the local economy. | Credit: Mike Powe, National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Neighborhoods of older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks have denser, younger, and more age-diverse populations.

On average, areas of Tucson with older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks have nearly 40 percent greater population density and a 16 percent greater density of housing units than areas with mostly large, new buildings. In areas with at least one building constructed before 1920, an average of 45 percent of the population is between the age of 18 and 34, compared to a citywide average of 26 percent.

Adapting existing buildings to new uses is cheaper than new construction and is a more stable construction activity during economic downturns.

Between 2005 and 2014, rehabilitations of existing buildings cost an average of 60 percent less per square foot for commercial buildings, and 26 percent less for residential buildings, than new commercial and residential construction. Renovation work on commercial buildings was more stable during the Great Recession, and total dollars invested in renovating existing houses increased during that period, while investment in new housing plunged.

Bolstered by these findings, the city of Tucson’s mayor and council recently announced that, at a meeting later this week, they will consider implementing an adaptive reuse pilot program. The program would aim to help small businesses and developers adapt older, smaller buildings to serve new business purposes while maintaining and enhancing neighborhood characteristics and extending the useful lives of the buildings. Though the pilot program has not yet been formally adopted, draft language indicates that it would leverage existing regulatory relief tools, include a project-specific checklist, create a streamlined permit review process, and add a dedicated staff member to facilitate eligible projects.

There is much more to come from the Preservation Green Lab regarding both Tucson and many other cities. Later this month, the Green Lab will release six “midsize city” interactive maps and fact sheets as part of the Atlas of ReUrbanism, including materials focused on Tucson; Tulsa; Long Beach; Louisville; Milwaukee; and Portland, Oregon. The Atlas team will launch maps and data for at least five additional cities every month through June 2017. Stay tuned, and happy exploring!

Michael Powe is the director of research for the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

#Sustainability #ReUrbanism #OlderSmallerBetter #mapping