Revitalizing the American City, One Building at a Time
11.10.2015
Zach Edwards and Ian Zapata in fifty On, fifty On, urban planning

Image © Gensler

How do we address the challenges presented by urban centers largely built in the building boom of post-World War II America, at a time when pedestrians were distrusted and vehicles reigned?

Suburban sprawl, for all the reasons we know, altered the nature of American cities during the second half of the 20th century. Urban cores became dead zones outside standard work hours. Much of the building stock of the 1970s and 1980s reflects the anxieties of the time: public plazas designed to be looked at but not occupied, fortressed perimeters, and lobbies that hindered street engagement. These buildings expressed a lack of faith in the pedestrian experience, which is unsurprising given that at the time they were built, pedestrians were no longer driving urban growth.

Today, as we try to answer the question posed above, we’ve come to realize that while much has been written about the demise of the American city (and many an urbanist manifesto has been devoted to the reversal of this trend), market forces may be what rescues the urban core from the legacy of the past.

A New Dynamic

Americans today are increasingly cosmopolitan, well-traveled, and tapped into a connective pulse greater than themselves. Advanced technology, globalization, and a deeply embedded commitment to social and environmental responsibility has given rise to a new generation that values connectivity and interaction in the urban centers where they work.

The allure of urban living, therefore, has reemerged. Once left for dead, urban cores around the country are revitalizing, as new residential units, destination restaurants, and high-end retail return to formerly blighted downtown areas. Against this backdrop, long neglected office buildings are being acquired by a new breed of owner, one who is committed not only to the transformation of buildings but also the quality of the surrounding cities. Often the most distressed assets offer the greatest opportunity for a successful transformation, because their low acquisition cost allows for significant renovation.

While rising vacancies and buildings valued well below market rates contribute towards lifeless downtowns, they also present an incredible opportunity to completely reform the fabric of the American city. It’s no longer desirable to simply upgrade existing buildings with refreshed materiality at entries and common areas, nor is it feasible to overlay urban centers with completely new, iconic architecture. Addressing the pedestrian experience is key.

Image © Gensler

Transparency, connectivity, and activation

If the hallmark of a central business district building of the 70s and 80s is opacity, the most common intervention in a building remodel today is the introduction of transparency.

The lobby experience no longer begins at the front door; it starts with a visual connection to the interior from the street. The extension of the entry process necessitates activation of long neglected outdoor spaces that can be reprogrammed to address people’s basic needs. In southern cities, common areas must provide shelter and a microclimate that creates a compelling reason to linger outdoors.

Image © Gensler

Something as simple as an outward facing restaurant or cafe offering outdoor seating can dramatically revitalize and energize a dead public space. Many building owners are chasing chef-driven destination restaurants to help raise their profiles; even the humble deli, typically tucked into the recesses of the ground floor, is now enjoying prime street frontage and a design makeover.

Image © Gensler

Of all the characteristics of 80s era buildings, the most challenging obstacle to overcome is the defensively fortressed perimeter. But ignoring this obstacle is not an option, because inviting interaction and engaging the pedestrian is an essential component of dissolving the barriers that separate outdated buildings with the surrounding cityscape.

Making a statement

New buildings have the advantage of reflecting the latest design trends; an existing building, on the other hand, must work within certain parameters. Thus, it is critical to execute daring design initiatives and make old buildings just as striking as new ones. However, these buildings possess the emotive weight and character of historic context, which, when balanced with bold and exciting design moves, add a unique aesthetic to the city’s architecture.

While design interventions are meant to increase asset value, they also help to accomplish a noble goal: the revitalization of our cities. This process is compelling not only for respecting values of sustainability and historic/contextual sensitivity, but also because, quite simply, it makes financial sense: repositioning an existing building, purchased below market value, costs much less than constructing an entirely new structure, and begins generating income significantly faster as it returns to market much sooner than a new building of similar size and scope. This also allows for an opportunity to make truly innovative design interventions.

Early results

These initiatives are already taking place, and yielding positive results. In Dallas, our client Thomas Hartland-Mackie explained, “At 400 Record, we are working with Gensler to open up the site and lobby to engage with our surroundings. By creating a large shaded plaza complete with art, planting, seating and music, we’re aiming to create not only a great environment for our tenants, but also a focal point for what could be a truly vibrant and walkable corner of downtown.”

Image © Gensler

In a similar vein, our client Steve Modory describes public response to our project at 3500 Maple, in which Gensler “designed an out-front, visible fitness center with high-quality finishes and equipment, along with a large, open, inviting tenant lounge and café space that will encourage social interaction. Even though we are just 50% through the renovation process, the market response to our “health and wellness” theme has been extremely positive; the local brokers “get it” as do their clients, and our existing tenants can’t wait for the finished product, which will be ready at the end of this year.”

Helping to activate the street supports a lively pedestrian culture and imbues these buildings with the kind of rich urban experience that people long for. Ultimately, repositioning and adaptive reuse is going to drive the identity of the new American city—it incrementally makes a concrete difference in employee health and wellness, attracts the new globally minded tenant and worker, and has a transformative impact on the entire urban center.

Zach Edwards is design centered, community driven & client focused. As a principal and studio director overseeing commercial office building development and corporate campus design, Zach strives to transform organizations & improve the way his clients work through the power of design. Being from Texas, Zach likes BIG ideas. Contact him at zach_edwards@gensler.com.
Ian Zapata is a design director in the Dallas office with vast experience in aviation, hospitality, corporate campus and commercial office planning and design. Ian favors a multi-disciplinary approach to design and is interested in what happens when design theory and user experience intersect. Contact him at ian_zapata@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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