Idea of the Day: Adaptive Reuse

From time to time, we’ll throw out an “Idea of the Day” culled from sources here in Arizona and elsewhere.  The following idea was highlighted at the May 6, 2008 “kick-off” of National Preservation Month held at the Arizona Biltmore.  There Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon gave the following prepared remarks to 150 local and state preservation and neighborhood advocates on the city’s strengthened commitment to revitalize downtown and other parts of the city through the adaptive reuse of historic and vintage buildings.  At the podium, the mayor offered some personal reflections not written in the prepared talk.

2008 National Preservation Month Prepared Remarks, Phil Gordon, Mayor of Phoenix

Historic buildings help define the character of our communities by providing a tangible link with the past — and they’re a beautiful visual statement, showcasing some of the best architecture from different times throughout our city’s history.  Historic buildings are a critical part of what makes the Phoenix skyline truly our own, truly unique.

We’ve already got some great examples of “adaptive reuse” we can be proud of — the Phoenix Union High School buildings now being used by the University of Arizona College of Medicine; the Franklin Elementary School building that is the Franklin Police & Fire High School; and downtown warehouse now home to the Bentley Projects gallery and City Bakery restaurant.

The recycling of buildings — what we call “adaptive reuse” — has long been an important and effective historic preservation tool.  And, more than ever we are realizing how important adaptive reuse is when your goal is to build a truly “sustainable” city.

Historic districts around the country are experiencing unprecedented revitalization as cities use their cultural monuments as anchors for redevelopment.  In Phoenix, recently (and thankfully) the small business and artist community has been on the forefront of reusing historic and older buildings for restaurants, artist studios, and galleries.  Sometimes, however, their efforts to preserve and revitalize historic buildings have run up against obstacles — restrictive zoning and building codes, contamination, and structural problems that create real challenges for them — stretching their finances and, as some have told me, stretching their sanity. [levity]

And so the City has been working to make some real and positive changes:

  • We adopted the International Existing Building Code.
  • We worked for two years with the Arts and Culture Task Force, which resulted in creating two new occupancy types in the building code that made it simpler to obtain building permits for artist studios and artist live/work use.
  • The City adopted an Action Plan in 2004-05 for an infill program.
  • We created the Artist Storefront Program, which offers matching funds for up to 50% of the cost of eligible exterior improvements for commercial properties with an arts use within specific boundaries.
  • We created a Management Technical Assistance Program that provides private business consultants to small businesses at no cost.
  • On April 2, the City Council and I approved an overlay district, after working with the Downtown Artist Issues Task Force for two years.  This overlay zoning district will allow greater flexibility in a number of areas that would encourage adaptive reuse.
  • Based on input from business owners, community leaders, and artists, we developed ten high-priority, short-term strategies to enhance services for businesses seeking adaptive reuse.
  • And, the City Council and I recently agreed to create an internal task force to draft a comprehensive adaptive reuse ordinance.  The task force will ensure that the priority strategies be implemented within 120 days AND create innovative new processes and programs — including potential code changes — to deregulate and promote adaptive reuse.

The Urban Land Institute defines rehabilitation as “a variety of repairs and alterations to an existing building that allows it to serve contemporary uses while preserving features of the past.”  In Phoenix, we define it as the right thing to do — and the smart thing to do — in building the next great emerging city of the 21st Century.

A sincere thank you, to each of you here today, for YOUR commitment to historic preservation and all your hard work that has made a real difference to this city.  You show the world that in Phoenix we realize that a truly progressive city understands the value of its past when planning for its future.

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