A couple of weeks ago, my parents came to visit my newly adopted hometown of Saint Paul, Minnesota. As I was eager to show them the most interesting and lovely parts of the city, we drove by the endless Victorian mansions on Summit Avenue, attended Mass at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, and ate lunch at W.A. Frost, a landmark restaurant at the corner of Selby and Western Avenues. Across the river in Minneapolis, we visited a farmer’s market in the ruins of an old flour mill and strolled down the historic brick roads in the Warehouse District. The places that I deemed worthy of a tour all happened to be much older than me or my parents. And we weren’t alone, either. Everywhere we went, it seemed like the older the buildings were, the more people were walking on the sidewalk. Additionally, the dozens of cranes and half-erected high-rise condos and office buildings along the periphery of most of these historic areas showed that people didn’t just want to visit these neighborhoods, they wanted to live and work here, too!
And yet, as we walked by some of these construction sites, I couldn’t help but shake my head. To the New Urbanist, these developments checked all the boxes. They were mixed-use! They (kinda) fit in with the styles and building materials of the nearby structures! They were “thickening” the walkable neighborhood, doubling down on successful places! But as I watched a vinyl façade being attached to a steel structure, I could only think of what it would look like in a few decades. It was hard to believe how much capital was being invested in so much impermanence—that the old buildings, the very reason these neighborhoods are now desirable, will outlive all of the new ones.
In my previous article, “The High Price of Cheap Buildings,” I identified the economic factors that encourage the design and construction of commercial buildings that only last 40 years (and homes that survive less than three decades). In this article, I will attempt to articulate an entirely different paradigm, one that is not new; rooted in the traditional building philosophy, which was, to put it simply, built to last. Make no mistake, this desire for a culture of architectural longevity is not prompted by antiquarianism or an aesthetic appetite for old things—it’s because it’s the only thing we can afford to do. The social and environmental costs of disposable buildings are far too high.
Stagnant Neighborhoods: The Generational Consequences of Disposable Building
It can be easy to forget that cities and towns are participating in an infinite game, as Chuck Marohn often points out. We can forget the historical horizon, because it is practically impossible to imagine a building that no longer exists. This inability to conceptualize history can lead to a kind of survivorship bias where at its extreme, one might assume that every house built in Saint Paul a century ago was a Victorian mansion, because those are most of the homes still standing. While this example is clearly unrealistic, it’s important to remember. For every Penn Station that was demolished far too early, there were dozens of nondescript buildings for whom no one mourned when the wrecking ball arrived—I will concede that many structures built centuries ago were not built to last.
And yet, most buildings were. There are buildings too that have stuck around, not because they were designed with aspirations of lasting this long, but because they were victims of neighborhood disinvestment, people moving away, or unplanned obsolescence. But when the pendulum swings back towards neighborhood prosperity, the abandoned factory becomes artist’s lofts. The old livery stable becomes a market. The former pharmacy becomes a coffee shop. These buildings all outlived their original purpose and instead of becoming rubble, they became vital settings for riskier and more marginal enterprises. It is in this context that we may forget the future horizon of the infinite game that our cities are a part of. Everything that we build today will one day be old. Will it be an old building that still could hold value for a different use, or will it age so poorly that its only future is in a landfill?
It is precisely this point that Jane Jacobs was making in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By 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.”
This claim seems backwards at first. Rundown old buildings—why on earth would those be a good thing? Quite simply, it’s because new buildings are very expensive. Too expensive, in fact, for most enterprises. Take restaurants, for example. There is a well-known statistic that 60% of restaurants fail within the first year and only one in five survives until its fifth anniversary. Now imagine that every new restaurateur, in addition to all of the financial risks that they currently have to take, also had to construct a new building. It would be nearly impossible! In this scenario, the cost of new construction would make opening a restaurant so risky that the only places that would open would be those that can practically guarantee their own success: chain fast food joints, school cafeterias, mall food courts. That’s an awfully short list, and it holds true across the entire economy. The cost of new construction is too high for enterprises that aren’t either high-profit or well-subsidized.
While this has always been true, this becomes a particularly fraught issue when the new buildings have a “physical” life that is the same as their original “useful” life. It only takes a few iterations of the planned obsolescence cycle to occur until there are no old buildings left. And with the death of old buildings comes the death of adaptable second (or third or fourth or fifth) uses, making it nearly impossible for an entrepreneur or small business owner to even get off the ground. “Old ideas can sometimes afford new construction. New ideas require old buildings.” Is there anyone that wants to live in a world where new ideas don’t have a chance?