Margaret Zeidler on ‘The need for aged buildings’ — Cheap rent, adaptable space


When I first read The Death and Life of Great American Cities it was on my way into architecture school, thirty-six years ago. It was required reading.

Old buildings on Spadina (Toronto) by Spacing Magazine

I can’t tell you how excited I was reading it — to this day I get butterflies in my stomach when I re-read some passages in the book. It validated all the things I believed about cities and helped me understand why I found them so fascinating. It continues to open up new avenues of thought and every time I read it, I find observations that I hadn’t fully appreciated before.

I was struck, like a thunderbolt, by this chapter in particular. It had never occurred to me that “plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings” even “rundown old buildings” had any useful purpose in the city. I assumed, back then, that we’d be taught about how to get rid of all those ugly old eyesores — either through demolition or expensive renovations — so they could be made beautiful.

It was in that chapter that my life-long love for old buildings and future career in their adaptive reuse began. I started to understand important principles of city building beyond aesthetics.

“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

That oft-quoted aphorism, the most famous in this chapter, is frequently taken out of context and misinterpreted. She is very clear about what is meant by old buildings in this context: cheap rent.

She is not talking about buildings in an “excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation, although these make fine ingredients” of good cities.

She argues that ordinary old buildings are essential to the ongoing economic health of a city.  If all buildings in a district or a city are expensive, there is nowhere for new ideas (fledgling businesses and industries etc.) to take root. Without this, the city’s economy will eventually stagnate.

Seedlings by Flickr user '--Tico--'

This observation foreshadows Jacobs’ later work in which she compares the economies of cities to natural ecosystems: there must always be new growth, even in a well established forest, otherwise a healthy future is not certain.

One of the most insightful observations that she makes about old buildings is that their capital costs have been written down and therefore the landlord does not need to charge a high rent. New construction is very expensive. It takes 20 or 30 years for a developer to pay off the mortgage. It is only then that there is less pressure on the owner to charge high rents.

This simple observation has recently been questioned. Edward Glaeser (Harvard economist and author of last year’s book, Triumph of the City), for example, has completely misunderstood this chapter. Glaeser asserts that keeping old buildings leads to nothing but high rents — that it’s a simple issue of supply and demand. He tells us that the only way to go is up, up, up, and if towers were built in the place of these older, smaller buildings, districts like Greenwich Village in cities all over the world would become far more affordable. That is, more density equals lower rents.

Can you think of anywhere you’ve seen that happen? It certainly has not been my experience in the past decade of tall building construction in Toronto. Nor has it been the case anywhere in Manhattan that I am aware of. It probably isn’t the case in your city either. I cannot think of an example in an economically healthy city where an old building was torn down and replaced by a new taller/bigger structure and this new structure has cheaper rent than the building it replaced.

I work in Toronto’s King/Spadina neighbourhood. Twenty years ago, it was actually on the other side of gentrification.  Formerly an industrial district, it had been left in a decayed state for a long time. It was a good example of what Jacobs describes in this chapter as “the harm that eventually comes of nothing but old age”.

Note: For a history of how this came to be — and how it changed — you can read CMHC’s report on the “Kings Regeneration” Initiative (PDF).

King & Spadina by Chris Barker

In 2012, this neighbourhood should be Mr. Glaeser’s dream come true.

In the last twenty years the area has gone through a gentrification phase. Our heritage preservation laws are weaker than New York’s, and in the last 5 years many of the old buildings have been demolished and replaced with new buildings that are far higher and denser. Historically, this neighbourhood was no more than 7 stories high, and the new buildings are up to 66 storeys high.

A quick search of the cost to buy or rent in these towers tells me that the rent is not going down as Mr. Glaeser predicts. Instead, as Jane noted, the new buildings cost more. What’s more, the higher the building, the higher the rent.

