WASHINGTON — While small, older buildings might not make for an impressive skyline, they may be better for cities than massive, gleaming office towers, according to a study released Thursday.
Neighborhoods and commercial areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings make for more vibrant, walkable communities with more businesses, nightlife and cultural outlets than massive newer buildings, according the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s study.
Researchers examined block-by-block data from Seattle, San Francisco and Washington in part for their hot real estate markets and development pressures. The analysis found that corridors with smaller, older buildings generally perform better for the local economy than areas with newer buildings that might stretch an entire block.
Older buildings become magnets for young people and retirees alike, researchers said. They draw more shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, small businesses owned by women and minorities, and jobs. On a per-square-foot basis, small building corridors have a larger concentration of jobs, businesses and creative sector jobs than downtown skyscrapers. In Seattle, commercial areas with smaller, more age-diverse buildings have 36.8 percent more jobs per square foot than areas with newer, larger buildings.
Historic corridors in these cities are often active from morning to night, said lead researcher Michael Powe, an urban planner with the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab. In D.C., these areas draw more non-chain, local businesses. In San Francisco, they generate more jobs based in small businesses.
Researchers acknowledge that other factors also contribute to success in the three cities.
Still, after evaluating business districts based on 47 economic, social and environmental metrics, Powe said he was surprised to see the data clearly demonstrate what preservationists thought to be true.
“People want to be where there’s an interesting and exciting mix of the old and new,” he said. “Now we have all this data to back up what I think preservationists and planners have sort of known for decades.”
The study examined such historic neighborhoods as San Francisco’s rapidly changing Mid-Market, where Twitter moved its headquarters; Seattle’s Capitol Hill and Chinatown International District; and Washington’s Barracks Row and H Street corridor where a streetcar line has been built. Many high performing areas in the study have commercial corridors that were originally built up in the 20th century streetcar era.
National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said the group hopes developers and city planners will consider the data.
“There is a lot of economic capability in older and smaller buildings and in historic districts that’s often overlooked,” she said.
The study is the start of a larger initiative also examining Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities with less robust real estate markets. Researchers also want to know whether their findings hold up in younger and smaller cities as well or less prosperous areas.
“We hear from time to time, ‘well, it’s just easier to tear it down and to start over,’” Meeks said. “So we feel compelled to put the strongest argument forward that it’s worth the effort to invest in these places, not just from a cultural standpoint but from an economic standpoint.”