|The Filene's "Memorial Hole" in Downtown Crossing|
The economic value of new buildings is replaceable in cities. It is replaceable by the spending of more construction money. But the economic value of old buildings is irreplaceable at will. It is created by time. This economic requisite for diversity is a requisite that vital city neighborhoods can only inherit, and then sustain over the years.I find this chapter of Death and Life to be the most depressing. Not because of its tone or content necessarily, but because of its implication. Three of the four characteristics of successful districts--mixed uses, small blocks, and density--can be encouraged or developed in the short term through thoughtful action, deregulation or planning. But there is only one way to get aged buildings: time.
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.
One of the problems afflicting American cities is vast tracts of empty space in otherwise urban areas. Boston is no exception; having flattened many blocks in misguided fits of urban renewal, or for highways and parking lots. When politicians and developers get together and decide to do something about this, they usually produce mega-projects that fill up entire blocks with new construction.
|Part of Assembly Square design|
I can think of several such projects coming up, off the top of my head: Assembly Square, a transit oriented redevelopment of a failed mail in Somerville (more discussion). Fenway Center, which is replacing acres of parking lots and also taking "air rights" over the Mass Pike. There will be new construction in place of the old Boston Herald building. And most infamously, the "Hole" in Downtown Crossing, where a developer decided to play games with the city by knocking down the Filene's building partially and then stop for several years.
All of these projects devote many words in their planning or promotional documents to considering the needs of pedestrians and transit users. It is, after all, the fashion these days. And perhaps they are even sincere, although the amount of parking included in these packages is suspiciously large. Some of the documents carefully sketch out expected flows of people through painstakingly landscaped and architecturally intriguing corridors; replete with ground-level commerce and sidewalk cafes. It all looks quite wonderful on paper. But yet, I can't help but wonder, will these just be sterile failures? Will the promenades be promenaded? What will draw economic activity, and therefore, city vitality? The plans account for density, mixed uses, and to some extent small blocks. But none of them include old buildings, and therefore, none of the economic diversity that can only exist with low overhead.
|Fenway Center rendering|
But surely increasing the amount of commercial and residential space in a city will have beneficial effects overall? Businesses moving out from old buildings into new ones will leave space in old neighborhoods for new businesses. That is, assuming they can entice the existing businesses to give up their established home in favor of a new, unproven location. Some kinds of businesses can and do move around like this, as she does point out, using the example of Brooklyn. But this isn't really helping the diversity of the new neighborhood, just possibly the old ones. On the other hand, some of these new developments are embedded closely with existing city districts. Perhaps that is sufficient, in those cases.
Why does it seem like this dilemma is more difficult in the 21st century compared to the 19th century? For example, it was not uncommon for many cities (including Boston) to lose neighborhoods to out-of-control fires. Yet, they picked up and rebuilt everything, and didn't seem to suffer the same kind of stultifying effects that new development brings today. Perhaps it has to do with the increasing costs of providing modern facilities, up to modern safety standards. Or perhaps the same problem existed back then, but over the years became obscured and forgotten.