Friday, December 08, 2006

Repurposing Space

There is a strong temptation in urban planning to focus on projects that are built from scratch. With a solid background in how to manufacture functional, usable public spaces, planners concoct beautiful diagrams and artist renderings of their proposed office towers / townhouses / parking garages / iron-ore refinement facilities. Since the plan is created out of an unoccupied space, it is easy to put together all the desired elements.

In reality, however, planning (and particularly urban planning) is done within the context of an already-existing city. Planning is not, in this sense, creation where there was nothing before. Planning is better understood as adjustment of an existing system.

In a built-out environment (such as my hometown of Lakewood, OH), urban planning is particularly difficult. The fact is, there is very little open land on which to build. That means that new buildings or infrastructure must replace (or amend) the existing buildings and infrstructure. The practical consequence of this built-out situation is that demolition costs (a subset of site preparation costs) must be factored in to any construction budget. Simply put: it costs more to build in Lakewood then elsewhere. Someone has to pay for the rental fees on all those bulldozers!

Planners, then, have a strong incentive to find ways to repurpose buildings if at all possible. For instance, let's say you've got an auto-parts warehouse, but industry declines and the company vacates the building. Now you've got a seemingly useless building! What should you do? Should you tear it down and build something new? Or should you try to find a new use for the existing building? The former option will definitely cost more than the latter (most of the time, anyway). To see this in action, click here.

With all this in mind, I thought it might be instructive to look at the successful repurposings (is that a word?) that have taken place in the Cleveland area. (If you'd like to read about Pennsylvania, for instance, you can consult my earlier post). Without further ado...

  • Randall Park (Randall, OH) Originally built as a traditional enclosed mall (based on anchor stores, movie theatres, etc.), Randall Park eventually declined and became one of America's notorious "dead malls". The Plain Dealer reports, however, that there is new life at the mall, including a church, a charter school, and a gym.

  • The Shoppes of Olde Avon Village (Avon, OH). Rather than just build another strip mall, Ron Larson actually relocated entire buildings to piece together a retail district with distinctive architecture. He actually moved an entire barn and turned it into a restaurant! It goes to show that just because you don't have cows or chickens, you can still put a barn to good use.

  • Federal Knitting Mills Building (Cleveland, OH). Conveniently located in Ohio City, the Knitting Mills building is only a few minutes from downtown Cleveland. The former factory was successfully convered in apartments.

  • Believe it or not, even churches can be converted into living spaces. When a congregation declines, the churches that were built to house them often go unused. The churches, however, are often protected as historic landmarks, which further complicates the situation for urban planners. The solution? Convert the churches to living space! Although insulation is difficult (drafty Sunday morning service, anyone?), the buildings themselves are often quite beautiful and can command significant retail prices on the open market.


Anonymous Jim Gronowski 216.391.6900 said...

Stephen - I found your comments very interesting. Re-purposed spaces is a term that I haven't heard before, but I like. My company is working on a redevelopment of a 100-year old warehouse complex at East 36th & Superior into a mixed-use "village" of office, retail, and future residential spaces. The redevelopment has begun with the signing of a web-marketing firm who moved from Beachwood (DigiKnow, Inc.) This will be a well-known example of repurposed space throughout the city - different than any other project I have seen in Cleveland, even the warehouse district redevelopment. I invite you to come down and see what we are doing. Call me if you're interested. (216) 391.6900 x114.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Paul R. Beegan, AIA said...

Your ideas are indeed appropriate for urban re-design and planning. I am glad people are starting to realize that we need to re-think the way we use spaces and bring new life to established buildings and neighborhoods instead of moving out to the ex-urbs. I ask you to bring your passion and join us at the Mainstreet Lakewood design committee as we start a major planning process for downtown Lakewood. E-mail me at

1:53 PM  

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