Saturday, October 13, 2007

Creating and recreating a city through adaptive reuse

[Source: Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture and Arizona Chain Reaction] -- What makes a city significant? Answers might range from moments in history, famous residents, sheer size to location. Or you could say it's what is between the tall buildings that helps people connect to an urban environment. That is how Terry Goddard, current Arizona attorney general and former mayor of Phoenix begins to answer the question. He feels two key elements are often given short shrift in the conversations about creating a vibrant downtown: adaptive reuse of existing buildings and developing unique experiences at the pedestrian level. "For so long, the attitude of city planning in Phoenix has been to tear down what isn't occupied, or condemn and demolish based on current usage," says Goddard. "Sometimes it's not easy to imagine what we can do with older buildings, but we have to provide a better first option than tearing them down."

As an example, he cites the struggle he had as mayor to keep standing a certain abandoned machine-shop building on Adams Street. It was the only remaining building on the block that stood in the way of planning for large scale projects. Goddard convinced the city to keep the building by thinking about the street – having a pedestrian friendly area at Heritage Square by having a north side and south side full of interesting buildings. The brick building stayed and was eventually purchased by Chris Bianco and became the nationally-famous Pizzeria Bianco.

Bianco and Goddard recently joined other entrepreneurs, city officials, city staff, and guest speakers at a convening titled, "Creating a Vibrant City." Sponsored by Arizona Chain Reaction with support from Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture, the conversation revolved around improved cooperation between the city and the entrepreneurs wishing to renovate and repurpose old buildings. Arizona Chain Reaction Founder Kimber Lanning organized the meeting to start a dialogue on how to reduce barriers to entry for small business owners in the city of Phoenix and yet be safe, stay within code and meet the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance mandates. "Great cities are built on small wonders," says Lanning. "Look at how much one business, Pizzeria Bianco, did for the image of Phoenix. A hundred chain restaurants aren't going to do that. But the chains have the money and resources to put up new buildings and pay a higher rent or space cost."

Goddard cites figures to back this up. "If you truly want the funky spaces, an older building is the only option. An old property would rent for $10-$12 per square foot, a new building would be closer to $20-$30. The challenge is to encourage more thinking around these small scale projects and provide incentives or funding for renovation costs. Phoenix does large scale really well, but the same process for bringing in a new, big building doesn't work for smaller endeavors."

Lanning hopes to keep this conversation alive and show how small business can be the catalyst for attracting residents and other businesses to an area. For the effort to gain greater success, a community vision must occur with support from the city government. "Vision is about hard choices," says Goddard. "It can't be everything to everyone. Citizens need to be engaged and determine what the standards should be. Then the city needs to implement those standards and stick to it. The process shouldn't get in the way of the vision."