From the Good Ideas File: almost anything can be rehabbed, especially in Cleveland

The book emphasizes that the things that make your community unique are what makes them valuable, and for large swathes of the American Midwest, some of our most unique features are old buildings.  Repurposing an old building for a new use takes creativity, and it’s not always the rock-botton-price approach, but 49 times out of 50 it results in something that will win you more attention, and probably help win more sales, investment, caring residents, than almost any new construction approach.  And a lot of times, although of course not all, it costs less to rehab than to build something new.

My hometown of Cleveland is one of those places that has gotten pretty good at this, thanks to 30+ years of struggling with the economic tsunami of change and the existence of a huge number of buildings that were built for a use that doesn’t need them anymore.

This article is a travel piece, so it’s overly fluffy and glosses over a lot of the very serious problems that don’t make happy reading, but I thought it was worth sharing with you because of this description of a building that I knew in Iteration #2:

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium (2000 Sycamore Street, 216-862-8803;greaterclevelandaquarium.com), on the other side of the Cuyahoga River, also just a few minutes from downtown, is another repurposed attraction. This 40,000-square-foot water wonderland was constructed in 1892 to provide electricity to streetcars. It was empty for more than a half-century and reopened in 1989 as an entertainment complex, but was converted into its current use when a New Zealand company called Marinescape decided to open its first American aquarium there. Visitors — close to 700,000 since the January 2012 opening — can soak up the building’s historic structure: there are exposed brick walls; giant steel girders frame the pool with more than two dozen stingrays; a jellyfish tank is inside one of the two smokestacks; and fish tanks are inside two coal tunnels. “Coming here is not your typical aquarium experience,” said Tami Brown, the general manager.

Note three things in that paragraph:

  • The building was vacant for more than half a century.  What do you think it looked like/smelled like in the early 1980s?  Worse than that.  Would you think that derelict was worth sinking money into?
  • The building has gone through its second rehab.   The entertainment center was cool back in the day, but entertainment has changed since then.  Tons of old industrial buildings in the area where the acquarium is, which is called the Flats, went through the entertainment center phase and have now transitioned into a more complex mix of things.  Some more successful than others, but even for fixed-up buildings, change isn’t the inevitable.
  • Contrary to sometimes popular belief, there are a whole lot of options between “Restore to exactly what is looked like in 18__” and “Knock that sucker down.”  People who rehab old buildings know that, and part of what demands that creativity that I talked about before is the realization that you have to find a delicate balance between keeping the things that make it unique and making it work, functionally and economically.  We usually frame those debates between preservation purists and other as  fights, but I think we should view them more as a necessary part of creative tension.  In hundreds of cases, that tension ends up with a compromise that people look back on decades later and say “Yeah, that was the right call.”

In my own decades in this work, I have seen more situations where I can count where an insanely beat-up old building — sometimes little more than a frame or a shell — gets rehabilitated into something that has huge value for the property owner, the business, and the community (which has kind of a big stake in its own future, after all).  The only real barrier is creativity and the determination to find a way.

I could show you a hundred examples, but instead perhaps you should check out preservationnation.org or your state historic preservation agency to tap some of those stories of the impossible become possible.  And don’t let someone pressure your community with “it’s too old…it’s too strange… it’s too beat up…tear it down.”  They could be right, but chances are, they’re wrong.

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