Ground rules to save a building from demolition
Part one of a two part series
So many great and well-loved buildings are lost in our cities and towns each day… is there anything citizens can do to help preserve them? Yes, and the toolbox is growing. But there are some ground rules that are different than they were a decade ago. Here's what you should be doing if you hope to save buildings like the Tennessee Brewery in Memphis (picture above; gorgeous shots in this short YouTube video) which could be slated for demolition within 30-60 days. So I probably don't need to tell you that you should get started today.
Don't waste your time on a 1960s-era cause… you know, petitions, standing in front of the bulldozers, and stuff like that. Those tactics might have once worked (and in a very few places) but if you want to make stuff work today, you need to realize that you don't own the property… and someone else does. And they'll likely prevail if you try to fight them. You might prevent them from building a particular project where the historic building now stands, but you won't keep them from tearing it down. So do something strange… go make friends with them. Today. Let them know that you're assembling a cause, the end result of which is to help them sell the building, not demolish it… and for a price they're good with… maybe even their asking price. If you make friends, you might just buy a little more time to do the steps that follow.
If someone other than an angel investor (and there are relatively few of them) is going to buy the building, it's got to make economic sense for them, and in the early years, not a decade or more down the road. So show them how they can do it. Do something audacious, like Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and their old Arquitectonica partners did to jump-start their careers in the 1970s. In their case, they picked properties on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, did schematic designs and pro formas (the financial designs that make the buildings feasible), then sat in the offices of people like Donald Trump (if I have my story right) until they would listen… and when they saw the designs and the pro formas, they hired them to do the final designs.
You can do a similar thing: figure out what to do with the building, then assemble photos of similar places that are thriving to paint the picture… you don't even need drawings. And do the pro forma. Then get it out there to select developers who have demonstrated an ability to do similar stuff, and who are committed to preservation and re-use.
Walking the talk
I'm demonstrating really quick-and-dirty how to do this with this post. All images after the first one were shot in Shockoe Bottom, a gritty neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Richmond that has been boot-strapping its way up on mostly tiny budgets... like the Tennessee Brewery could do. The buildings aren't the same style or type, but the ideas work the same ways. Obviously, with enough money almost anything is possible, but not everybody has enough money… and you need to assume your developers might not.
So here's my seat-of-my-pants outline for a pro forma… not the actual numbers, but the direction I'd take it. This old sales page from 5 months ago indicates they were asking $1.2 million for the 65,000 square foot building that sits on just less than one acre. That's $18.46/square foot. If someone gave you the land for free and you built a pre-engineered metal building for warehouse space, you couldn't build it cheaper than that in most places. And yes, I know that the tax assessor has the value listed a lot lower… but do you think your chances would be better with the owner bringing them a deal at the assessor's value or at their asking price?
If you look at Google Maps street view images of the area, you'll see that there are lots of new homes around, and also residential lofts and co-working space. In short, a lot of customers. What I can't find in close walking distance are any merchants. Most people today would love to have a coffee shop they could walk to, or a neighborhood grocery, or another third place of some sort. So I'd do a pro forma that allotted the front 30' or so (the first structural bay, whatever that is) for shops.
And for right now, I'd figure the rest of the building as mini-storage. Yes, mini-storage. Everyone can use storage, and it's a low-cost, low-impact use (no electricity or plumbing) that can be put in quickly and taken out incrementally over time as people begin to want work spaces in the building… which likely will happen as the co-working space across the street begins to fill up. As a matter of fact, this would be a good place for the new businesses to decant to once they've outgrown co-working.
Eventually, the first floor will likely all be eateries, drinking establishment, and shops and the upper levels all studios and other creative work spaces… and the path to doing that is so direct, in this case… if the building can be saved from imminent demolition. To do that, do what works today. And if mini-storage works in pre-engineered metal buildings, it would certainly work in a building that's cheaper than that… like the Tennessee Brewery. So forget the film studios, the high-priced condos, and the like, some of which require millions in up-front improvements that simply aren't there today. Do the no-brainer that works today to save the building, then let it unfold and blossom into the great neighborhood center building it will someday be.
The other side
That's the first half… the top-down part. But there's an entire bottom-up part I'll talk about in the next post. Just wanted to get this one out there now, to get the conversation started. Here's the second post.
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