• U.S.

Environment: Being Bold with the Old

3 minute read

One of the more remarkable aspects of downtown renewal today is not really construction at all. Instead of tearing down sturdy old structures (what would Rome be if that had been the Italian approach?), builders are renovating them and turning them to new uses. The process—alas, called “recycling” in current jargon—has caught on across the U.S. In Salt Lake City trolley-car barns now house an entertainment center; a Cleveland power plant has become a theater; what was once a torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va., is an arts center.

The rationale is part aesthetic—the old buildings often have a certain charm and a nostalgic quality—and part economic. To convert a leather factory to handsome apartments in Peabody, Mass., cost $16 per square foot. “By contrast,” says William Wheaton, an urban economist at M.I.T., “you cannot build any new housing for less than $22 a square foot, and it looks like hell when it is built.” To make conversion even more attractive, the Federal Government will help pay for such projects.

Boston got the message. Along its historic waterfront, it is quietly working on the nation’s largest federally aided renovation project. Already, a number of 19th century wharf buildings have been made into 1,500 units of elegant middle-income housing. No sooner does one batch of apartments come on the market (rents start around $500 per month) than they are snapped up, proof that many well-to-do people will choose good downtown housing over the pleasures of the green suburbs.

Boston’s recycling effort also includes six acres of early 19th century buildings between the old town hall, Faneuil Hall, and the waterfront. The five-story structures, which for 150 years housed fruit, vegetable and meat markets, attracted two groups of people. Preservationists wanted to turn them into a museum. Some developers wanted to raze them and put the valuable downtown land to a more profitable use. But Cambridge Architect Ben Thompson had another idea. Why not modernize the buildings’ interiors, recondition the exteriors and keep them as markets? The buildings could then turn a profit (and pay taxes) while enhancing historic Boston. –

Turning that vision into reality proved a long and arduous task. The cost of buying the buildings and refurbishing them would come to $30 million; banks refused to lend that much unless the project could come up with some major tenants. In 1972 Shopping Center Developer James Rouse, convinced that a lively, unique urban market contained a high potential for profit, joined the cause. His commitment opened the taps of private and public money.

All the buildings are being modernized, and a glass enclosure is being erected to protect outdoor stalls. The Faneuil Hall Marketplace is scheduled to open in late August, and its future looks promising. The lower floors are rented out to merchants and restaurateurs, the upper ones to lawyers and architects. Like neighboring refurbished buildings, the market has a special zest, one that will help make the waterfront a place worth the trip—or the move—to downtown Boston.

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