Over the past two years, amidst all the new buildings popping up, Downtown Phoenix has quietly become a leader in promoting adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse is the process of tailoring old structures for purposes other than those initially intended. As old buildings outlive their original purposes, adaptive reuse offers a process to modify these buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features. As a result, an old warehouse may become an apartment building, or a rundown church may find new life as a restaurant.

A prime candidate for adaptive reuse: the city-owned (ca. 1909) Leighton G. Knipe House at 1025 N. 2nd Street.

By taking buildings that are either historical, dated or in older, established areas of the city and ensuring their presence long into the future, adaptive reuse is one of the ultimate expressions of sustainability. Not only does this take advantage of materials that are already there (which is environmental and economical), but it also respects a city’s history and plays an important role in community revitalization. Adaptive reuse also demonstrates that old buildings make great places for new ideas. As the famous urbanist Jane Jacobs said, “Old ideas can use new buildings, but new ideas need old buildings.”

The city’s Adaptive Reuse Program began as a pilot program in April 2008 to streamline the process of modifying older buildings for new business uses. In addition to adopting the International Existing Building Code, the city offers guidance, expedited time frames and reduced costs to individuals and companies looking to “recycle” older buildings for new business uses. Program participants can save between two weeks to three months time and $2,000 to $40,000 during the development process. In September 2009, the program won a “Crescordia” in the “Livable Communities” category at Valley Forward’s Environmental Excellence Awards. The Crescordia, named for a Greek term meaning “to grow in harmony,” is the highest honor awarded in each category.

This issue is  important to the city, because as Mark Leonard, Director of the Phoenix Development Services Department explains, “Adaptive reuse preserves our history, helps small business owners be successful, creates unique restaurant and business settings for all of us to experience and it’s environmentally friendly.” Mayor Gordon concurs, noting in a 2008 speech, “Historic buildings are a critical part of what makes the Phoenix skyline truly our own, truly unique.”

The interior of the Lost Leaf:

The interior of The Lost Leaf

One example of adaptive reuse that will be familiar to many DPJ readers is modifying a historic, single-family residence for use as a restaurant or business. Some notable participants in the program include Tuck Shop (2245 N. 12th St. in Coronado), The Lost Leaf (914 N. 5th St. in Evans Churchill), The Paisley Violin (1030 NW Grand Ave.) and Hula’s Modern Tiki (4700 N. Central Ave. in Uptown). In total, the program has supported 30 total adaptive reuse projects in the past 18 months, although a few of them did not proceed past plan review due to the economy.

Earlier this month, based on the recommendations of a Development Services Ad Hoc Task Force, council unanimously approved expanding the Adaptive Reuse Program. During its deliberations, the task force looked at the existing program’s experience to date, as well as best practices from other cities, and came up with what may be the most comprehensive adaptive reuse plan in the country.

The expanded plan now includes buildings constructed prior to the year 2000, increases the size limits from 5,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet and allows for occupancy change flexibility. This expansion of the program provided increased opportunities to rezone, reuse and revitalize vacant strip malls, big box centers and other blighted community areas and keep them out of the landfill.

Special thanks to Jim McPherson (Arizona Preservation Foundation), Kimber Lanning (Local First AZ) and Denee McKinley (City of Phoenix Office of Customer Advocacy) for their assistance in researching this article.