When the economic recession of the 1980s hit Los Angeles, bankrupt businesses left downtown and left office buildings vacant. So in 1999, grappling with the reality of an empty neighborhood, the city passed an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance – a municipal law making it easier to convert old, vacant, or economically distressed buildings into apartments and work units. Suddenly, developers had the opportunity to turn historic downtown office buildings and warehouses into housing and hotels – a process many cities are now undertaking as their downtowns empty out in the wake of COVID-19. 19.
“This bold policy reform has streamlined efforts to facilitate the conversion of a very old building to a new use,” says Roberto Vazquez, architect and project manager at Los Angeles-based firm Omgivning, which specializes in adaptive reuse. the conversion process. existing buildings for new purposes.
“We breathe new life into these underutilized buildings,” he says. “It not only helped convert [downtown] area from being run down and dilapidated, it has beautified it and given a sense of purpose and belonging for the residents here.
Among other projects, in 2015 the company helped transform a six-story 1920s office building into 58 residential lofts and another six-story warehouse (previously occupied by the Singer sewing machine company) into six units. – one per level. The renovation of a 1.8 million square foot Sears distribution center near downtown Los Angeles is currently underway.
Vazquez says the ordinance – which applied only to buildings built downtown – was hugely successful, and in 2003 was extended to other Los Angeles neighborhoods, such as Koreatown and Hollywood.
The principles behind the Los Angeles ordinance have gained traction amid the pandemic. As remote and hybrid office structures remain prevalent during COVID-19, cities around the world have been forced to rethink commercial properties in their downtowns. In 2021, the City of Calgary, which was already reeling from the post-2014 oil industry downturn, announced plans to spend nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years to encourage tower conversions. offices, the construction of infrastructure for bicycles, pedestrians and green spaces. Around the same time, the City of London, UK, signed a similar plan to turn emptied offices in its central business district into 1,500 flats by 2030.
And housing isn’t the only adaptive reuse option.
Vazquez says data storage centers are also being set up, especially for buildings, or parts of buildings, with limited natural light. Old office buildings could also see new life, as last-mile e-commerce warehouses are located closer to residents, offering faster delivery times.
But not all office building owners eagerly embrace adaptive reuse.
Karen Chapple, director of the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and a professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Planning, says office building owners in downtown Toronto are still taking a “wait and see” approach. regarding conversions. Separately, developers argued that the city faces challenges with zoning laws and regulatory bottlenecks that make converting old buildings an uphill battle.
“Some of these people are going to occupy vacant offices for a long time,” says Professor Chapple. “It very quickly becomes a situation where you lose a lot of money.”
She points out that transforming a central business district takes more than one forward-thinking developer. “I see this as a collective action problem,” says Professor Chapple. “The real estate industry should get together with municipal governments across Canada and say, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this. We need to redo our town centres. I don’t think that recognition or awareness has really happened yet, whether in the public or private sector.
But the hesitations of clients and promoters are understandable; converting office space into housing can be a daunting task. Floor plans need to be reconfigured, along with plumbing, HVAC, and natural light. For the Sears distribution center in Los Angeles, approximately 150,000 square feet of concrete is removed to create skylights inside the building, which former office and warehouse space notoriously lacks.
Omnigivning says their projects vary widely in total overall costs, but declined to give a specific figure. The company notes, however, that a recent report from the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles found that building adaptive reuse projects costs an average of about $340,000 per unit, or 48% less than new construction projects. construction (or $164,000 less per unit). When fully utilized, the approach could produce between 72,000 and 113,000 housing units in Los Angeles County, according to the report.
The transformation of trade corridors by the pandemic offers cities an opportunity to build back better, but it also comes with the risk of displacement. Willow Lung-Amam, associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning program and director of the Small Business Anti-Displacement Network, says cities should ensure that adaptive former business districts are affordable and welcoming for mothers. and pop shops. LA’s adaptive reuse ordinance, for example, has been both highlighted for its potential to ease pressure on housing and criticized for its potential to displace low-income tenants.
“Small businesses are absolutely essential to the character, identity and economy of our neighborhoods,” says Professor Lung-Amam. “When all of our cities become big chain restaurants and retail stores, we lose a lot of tax dollars and character-defining features. Suddenly Vancouver looks like New York looks like Chicago.
The same principle applies to housing, she says; cities should adopt strategies such as equitable distribution policies that use laws, tax credits, fee waivers and the like to mandate or incentivize a certain number of units in newly adapted buildings to be affordable housing.
“[We should] ensuring that families can actually access these units, that they are not all converted into one-bedroom condos,” she says. “That there are intentional policies around deep affordability.”