Gracen Johnson of Another Place For Me recently sent out a request for examples of adaptive reuses for outdated buildings. This is part of her exploration of what’s likely to happen to all the cheap, ugly, poorly constructed, disposable structures that currently litter the landscape all across North America.
First, here’s an example of a completely forgettable squat concrete block and corrugated metal piece-of-crap auto repair shop that has been transformed with paint and some clever design into a fashionable restaurant. Blowfish Sushi demonstrates that any bland box can be made to work well and contribute to a thriving revitalized neighborhood. This is a classic example (as Gracen noted) of a collection of not-so-great buildings that work together on a street to create a pretty fabulous place.
Second, here’s the Streat Food encampment on a former triangular parking lot sandwiched between a 1950’s elevated freeway, a Costco, and a disused industrial shed. If you tried to invent the worst possible bit of real estate in the city this might be what you’d come up with. But a clever entrepreneur rented the lot and invited a variety of mobile food vendors to park there on different days. Rented port-a-potties and hand washing stations were installed. A vintage 1950’s “canned ham” travel trailer was pressed into service as the manager’s office. And inexpensive portable shelters were situated along with picnic tables and planters. The entire operation is held together by a constant series of special events to attract customers. At the moment the World Cup soccer matches are played on multiple television screens, but similar crowds gather for the Academy Awards, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, swap meets, Sunday brunch, karaoke, comedy night and so on. Smart management and programming of the space along with word of mouth and social media promotions transformed a sad parking lot in a hideous location into a vibrant community gathering space that just happens to employ people, make money for many small business people, and generate tax revenue for the city.
The two previous examples are in established city neighborhoods that have good walkable/bikeable bones, a comprehensive public transit network, and sufficient existing population density. However, car-dependent low density sprawl is another matter entirely. What can be done with the cul-de-sac subdivisions out on thinly populated county roads lined with strip shopping centers? I offer this example from suburban Ohio.
This 1950’s tract home is called Tenth Acre Farm and is gradually being transformed from a center of suburban consumption to a center of peri-urban production. Rather than urbanizing the subdivision they’re re-ruralizing it by putting it back into productive agriculture. They’re honoring the esthetics of the neighborhood culture while gently challenging the underlaying assumptions. In addition to backyard gardening the front lawn is being converted to an edible organic garden. From the street the garden looks ornamental and the neighbors may not even notice that it’s predominantly vegetables and fruit bearing plants. The young couple are also working hard to pay down debt and build multiple forms of resilience right where they are even though they really would prefer a more urban environment. They’re subtly setting an example of how to take advantage of the strengths of their suburban location to “shelter in place”.