On Jane Jacobs, Gentrification, and New Ideas Needing Old Buildings

Doors open toronto
credit: Lloyd Alter

Doors Open is a Toronto institution, where once a year buildings normally closed to the public are opened for guided tours. Jane's walk "is a movement of free, citizen-led walking tours inspired by Jane Jacobs." They got together to do a presentation of short lectures by architects, activists and me, TreeHugger's (former) managing editor. It is a Pecha Kucha format, where the speaker gets to show twenty slides, twenty seconds per slide. My talk focused on the pushback against the ideas of Jane Jacobs, promoted these days by the so-called Market Urbanists, who I believe are either willfully misrepresenting her ideas or never read her in the first place. You can listen and watch in the 400-second video below, or click and read the rest of it in slideshow format.

credit: Salon

On her 100th birthday, poor Jane is under attack. Her Greenwich Village no longer has a ballet on the street; they are now pretty much empty. Many are saying that implementing her ideas inevitably means gentrification and displacement. “If we want to celebrate Jacobs, they say, it’s time to move beyond her.” Image from Slate Magazine article

credit: Lloyd Alter

And indeed, in Toronto we see this from Leslieville to the Junction, where the neighborhoods change, new people move in, the rents go up and the businesses that have been there forever relocate to cheaper rents somewhere down the road. Gentrification is certainly happening.

credit: Lloyd Alter

But in its place you get this; there I am with my son in the other chair, in the Rod and Gun, a new hipster barbershop where you can sip on a fine bourbon while you get a shave and a haircut. It also serves a local need, employs quite a few more people, and customers who never heard of offset printing.

credit: Steve Mouzon

Old buildings can deal with change; that’s because, as writer and architect Steve Mouzon points out in the Original Green, they are sustainable, adapting from one generation to the next. And that’s because they are loveable, durable, adaptable, and frugal. This also makes them affordable.

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Take this pile. it shows how old buildings are lovable; we want to be around them. we have memories that developed in them. They actually get to be old because we take care of them and update them. Think about how we feel about this fifty-year-old building, perhaps the most loved in town. The building is Toronto's City Hall, designed by Viljo Revell. Apologies to Steve Mouzon for the building choices.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Old buildings are adaptable and flexible and can serve all kinds of uses. Who would have thought that a derelict old streetcar barn could be a market in the morning and a wedding venue at night, that it could become the focus of a community, a model of adaptive reuse.

credit: Lloyd Alter

Even if they are not loved, Old buildings are durable, built of materials that last a long time, brick and stone and concrete and heavy timber. They may go in and out of style, but really they don’t build them like they used to, now that everything is value engineered within an inch of its life.

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But perhaps most importantly, old buildings are frugal. Designed before air conditioning kept you cool and when shlepping tons of coal kept you warm, they did it naturally with opening windows for ventilation and thick walls with thermal mass. So they don’t cost as much to run and tenant operating costs are much lower.

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That makes them Affordable. Jane Jacobs noted that cities need “a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.” That’s where the rents are lower and the kinds of uses that don’t go into First Canadian Place can survive and thrive. First Canadian Place is a big downtown office complex with expensive retail at grade and below.

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Jane said that new ideas need old buildings, but I think it can also be said that young people need old buildings, for the tattoo parlor and the record or the comic book or the games store. And these businesses are always on the move, looking for the cheapest rent, because look what’s inevitably coming up the street:

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Change. The furniture store becomes the Drake. The hipster design store moves to Dundas as the rich cool follows the creative cool. They will move on too at some point, but the old buildings can adapt, go through ups and downs, good and bad times, fads and fashions.

credit: CityPlace/ Google Street View

The new buildings cannot support any of this. they become a corporate monoculture with Shoppers Drug Marts and TD banks and Sobeys because these are the only companies with the corporate covenants. As Jane put it, the little tenants are “inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.”

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The American National Trust for Historic preservation studied this and found that small, non-chain business really could only survive and thrive in older, age-diverse buildings. In every city they looked at where change was happening, they got the same results: New businesses need old buildings.

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They also proved that Jane was right, that new ideas need old buildings. Its where the new businesses start; where the creative people want to be. In fact, that’s one reason they are even designing new buildings to look like old ones, out of heavy timber and wood flooring, it’s all the rage, the new is old again.

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So here we are today, in the Rockpile, where 47 years ago Led Zeppelin was on this very stage. So were Frank Zappa, The Who, Dylan and the Grateful Dead. It’s still here because it is indeed loveable, adaptable, durable and frugal and can be used in so many different ways.

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It has been through many incarnations and no doubt will go through a few more. There have been times when we thought it might be lost to condos and notwithstanding the Ontario Heritage Act, who knows, it might yet become yet another stone base to a glass tower. The Masonic Temple is designated as a historic building under the Act, so it is a little harder to knock down.

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Change is hard sometimes; No doubt there are many who loved the Big Bop. But change is better than stagnation and decline. Instead of Jane I quote Norman Mailer: There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, which demanded that one must change or pay more for staying the same.

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Look at it now, gentrified into a US furniture chain. But when Richard Florida discussed gentrification and corporatization with Jane Jacobs, she told him what he calls the best single comment he ever heard on the issue: "Well, Richard, you must understand: when a place gets boring, even the rich people leave."

credit: Lloyd Alter

But one can have too much change. Take our beloved 401 Richmond, the ultimate in loveable, adaptable, durable, and frugal buildings. Look at the condos creeping up on it in this model. It’s a reminder that not only do new ideas need old buildings, they also need old tax assessments. Otherwise, we might lose them all. In Ontario, taxes are based on the market value of land, which is now being set by the monster condos. So old buildings like 401 Richmond are under threat because the taxes get so high that the tenants can't afford them. The zoning bylaw cannot stop these giant towers because there is an appeal board that says anything goes. The combination threatens every old building in the City.