The cheap office space that was once ubiquitous here is rapidly disappearing. The side effect of this is the rapid disappearance of the small feeders to the bigger city economy. This is a neighbourhood that is well on its way becoming “economically too limited”.

It is very difficult to prevent gentrification and one could argue that to do so artificially is a dangerous game.

Note: For some interesting thoughts on avoiding gentrification and further thinking on the ideas she started exploring 40 years earlier in Death & Life – read Jane Jacobs’ Washington address of 2001, Time and Change as Neighbourhood Allies (PDF).

Some say that what Jane described in this chapter was particular to the time in which she wrote. They say that these ‘old buildings’ don’t exist any more — they have all been gentrified. We’ve seen the near-extinction of old, inexpensive buildings in the King/Spadina neighbourhood too. The old buildings which haven’t been torn down to make way for new towers have been renovated to an “excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation” and now the rents are high there too.

So, we need to look further afield to find today’s old, cheap buildings and perhaps at different building types, including the old strip malls of the 50s and 60s which are being re-imagined across North America. They will likely be quite ugly, unlike many of the ones in Greenwich Village that Jacobs’ wrote of or their sisters in King/Spadina. Artists will find them first: they nose around for this kind of thing and they know how to turn rough and nasty environments into attractive and vibrant places.

As clever and entrepreneurial people find these old buildings, innovation will spring up in unexpected places — places where the rent is cheap and there is adaptable space that can house “the unformalized feeders of the arts — studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies [and] backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions.”

3 Comments Add yours

  1. A great supplement to this chapter of D&L is Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. He does reiterate some of the same points, but adds his own observations and strategies as well.

    For one thing, he notices that rundown buildings generally have two assets other than low rent that make them ideal for risky low and no-yield enterprises. Buildings with simple, open, sturdy layouts with exposed services (plumbing, electrical, etc.), like factories, allow for drastically different uses to occupy the space over the years, since tenants can easily add a new drywall division between two pillars, rip out old services, run new ones down pillars, put in new heavy machinery without fear of it falling through the floor, etc.

    Rundown buildings also often have little oversight from landlords or other governing bodies, which means radical adaptations can be made without any red tape. One great building that Brand spends extensive time discussing is MIT’s legendary Building 20, known as the “magical incubator” by the locals because of the many successful ground-breaking research projects that began there. The words of one past tenant describe the attitude toward the building perfectly: “If you don’t like a wall, just stick your elbow through it.”

  2. Margie and I share the experience of taking vacant, underutilized buildings and nurturing them back to healthy lives.

    We’ve seen incubator spaces for people whose creative lives bring light to formerly dark buildings and streets at night. We’ve watched non-profit organizations find room to pursue their visions of social and environmental justice which, in turn, bring more and more people into our once underutilized neighborhoods which, in turn, brings more safety to the streets.

    And we’ve watched how our love of places has been generative and restorative in the surrounding areas, spillover effects of our own learning and from the people who live, work, study, create, eat, and play in these renewed places.

    The Margies of the world have an evolutionary impulse which, like birds who peck away at an abandoned hornet’s nest to take material for their next nest, demonstrates urban ecology in its healthiest, most robust sense.

    Margie’s point about where we’ll find new old buildings to bring life to new ideas is a wonderful challenge to all of us. Strip malls, abandoned factories, foreclosed neighborhoods, and what about underneath all the highways we want to tear down?

  3. Frederick says:

    I don’t know about Toronto but I’ve found that in Australia single family homes in desirable areas, often with some high density development nearby, are quite costly. What Jane Jacobs said about the need for aged buildings only applies to cheap areas (I think she was in an age of low housing costs), where there isn’t enough demand/too much supply to push housing prices over the cost of providing new stock. In this case, unless if there is something wrong with the building, it would be unwise to build. However, in desirable areas, the cost of housing is above construction cost, it is wise to build, and this reduces housing costs compared with a case where no supply is added to a desirable area, even if the price still rises due to demand still outstripping the (increased) supply.

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