We can seize this unique moment in time, reclaiming the high ground of the built environment and rebuilding our local communities.

Economic recession has wreaked havoc on the nation’s investment in retail and commercial office infrastructure. Community vibrancy and vitality, along with what had been an economic engine fired by bustling retail centers, malls, life style centers, and office space of the past 50 years, has stalled or been extinguished in many markets.

Today, high vacancy rates, deferred maintenance, and in many cases abandoned retail and office space have left gaping holes in the fabric of our urban communities.

Adaptive reuse is a practical solution to the economic issue and also aligns with the tenets of the 2030 Challenge posed by the nonprofit Architecture 2030, which asks the global architecture and building community to adopt targets to reduce greenhouse gases. Reaching those ambitious 2030 goals will require a fundamental shift in how the A/E/C industry approaches the needs and wants of owners, a commitment to the idea of local community, and a change in how practitioners view the design profession.

Now is the time to revisit and reconnect with the core strength of the design profession: creative problem solving. Untapped opportunity lies before us in the existing building stock of this country. As designers, we have an opportunity to lead the dialogue in our local communities. It is our place to reclaim the high ground from hedge funds, lenders, and developers who seemingly always look out to the edges and the coveted ZIP codes when they could be looking toward the urban core.

It is our role, and even our obligation, to lead discussion of adaptive reuse as the potential driver of both community redevelopment and economic activity, if not recovery.

As design professionals, do we have the courage to champion the tenets of 2030 and pursue a redevelopment effort that sets aside grandiose plans of building new at all costs?

Can we promote and visualize vacant office space as a viable alternative to constructing new single-family housing on a greenfield site? Are we brave enough to suggest an integrated learning environment within an abandoned big box retail space? Can we advocate to our higher education clients that a community college may better meet the needs of its constituents by renovating the abandoned string of car dealerships that line a major traffic artery in virtually every major metropolitan area rather than once again going back to a donor base to raise millions for a new campus building?

As creative problem solvers, we can lead this change and make a commitment to adaptive reuse and sustainable design that can be the catalyst for redevelopment and advancement toward 2030 Challenge benchmarks.

The design profession is the solution; adaptive reuse is our tool. Now is the time to mentor and guide owners and local communities to appreciate what we have already accomplished and to revive, repurpose, and reuse what we already created.

Evidence for Reuse

As we move through the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, it is clear that we are nearing capacity for retail and office stock (and that some areas are already overbuilt).

Ninety percent of the United States construction activity during the next 10 years will occur on existing building stock. This will entail both renovation of existing spaces and adaptive reuse of existing buildings. With just 10 percent of the market allocated to new design and construction, that slender portion of market has the potential to be hotly contested.

According to global real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, in the third quarter of 2011 there was 3.6 billion square feet of office space inventory with a vacancy rate of 17.8 percent in the 41 markets tracked for its Office Outlook United States research. The market can wait for the economy to turn and traditional tenants to return, or we can explore adaptive reuse solutions to introduce a new type of user to repurposed spaces.

Drive through the peripheral rings of any major metropolitan area and the challenges in the retail arena are readily apparent. According to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, in 1960, U.S. cities averaged 4 square feet of retail space per person. Fifty years later, that number is 40 square feet per person. The market is bigger, but all the same, the market is overbuilt. In many markets, abandoned retail space in aging developments represents languishing investment. It’s also a telltale sign of fading urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Christopher Leinberger is a land use strategist and developer who has written extensively on the subject of reuse. He is a professor and founding director of the Graduate Real Estate Development Program at the University of Michigan as well as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Leinberger has developed a list of 19 standard real estate product types that have been designed, developed, and built across the country during the past 50 years. These include some of the project types we all covet: mixed-use urban office/retail/restaurant, multi-tenant office, life style centers, and hotels, to list a few.

According to Leinberger, perhaps nothing epitomizes the state of retail in this country quite as succinctly as the 15-acre retail strip center bookended by a grocery and drugstore. This is a real estate product that Leinberger calls the grocery-anchored center. It is a staple of urban and suburban strip centers coast-to-coast. The grocery-anchored center exists in virtually every metropolitan ring within every metropolitan area, in every state in the union. Its design is ubiquitous (which, as a turn of phrase, is an oxymoron). Leinberger believes the standard building types that have emerged in the past 25 years have actually narrowed consumer options.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. This could be a great moment for the design community to join with owners and developers for a design approach to adaptively reuse existing retail spaces — to develop a solution that meets both the financial needs of owners and the functional needs of consumers through design that addresses the nuances unique to our local communities.

One of my favorite stories is of two shoe salesmen who were dropped in the Australian outback. After evaluating the environment they each filed a report to the home office. The first salesman’s report was bleak: “Nothing here. The natives do not wear shoes.” The report from the second salesman was glowing: “Send more people! Now! The natives don’t wear shoes!”

