Old Buildings and New Ideas

Jane Jacobs’s final criterion for successful urban neighborhoods was the existence of aged buildings:

If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized, or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the 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 unformalized feeders of the arts—studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where te 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 successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

As for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

This, of course, is exactly parallel to the argument for disruptive technologies: lowering costs increases experimentation. When the inputs to entrepreneurship fall, you get more entrepreneurs. And more importantly, you get different kinds of entrepreneurs. High rents often require entrepreneurs to raise outside capital, which means the entrepreneur can only open the kind of business he can persuade someone else to finance. Low rents allow entrepreneurs to cover more of the cost out-of-pocket, which means they can take bigger risks.

This seems to be the only one of Jacobs’s four rules that holds as well in the suburbs as it does in the city. Tyler Cowen has observed that the best ethnic restaurants in the DC area tend to be in the suburbs, where, as he puts it, “The best ethnic restaurants are often found in suburban strip malls, where rents are lower and the degree of feasible experimentation is greater. Small and cheap ethnic restaurants are often better than large ones.” Presumably, when Jacobs was writing, in 1961, there would have been very few old buildings in the suburbs. A half-century later, old suburban buildings are more common, while urban real estate in some metro areas (including DC) has gotten significantly more expensive. So this particular advantage of urban living isn’t as large as it used to be.

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9 Responses to Old Buildings and New Ideas

  1. Rhayader says:

    I moved to North Carolina a couple years ago, and my girlfriend and I noticed that within a ten minute drive from our place, there are a handful of little planned mixed-use communities. Typically they’ve got apartments/townhomes, a school, a church, and several businesses (restaurants, movie theaters, banks) all sort of stuck there in one place, in generally rural surroundings.

    We’ve always been a bit weirded out by it — we call the closest one “Pleasantville”. I think part of it is just that it feels very forced; a little yuppie heaven in the middle of redneck country. Reading this though, I think the absolute lack of any buildings even approaching “old” might also have something to do with the artificial feel as well. It’s like some sort of homogenized “mixed use” plan, and the vibe is weird.

    The website gives a reasonably good impression of the atmosphere:


    I know next to nothing about urban planning, but whenever I hear people talking about a need for massive projects to encourage “mixed use” within cities, I think of places like this. It’s a top-down approach to the idea, and doesn’t result in nearly the same vibrancy and diversity as a naturally evolved mixed-use area.

  2. Brian Moore says:

    Rhyader, yeah I’ve seen those things in Northwest Arkansas, and there’s two up here in Cleveland, on each side of town. I don’t know what the official term is for them.

    There’s a small strip-mall like area about a tenth of a mile from my house, at a major intersection (we live right on the edge of the suburban zone that abuts this commercial oasis) and I love it. The rest of the city I live in is almost exclusively residential, and there are people who live very far from any commercial location.

    And to Tim, there is a lot of ethnic restaurant experimentation there. There’s a great Chinese place that has been there since 1978 or so, and a Japanese place went out of business about 2 years ago to be replaced last month by a Middle Eastern grille. Of course, there’s also a Chipotle-knock off and a Panera, as well, but I’m not complaining.

    While I currently live on the east side of Cleveland, I grew up on the West side, and the model for suburban communities there is different, but I think it still embodies what Jacobs is aiming for. The entire town is based around a primary east-west street that literally has every single possible type of commercial structure on it, often contained in strip mall-like structures. Each little residential development leafs off this main drag. It’s certainly not particularly walkable, but if you just get on the main street, within 5 minutes of driving, you will find what you were looking for, and probably 3-4 versions of them. The turnover rate of businesses on the road is very high, restaurants and businesses are constantly coming in and out. (They just put in a great new Indian place that I am sad that I no longer live close to.)

    Anyway, just rambling. This stuff is pretty interesting, Tim!

  3. The official term is “yuptopia.” 😉

    Actually, what Rhayader is decribing is probably what’s called New Urbanism. Jacobs herself was not a big fan:

    The New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect. In a real city or a real town, the lively heart always has two or more well-used pedestrian thoroughfares that meet. In traditional towns, often it’s a triangular piece of land. Sometimes it’s made into a park.

  4. Brian Moore says:

    Haha, “yuptopia” is definitely it, and if I would’ve thought more, I would have remembered that had I’ve heard that before. And yeah, the ones in Arkansas were 100% not designed to be reached by people walking from their homes. The two in Cleveland are somewhat better on that measure, being relatively close (but still geographically distinct) from the residential neighborhoods that surround them.

    It sounds like the best method to achieving what Jacobs wants would be more open zoning laws, so people could just build whatever best suited the site. I’m certainly not even a little knowledgeable about such things, so it’s probably more complex than that.

  5. Rhayader says:

    It sounds like the best method to achieving what Jacobs wants would be more open zoning laws, so people could just build whatever best suited the site. I’m certainly not even a little knowledgeable about such things, so it’s probably more complex than that.

    Yeah, agreed. Rather than trying to “create” truly effective mixed-use communities, we should concentrate on removing restrictions to the bottom-up evolutionary formation of them. Like Tim explained at the beginning of these posts, people have strong incentives to interact with other people in a decentralized network.

  6. Don Marti says:

    One key zoning mistake is requiring commercial buildings to have enough parking for all customers. Eliminate the parking requirement and some customers will end up parking far enough away to discover a new business in the neighborhood.

  7. Brian Moore says:

    Yeah, I had forgotten how anal-retentive some restrictions could be. It seems that if an area truly needs more parking, some owners of property nearby will be glad to convert theirs to a parking lot.

  8. Rhayader says:

    It seems that if an area truly needs more parking, some owners of property nearby will be glad to convert theirs to a parking lot.

    Hah yeah no kidding. I’m always amazed when I visit big cities at how much money can be made off an empty lot.

  9. sps says:

    I moved to DC just about 2 years ago from NYC (note: I would have stayed if my life had ever found roots there…still miss it). I think I am currently observing the heyday of 14th Street’s revitalization – new storefronts in old buildings, etc. You still have your pawn shops and the Central Mission and Riggs Street is still public housing, but the number of new restaurants, bars, and various stores is astounding. Unfortunately, that means rent is skyrocketing and 10 years from now it could just be a corridor of chains… unless, ya know, people in the city actually try to do something about it. I get the feeling, though, that a many people here are not concerned with this sort of thing. Maybe I’m being judgmental. I don’t plan on being here for long, but I still have an interest in the place.

    Sorta related: the neighborhood I’m in now, Bloomingdale, is still very much in the dense core of the L’Enfant city, and yet there is very little business over here except for sketchy liquor stores and “Chinese” food joints that sell more “American” fast food than beef and broccoli. One of the few establishments that are new, don’t have a bulletproof window and keep the place clean – a coffeeshop that’s been here for a couple of years – just applied for a liquor license. It has good reason – the only neighborhood gathering places, along North Capitol Street, are not the type that are open to unfamiliar faces. But the local neighborhood advisory committee has been doing the full-on jingoist song and dance about how the neighborhood will be radically altered by this change. Considering the closest decent grocery store (and I’m being generous by saying decent) is a good 15-20 minute walk, there’s little logic involved in the committee’s fight against investment and one biz getting a liquor license (when they’re ok with a half dozen liquor stores within a 7 or so blocks of each other). But, of course, the members of the committee don’t actually all live here, so take what you will from that. It’s unfortunate because there are a lot of old buildings in this area that could be functional instead of empty and boarded up.

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