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14 September 2010

Value Buildings Built With Value

I need to take a moment to vent on a topic that affects all of us. Something missing today in new construction is building for longevity. I know this doesn't pertain to every project, but it could easily be argued that most construction projects today are built with a shelf life of 60 years or less. Why do big box stores go up in the suburbs, are occupied for 15 years, and then left behind for a newer and larger location less than a mile down the street? Something has happened to the mentality of those who pull the purse strings of these projects: they only think short term.

Have you ever taken a walk in one of your city's oldest neighborhoods? Have you been to Lawrenceville or the Mexican War Streets (pictured above) in Pittsburgh? How about Ohio City in Cleveland or Crandall Park in Youngstown? You will find beautiful buildings clustered together that have been around since the nineteenth century in most cases. That's probably 150 years on average compared to places built after World War II, which are starting to show their age.

Old commercial districts functioned well with a human scale. They are still intact in most cities, regardless of vacany rates. Compare these charming business districts with today's strip malls and big box stores out on the fringes. Developers and big box retailers consider their buildings "throwaways" for the most part. Consider the Walmart in Warren, Ohio, which was built in 1994. Within 10 years of opening this store, plans were in the works to open a newer Super Walmart across the street. This store was vacated in 2008. It currently sits empty on Elm Road with a few small stores barely hanging on in its parking lot. If you look 1/4 mile to the north and across the street, you will find Super Walmart flanked by a brand new strip mall. This land backs up to Mosquito Creek, part of Trumbull County's largest watershed. Less than 5 years ago it was a forest. The first Walmart site was thriving. Downtown Warren was and is experiencing a lack of activity. Today the forest was bulldozed and we have yet another vacant greyfield on our hands and another downtown not living up to its potential.

Now I don't want to sit and rant about Walmart any longer, as I'm sure this is one of hundreds of cases of this situation occuring all over America. The real problem is the mentality that new is cheap. Old was built to last. In some neighborhoods, such as Italian Village in Columbus, urban infill is occurring as it should. Developers are building hearty homes and businesses which are designed to fit in with the existing context. The new row houses above match the
integrity of the existing neighborhood, which originally contained modest two and three story Italianate brick buildings. Meanwhile, ten miles north at Polaris in exurban Delaware County, you'll find new cookie-cutter homes going up. They have vinyl siding, a large attached two car garage in the front of the house and virtually no architectural detailing. Homes like this only sell because they are new, not because they have value. Cheap materials and poor site location have deteriorated the quality of most new American neighborhoods for decades. New is nice, but what happens when new becomes old? What happens when these homes are 100 years old and cannot be renovated? They will have to be demolished, and we will be left with places that resemble some of our inner cities, but for different reasons.

What are the places in your city that make you proud? Which neighborhoods are rich in character and quality? Which "neighborhoods" were built for the sole reason of filling the developer's pockets while selling out the greater community's potential for quality?