As a profession, we need to decide how we view the world. Are we going to wait for markets to recover, financing to flow, and then continue to follow a developer-driven market of grocery-anchored centers on greenfield sites? Or can we seize this unique moment in time and use it to reclaim the high ground of the built environment and rebuild our local communities?

Argument for Reuse

It is the year 2012, so let us turn to Wikipedia for our definition: “Adaptive reuse refers to the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than that for which it was built or designed.” Adaptive reuse of the existing building stock in this country for alternate uses can have a transformative impact on our local communities, our economy, and our culture. It can be a key driver for achieving 2030 Challenge aims.

Every generation pursues its own vocabulary and impact on the world. Whether we say remodel, renovation, or adaptive reuse; ecology, environmentalism, or sustainability, in the end our actions speak louder than words.

Adaptive reuse is not new. The collective we of architects and our culture have been doing it for thousands of years. At the dawn of history people gathered into tribes and built a shrine. The Egyptians came to town, knocked it over, and built a temple. The Phoenicians tore it down and used the stones for a market. The Greeks marched in and used the stones for a fort. The Romans arrived and built a road. Today, on the same site is a Hyatt with a beautiful stone pool deck.

The vacant spaces — be they retail, office, or other sectors — offer attractive benefits for many non-traditional client types. Potential clients and tenants include local school districts, higher education, local and state government, data centers, call centers, and office space. Benefits of adaptive reuse for these client types include:

  • Central locations on easily accessible prime traffic arteries.
  • Parking, and lots of it. Many times there is enough parking to develop new pad sites to provide additional services to new tenant types. 
  • Plenty of core and shell space that can be quickly and cost efficiently renovated as an adaptive reuse solution to meet the needs of non-traditional tenants. 
  • Cost benefits versus greenfield sites. At a minimum, these include legal, anti-development factions, and environmental impacts, not to mention zoning, finance, design, and construction.

With all this opportunity, an increasing number of owners are considering non-traditional retail tenants as potential solutions to empty space, “In the end it’s always about the caliber of the space,” says Dave Claflin, vice president of RED Development LLC.

“The concept of adaptive reuse is a great idea as a model to spur activity in B-C-D real estate. Class A retail will have hesitancy toward a mixed use of tenant types. Class A anchors will always want complementary retail to spur cross traffic and co-tenancy. B-C-D has less of a need for specific co-tenancy, and that opens opportunities for adaptive reuse,” said Claflin. “In the right space, I can envision an educational and academic reuse for a former retail space becoming a hub for redevelopment. This new academic traffic can drive new retail re-tenancy around the academic reuse space.”

According to Kansas City developer Ross Vogel, “The mantra is that retail always follows rooftops. We might be in the midst of a seismic shift. This might be a time when very few rooftops will be built so perhaps there isn’t new retail trailing residential development.”

Technology and culture change may also impact the demand for new construction.

“We have yet to determine what the impact of telecommuting and a true mobile workforce might be,” said Vogel. “Who knows if people will still need to gather to work in an office or want to drive to a strip center? How will that impact new construction of rooftops, office, and retail? Reuse might be the solution that can respond to what people within their unique local community demand.”

Proof of Feasibility

The practice of adaptive reuse is growing momentum in markets across the country. A notable example is the adaptive reuse of the former Carson Pirie Scott Building at 1 South State Street in Chicago, now the Sullivan Center. After a century of landmark retail, this space has been elegantly converted through adaptive reuse as a coveted destination for a variety of client types. At present, Gensler and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago call Sullivan Center home, and Target has signed a lease to open a retail space in the Loop.

Pick up an issue of a design publication or visit an online design site and odds are you can find a feature on an adaptive reuse project. Every firm has them to varying degrees. DLR Group has recently applied adaptive reuse solutions across a variety of market sectors.

Interim Joplin High School in a Big Box Retail Space

On May 22, 2011, a tornado devastated Joplin, Mo. On the ground for 13 miles for a period of 20 minutes, the tornado claimed 160 lives and caused $151 million in damage. Joplin High School was a total loss.

Two days later, the Joplin superintendent emphatically stated that school would open as scheduled Aug. 17.

CBL & Associates Properties owns and operates the Northpark Mall in Joplin. A 96,000-square-foot freestanding former big box retail space attached to the mall was immediately identified as one of the few remaining buildings in Joplin with the space available to house a temporary high school for 1,200 students.

Vacant for 10 years by the time the Joplin School District and CBL closed terms on a lease, a 55-day window remained to program, design, and complete construction of an interim high school for Joplin students. During June and July 2011, DLR Group designers led an integrated design team that transformed the former space into a dynamic, 21st-century learning environment.

