More on the high value of cheap space in historic buildings, from polis. Extra points for grounding the argument in Jane Jacobs, one of planning and preservation’s modern saints:

Jacobs makes a simple argument – that new commercial buildings have a lot of debt, and thereby must command the highest rents that the market can bear, and thereby limit the type of businesses that can occupy them. Yet start-ups and entrepreneurs can not afford high rents… We must preserve old buildings simply because they are more likely to be paid off. New businesses can rent them for cheap, have the time and space to grow and succeed, and eventually move into newer space – to be replaced by a new wave of new business.

In Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs herself writes:

Only operations that are well-established, high-turnover, standardized or highly subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts–studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and table can absorb uneconomic discussions–these go into old buildings… Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.

PlaceEconomics principal Donovan Rypkema points out that the typical commercial space in historic buildings measures 2,000 to 3,000 SF – a perfect size for the fastest-growing small businesses, which employ fewer than 20 people and are significant engines for job creation.

Good low-cost space + new ideas + more jobs – what more could you want? Formal business incubators in historic buildings, perhaps – a winning strategy for buildings believed to be white elephants, as well as businesses looking for centrally-located, flexible, no-frills space and low rents.

Also – and this is a sales pitch – if you’re a current or prospective Penn student, you might want more details in person. In addition to his work saving the world of historic buildings, Donovan Rypkema teaches a fantastic spring-semester course at Penn on the economics of preservation – a must-take.

[West Kong Yick, a historic mixed-use building in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District]

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