Dinkytown and the Need for Old Buildings

In the midst of last week's Dinkytown mess, I was reminded again of Jane Jacobs. Check out this comment from my Streets.mn rant about the Dinkytown situation:
It’s fascinating that no one is really talking about the end result of this process – square footage cost for both commercial and residential renters. I hear most often that it’s local business that is being hurt by not developing with projects as the one above. Yet, at last week’s Z&P meeting Laurel Bauer herself said she wouldn’t move back into the new building because the rent would be way too high. She was charging her renters $22/sq ft; Opus states their rent would be at least in the low-30s – so let’s say $32/sq ft. What kind of local businesses can afford that rent? High-end services. ...

This gets to the economic heart of the matter. The three businesses displaced by the new development were being vastly undercharged in rent compared to what the market would bear. Because of its limited size and huge pedestrian population, demand for space in Dinkytown is very high. Old quirky shops like the old Purple Onion, the old Dinkytowner, everything that was in the old Dinkydome have all been replaced by businesses willing to pay a lot more in rent. It's hard to stop that kind of economic pressure.

Why Old Buildings Foster Diversity 

Just like Phyllis Kahn, diversity was Jane Jacobs mantra. But by "diversity," Jacobs did not simply mean surface levels of ethnic or cultural diversity. Rather she was describing a diversity of ways of living. Imagine all the things that lie between skateboarding and power lunches, all the kinds of places that fall between fancy caf├ęs and dive bars.

Jacobs loved cities where many different kinds of people rubbed shoulders. She loved tattoo parlors next to spas, rows of surly booksellers, strange juxtapositions. Diversity meant people with different interests sharing space, people of different ages, with different hobbies, coming from different social classes, and offering a wide range of tempos of everyday life. She called this the "urban ballet," everything between the night owl and the early bird, and it was this endless organized chaos that Jacobs defended.

In other words, to simply have density -- tall buildings stacked as high as possible -- was not enough for Jacobs. She hated lower Manhattan, then the tallest, most skyscraper-laden part of New York city, because it was dominated by office workers and died each night after 6 PM.

This is why old buildings are so important. Jacobs writings on this issue are worth reading at length. She has a whole chapter in Death and Life called "The Need for Old Buildings," which gets right to the heart of the concerns about the Opus development. Here's the pertinent quote:
Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. But old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation -- although these make fine ingredients -- but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.

If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction...

...Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the informal feeders of the arts -- studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions -- these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfuly in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

Balancing these two forces, density and diversity, was Jacobs' prescription for cities. You can feel the desperation in her voice, even when writing in the late '50s Greenwich Village. Cities need run down areas, old worn out buildings, and (hell) even strip malls. These old shopworn spaces provide habitat for the wide range of low-overhead operators, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and artists that are the real creative force in the city.

Yet actually hanging on to old buildings is maddeningly difficult because cities (for good economic reasons) are continually chasing the holy grail of tax revenue. The cycle of gentrification is continually seeking out spaces where there's a mismatch between demand and rents, between shoddy old buildings and the potential for growth. These kinds of neighborhoods are continually struggling to survive, and in some places, it seems like they've all but disappeared.

It's a delicate balance between density and diversity. We can't simply jerk our knees and cry foul each time an old building is replaced. (Well, we can... In fact, it can be quite fun, but it doesn't really get us anywhere.) Meanwhile, fostering old buildings by regulation, historic preservation, or zoning code often backfires.

My personal approach is to only spend money at local businesses, to avoid chains like the plague, to seek out quirky places and spend as much time as possible with them. If everyone did the same, maybe our old buildings would survive a bit longer. If we want our cities to grow, to continue to generate diversity, I don't really see what else can be done...


Alex Cecchini said...

Is it possible to differentiate between 'old' and 'lower value'? Obviously older buildings naturally deteriorate over time and have fewer amenities than new ones do. But new, inexpensive buildings are also possible - build them on the fringe of a neighborhood, tucked in to a small/underused space (think Al's Breakfast when it was first built - was probably no nicer than the ones around it, just very small). If we did not regulate the expansion or change of neighborhoods at the fringe while also keeping new construction price high through parking minimums, this would allow newer buildings to fulfill the needs Jane Jacobs prescribes as well.

Mirna said...

We have to take care of the old buildings because they are national heritage in all towns , i was just watching a lot of new buildings but we have to take car of the oldest to remember how was the beginning i excpect to make some travel to see old and new buildings to south america if i get some rental at 4 Rent Argentina