The design integrates every square inch of the existing space to create a student-focused learning environment utilizing flexibility and interconnectivity. The space was demolished to the shell and redesigned. To meet schedule, the existing HVAC and mechanical systems were reused, and chopped walls were designed to aid airflow through the space. Large openings, oversized pivot doors, and a diverse array of furniture allow students to customize spaces for collaborative learning.

The design had to be more than a stop-gap solution. The new high school needed to inspire students and the community. Hints of blue through plastic panels and stained MDF add expression to the design. Vibrant Joplin High School Eagle logos and graphics help give the students a sense of ownership.

On Aug. 17, 2011, the doors of the new high school opened as scheduled. The space has brought the student body back together and emerged as a rallying point for the entire community. It is the epitome of adaptive reuse.

A Noise Within Classical Theatre in Pasadena’s Stuart Pharmaceutical Building

One of the most intriguing aspects of adaptive reuse is the ability to develop a design solution to meet the needs of almost any client type. The term adaptive reuse implies a viable design solution for the unique needs of any client.

In Pasadena, Calif., DLR Group is part of a design team with John Berry Architects and Robert J. Chattel for an adaptive reuse project on Edward Durell Stone’s midcentury modern Stuart Pharmaceutical Building built in 1957.

An established local repertory company, A Noise Within, moved into a new 35,000-square-foot theater within the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building this year. This is just the latest reuse of Stone’s original design, part of which has been reused for housing earlier this decade. The theatrical troupe previously resided in the Glendale Masonic Temple. Today, with a new home and finer amenities, A Noise Within aims to enhance its mission in the community by doubling its annual audience to about 55,000 and expanding its education programs to reach 20,000 students each year. This is a prime example of localized redevelopment through adaptive reuse.

HSA Milwaukee Mall

In suburban Milwaukee, HSA Commercial Real Estate has staked out a competitive advantage with adaptive reuse.

“I’ve been in this niche, asset repositioning, my whole career, says HSA Executive Vice President Timothy Blum. “I feel like a lot of the market is just now catching up to us after the 2008 recession. ‘Build it and they will come’ has gone by the wayside.”

Blum is leading the adaptive reuse of a 63-acre site originally developed in the 1950s through ’70s as grocery warehousing, distribution centers, and dry storage. Now this former warehouse district — the Burleigh Triangle — is a coveted Class A site with diverse economic drivers and demographics near one of the preeminent regional malls in Wisconsin.

It has 1 million square feet of functionally obsolete warehouse space. The existing build-out features low ceilings that have made the space obsolete for warehouse but ideal for an adaptive reuse for retail.

DLR Group is working with Blum and HSA to reuse the shell and convert the space to retail. It’s an economic and sustainable solution. New construction in the market would deliver a similar shell at $90 per square foot. With an adaptive reuse approach, the cost is $30 a square foot.

“Tenants aren’t prepared to pay rents to pay for new construction in this market,” said Blum. “Even when there is money, it’s hard to get new construction as urban infill off the ground. Anti-development factions, the cost of environmental impact, and other distractions slow the process and siphon away funding. It can be death by a thousand knives. The reality is, all users, be they retail or industrial, are trying to find creative ways to take advantage of existing and, in many instances, obsolete building stock. You have to be creative and come at the problems with a new point of view.”

The Coal Bin at Benedictine University

At Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., DLR Group designed the adaptive reuse of a 1901 building originally used as a coal storage bin for the school. After sitting vacant for years, the 5,000-square-foot building was transformed into a much-needed student commons, which is also used by the community. The Coal Bin features a full-service restaurant and bar, meeting spaces, and Wi-Fi.

Closing Argument

Adaptive reuse is the ultimate end game for empty, abandoned space in our metropolitan areas. It can be the process that is the leading edge of community redevelopment. Through adaptive reuse the design community can return needed services, business, and educational opportunities to people in neighborhoods that need such services most. This activity can then spur jobs and economic growth.

For owners, adaptive reuse offers vast cost savings compared to new construction and allows them and their communities to leverage existing amenities, including parking, prime artery trafficways, and infrastructure. For the design community, adaptive reuse is an opportunity to champion Architecture 2030. It is where and when we put words into action.

This approach will require new perspectives and ideas. It will take time, but the process can be accelerated through a shared public and private partnership and vision. Only time will tell if we are brave enough to adapt to and seize the opportunity before us.

Griff Davenport is president and managing principal of DLR Group, responsible for business and growth strategies for the firm. He collaborates with the firm’s client sector leaders to elevate DLR Group design and applies his expertise in K-12 and higher education to drive growth in those markets. He also focuses on the growth of emerging DLR Group markets such as energy and international.