Dear Cities, Don’t Count Industrial Out Yet

vermont, wood, furnitureIn the new millennium, Urban planning trends have consistently embraced the practice of turning old industrial areas into new opportunities for residential and commercial development. While this methodology has ushered in the birth of many new neighborhoods, the results of industry-free urban locales may not be purely positive. As we see more communities age through similar transitions and observe their development over time, the fallout of industrial segregation should prompt a second look at the value of industrial program in maintaining a vibrant, diverse and sustainable urban realm.

The juxtaposition of modern programs and industrial building shells fell into favor before the droves of hipsters ratified its value, but current trends have only added to the swell of interest that gives new looks to our countries artifacts of the industrial age. Despite their decades of neglect, the brick walls and steel sash windows of our former factories and workshops carry an authenticity that a growing number of urban dwellers have come to covet.

When the former industrial sites prime for renovation are gobbled up and refurbished, developers turn their eyes to nearby lots and their proximity to a growing demand for housing and retail. The healthy demand, and the subsequent rising rents, can make the case for re-zoning for industrial uses to residential and commercial ones an easy one for property owners. In many cases, the result can be an active streetscape seen as a win-win-win for local communities: derelict sites were removed, property values increased and new businesses have flourished with residents to support them.

Communities Built on the Floors of Factories

At the beginning of the cycle this was most likely often the case. Neighborhoods like New York’s DUMBO or Boston’s Seaport District were largely vacant just 20-25 years ago rather than the centers of development that they are today. The switch from manufacturing zoning brought broad-based improvement to areas that cities had struggled to revive, but the more mature stage of the development curve of these areas that we occupy now prompts the question of whether or not the integration of industrial uses is worth revisiting and if the city could suffer from having industrial uses stricken from the urban landscape.

I recently read an article by Andy Cook over on Next City that makes the case for maintaining industrial zoning in thriving urban areas. The author correctly points out:

“An industrial building-turned-luxury-apartment-complex can generate in one month of rent what an industrial user would pay in a year. Oftentimes, the neighbors — especially if they are also newcomers to the area — are happy to see the change, because it means an end to the noxious smells and loud noises of the former tenant, and if they own, an increase in their own property values. For local governments, it means an increase in the tax base. So from a market perspective, everybody wins.

But if you look closer, the math gets fuzzy. Especially in a city like Baltimore where 75 percent of residents over the age of 25 do not have a college degree and unemployment levels hover around 8 percent. For young black men in Baltimore, unemployment is around 37 percent. The roots of this jobs crisis can be at least partially attributed to the sharp decline in manufacturing jobs in our region over the last 50 years, driven by companies offshoring their operations.”

Cook pokes at the underbelly of a more deeply seeded issue for urban revitalization in this country and its all but inevitable evolution into fully gentrified communities (the ones that succeed anyway). Breathing life into underutilized or struggling neighborhoods is a good thing, but when that grass roots effort transforms into complete local displacement in deference to yuppies and Starbucks, a bit of the luster is lost and the lives that ended up being fundamentally improved could be a small portion of the socio-economic spectrum.

A new range of job opportunities for a broader skill level of workers is one great reason to maintain the integration of industrial uses in the landscape. Increased outlets for production of “things” could help keep the populace more diverse and help add stability to communities through localizing their product and resource streams.

It is also important to remember that, in many cases, the industry of today is not the same industry that left the country in the second half of the 20th century. Technology has brought us new ways of making our stuff. CNC fabrication and 3D printing are prime examples of new techniques where products can be made in fewer steps and smaller footprints than it took fifty years ago. Our means of manipulating materials like plastic, glass or concrete are swiftly changing, making adjacency to these operations less of an issue than it might have been to live next to an ironworks or leather factory 50 years ago.

The change in what the fabrication process requires is also affecting who is doing the making. Automated means of fabrication can help more designers be fabricators as well. This faction of the creative class includes designers of furniture, illustrations, industrial products and even artists–a legion of urbanites that contribute an irreplaceable tone and perspective to the urban condition while they support small business. Studio space for these residents is key to their art form and it can quickly become a financial impossibility for neighborhoods that have traded all their shop square footage for shiny new condos. Pushing creative workspace to the outskirts of cities could seem attractive in the beginning, but it could ultimately contribute to a migration of the creative class that most urban grass roots efforts were originally trying to entice.

Neighborhood Value at the Scale of the Neighborhood

When looking at the possibility of a single property it can be easy to lose site of its contribution to the neighborhood that provided its value in the first place. Sustaining that communal value becomes the collective responsibility of every block rather than one or two key landmarks. Keeping new development as a mixture of diverse and integrated uses can be a good baseline for pairing fiscal improvement with cultural resilience.

There is no reason why we could not see more artisan industrial uses directly integrated with both commercial and residential program types. Live/work archetypes do not have to only take the form of a home office or collective work space beneath residential apartments. On the contrary, the unit on the second floor of a row house could sit comfortably over a furniture outfit or artist’s studio with doors that roll open to the sidewalk to engage potential customers. Modern residential modules can be difficult to shoe-horn into older buildings with deeper floor plates, but an exterior of apartments wrapped around an interior of production space for creatives could be a viable option.

Zoning may have to get smarter in order to help communities navigate through these changes and spot the differences between opportunities and pitfalls. In the short term, there could be developers who point to the more difficult task of integration and the perceived sacrifice of upfront sales for “less marketable” spaces, but the longer view could host the creation of communities whose value is maintained through a diversity of both program types and residents–something much harder to restore once its gone.

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