This post is a continuation of the Waste Not blog series.
In Seattle’s urban villages, new development is creating 5 to 7-story mixed-use buildings, infilling whole or half blocks where historically several 2 and 3-story buildings were clustered. The size and pattern of this development is responding to market demands and being shaped by land use and zoning rules. The result is that larger buildings are replacing smaller buildings, and the number of buildings being demolished has exploded. As the graphic below shows, this is an unprecedented time of change in Seattle.
image courtesy of ARCADE
Economics often pushes mainstream developers to build as big as possible. After accounting for the cost of land, the permit process & fees, and required utility upgrades, they actually can’t afford to build small. A project must be sufficiently large to take advantage of economies of scale and provide the level of predictability required by capital investors.
But today’s emphasis on large development is overlooking a ripe opportunity. Preservation Green Lab, a think-tank for the National Trust for Historic Preservation has collected and synthesized data showing that neighborhoods with a stock of older, smaller buildings perform better than neighborhoods with newer, larger buildings in several economic indicators, including: job creation; small-business ownership; and a more active night-life.
Given that big developers can’t afford to building small, there is untapped opportunity for small and nimble developers willing to accept the risks and unknowns that come with existing infrastructure or buildings. Two types of opportunities we wish to emphasize here are adaptive reuse and strategic infill.
Adaptive reuse is the process of changing the use or function of an old site or building to meet current needs, while maintaining most or all of the original structure. The ability to maintain much of the existing structure and materials can make adaptive reuse projects more affordable to a small developer. Often the location, configuration or size of an adaptively reused building exceeds the current zoning. Local zoning codes generally allow the larger area to be retained as a “grandfathered” condition, providing the developer an additional benefit that new construction would not. Studies have found slightly lower cost per square foot among small multifamily developments in adaptively reused structures compared to new construction.
As one example of an adaptive reuse project, Allied8 is working with a creative small-scale developer to convert an old church into a new mixed-use building. This project is located in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood.
Historically, this church (built in 1920), played an important role as a community landmark. It was renovated in the midcentury, and vacated in the early 2000s.
The building has sat vacant for the last several years.
The adaptive reuse plan will convert the church into a mixed-use building (14 residential units and 2 small commercial spaces) by reusing nearly all the existing structure. Interior changes would include adding one floor (dividing the sanctuary space into 2-stories) adding unit walls, replacing the windows, and upgrading some utilities.
As a minor intervention of the exterior, we will remove some of the midcentury brick veneer where it covers the original brick and add new cladding selectively to define a new community area and distinguish the historic church building.
The second type of development suited to small-scale developers is what we call strategic infill. This is simply adding new to old and it can occur at many scales. A simple example is the building of a backyard cottage. A backyard cottage simply adds an additional detached dwelling unit to an existing single family lot. This small intervention can bring additional rental income or help a family adopt to changing space needs.
At a larger scale, strategic infill can mean adding one or two new stories to an existing structure or filling-in a portion of a lot remaining from existing development. This type of development depends on creative thinking and an understanding of zoning rules to help spot opportunities.
The flexibility of scale provided by strategic infill makes it a viable option to small-scale developers. Not many small developers can imagine doing a project at this scale:
But just down the street from this building, is a block with the same zoning with lots of empty space and opportunity.
These are just a few examples of the opportunities available to creative developers with a relatively modest capital investment. In addition to these project types, there are other tricks the small developer can put to use to maximize success during the project design and permitting phase.
In Part 3 of this series, we give you our practical tips – our “Cliffs Notes” – to becoming a small-scale developer.