By Mike Powe and Margaret O’Neal
Last night, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab released Building on Baltimore’s Heritage: The Partnership for Building Reuse.
The most recent in a series of studies that look at the barriers to building reuse as a tool for economic growth and community revitalization in our towns and cities, the report focuses on the challenges and opportunities that are unique to Baltimore—a city with unmistakable industrial heritage and a long line of reuse success stories, along with a large number of older buildings that remain vacant or underutilized. The study provides recommendations for city officials as well as practical solutions to help property owners and investors repurpose more older buildings in diverse neighborhoods across Baltimore.
The study came out of the Partnership for Building Reuse initiative, which is a joint effort of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Urban Land Institute. The goal of the partnership is to analyze demolition and development trends and develop strategies to foster building reuse in U.S. cities, bringing together community groups, real estate developers, and civic leaders around the common goal of making it easier to reuse and retrofit existing buildings using a market-driven approach.
Working with the ULI Baltimore District Council,
as well as Baltimore Heritage
and other partners, the Green Lab engaged more than 90 real estate professionals, historic preservation advocates, government agency staff, land use professionals, and community leaders to help identify opportunities and develop recommendations for how to increase reuse and revitalization across Baltimore City.
As the latest city involved with the Partnership, Baltimore offers tremendous opportunities to think about the future of building reuse. For decades, Baltimore, along with the state of Maryland, has been recognized as a national leader in historic preservation, adaptive use, and smart growth. Private developers, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies have creatively repurposed a remarkable number of formerly vacant Baltimore landmarks to serve new needs. Historic downtown office buildings are now boutique hotels and apartment buildings. Mills have become condominiums, offices, and galleries. Former industrial sites are repurposed as museums, shopping centers, and corporate headquarters.
|Older buildings in Fells Point house popular coffee shops, cafes, and other businesses. Fells Point is one of Baltimore’s most vibrant neighborhoods, due in part to the reuse of its older and historic buildings.: Photo: polomex (flickr). Under CC by NC-SA 2.0 license.
After decades of population loss, many older Baltimore neighborhoods are being rediscovered, attracting new residents and increased investment. But while building reuse has brought new life and opportunity to many areas of the city, other neighborhoods have not yet turned around. What can be done to extend the benefits of revitalization to more neighborhoods and citizens of Baltimore? Building on Baltimore’s History
takes on this question directly.
As part of this work, the Preservation Green Lab conducted research into the connections between the vitality of Baltimore neighborhoods and the character of the city’s existing building stock. The Green Lab’s findings show that Baltimore’s older, smaller buildings contribute in key ways to the vitality of the city. For example:
- Older neighborhoods provide space for Baltimore’s local economy. Areas of the city characterized by older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage blocks average more than twice the number of jobs in small businesses compared to areas of Baltimore with mostly newer, larger buildings.
- Young people love old buildings. People between the age of 18 and 34 make up at the majority of the population in twice as many parts of Baltimore with older, smaller buildings and mixed vintage blocks, compared to areas with mostly newer, larger buildings.
- Old buildings and neighborhoods are magnets for great restaurants. More than 83 percent of The Baltimore Sun’s 2014 “Top 50 Restaurants” and 2013 “Top 50 Bars” are located in buildings constructed before 1920, well above the citywide total of 50 percent of commercial businesses located in buildings of that vintage.
Working with local practitioners, the Green Lab also developed an analytical tool to identify areas of the city that have not yet benefitted from reuse and revitalization, but have high potential for near-term success (see map below).
Areas to consider for focused efforts to promote and assist market-driven building reuse. The red grid squares shown on this map are areas of high opportunity for successful building reuse, according to a new methodology developed as part of the Partnership for Building Reuse. The map shows concentrations of high opportunity grid squares in diverse neighborhoods across the city. Areas outlined in blue are select Main Street and Arts and Entertainment Districts where vacancy and disinvestment could be addressed through targeted efforts from public officials and the development community.
To encourage building reuse in these areas and other neighborhoods citywide, the Partnership identified major obstacles that make building reuse challenging—including market, financial, technical, and regulatory barriers. These include:
- Weak market demand due to oversupply of building inventory
- Acute social and economic challenges in many neighborhoods
- Conflicts between reuse of existing buildings and energy and building code requirements
- Difficulty in adapting certain building types for modern needs
- Complexity, unpredictability, and high cost associated with many reuse projects
- Difficulty in using tax credits and other incentives, especially for smaller projects
|National Trust President and CEO Stephanie Meeks speaks with Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young at the release of the Building on Baltimore’s History report on November 3, 2014, at the Baltimore Design School. | Photo: Maximilian Franz
With these and other barriers in mind, the Partnership recommends key strategies to optimize building reuse in Baltimore, including:
- Adopt key provisions of the city’s proposed new zoning code, Transform Baltimore. Baltimore recently underwent the first comprehensive revision of its zoning code since 1971, and the new code, Transform Baltimore, currently awaits adoption from Baltimore’s City Council. Participants in the Partnership suggested that the Council move forward in creating neighborhood commercial districts that allow selected commercial and other non-residential uses that align with the existing character of older neighborhoods, and new industrial mixed-use zone districts that make it easier to repurpose vacant industrial structures for residential, commercial, and light industrial use. The City Council should consider eliminating parking requirements for structures more than 50 years old and streamlining the process for conversion of non-conforming uses into specific commercial uses through a conditional use process.
- Promote creative building and energy code solutions. The Partnership advised the City to create a “Code Solutions Database” for common code compliance issues, based on lessons learned over the years by designers, contractors, and code officials. The formation of “Code Innovation Zones” in select areas could also help model creative building and energy code solutions and facilitate reuse of small commercial blocks and industrial buildings.
- Improve and promote incentive programs. The Partnership team suggested that Maryland increase funding for the Maryland Sustainable Communities Tax Credit (SCTC) (the state rehab credit) and promote the use of the recently-enacted-by-right SCTC for small commercial projects in designated historic districts, including Main Streets and older commercial corridors. Local, state and national incentives could be packaged and greater use of these incentives in areas of the city with high opportunity for successful revitalization should be promoted. City officials should consider developing a matrix of all existing reuse incentives to identify critical gaps and needs, and creating a citywide map illustrating areas of reuse potential. Participants suggested that government agency staff explore the use of federal demolition mitigation funding to support the creative reuse of older and historic properties.
- Focus attention in high-opportunity neighborhoods and districts. Lastly, the Partnership suggested that this work could be especially powerful if building reuse was encouraged and innovative approaches were tested in specific geographic areas. Policy, programs, and resources could be focused in areas that have both a concentration of older, smaller buildings as well as healthy social, economic, demographic, and real estate indicators. For example, efforts could build on existing Main Street or Arts and Entertainment Districts that suffer from vacancy and disinvestment but are well positioned for successful, near-term revitalization.
In the coming months, ULI Baltimore and the National Trust will work with local partners and city leaders to advance these recommendations and bring the benefits of building reuse to more Baltimore neighborhoods and residents.
With the release of the Baltimore report, the Partnership for Building Reuse has now completed work in three cities: Los Angeles
, and Baltimore. Next month, the Partnership will expand to Chicago and Louisville. A national convening and publication summarizing the lessons learned through the Partnership for Building Reuse is planned for 2016.
Mike Powe is the senior research manager at the Seattle-based National Trust Preservation Green Lab.
Margaret O’Neal is Senior Manager, Sustainable Preservation at the National Trust Preservation Green Lab
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