The top-down part of saving a building by making it make financial sense to a developer is the hard work, but building a bottom-up cause that creates a market for that building can actually be a lot of fun. The first creates supply; the second builds demand. I've covered the know-why and the know-how of most of these techniques in great detail in New Media for Designers + Builders, which I believe you'll find helpful.
The most important point of building a cause aimed at saving a building today is to turn neighbors into advocates for the businesses that may soon occupy that building. People may like the idea of historic preservation in theory, but they love the idea of a coffee shop just down the block. They'll nod their heads in agreement if you talk about saving our architectural heritage, but they'll get out and ring doorbells to stir up conversations with their neighbors if you're talking about bringing in businesses that will make their lives easier and more interesting… especially if they can just walk around the corner to those businesses rather than having to get in their cars and drive somewhere. You don't just want people to agree with you; you want them to go out and change things. Here are the objectives of building a cause, and the tools for getting it done:
Nothing helps sway a potential shopkeeper's decision to open a store like a groundswell of future customers. You need to find ways for the neighbors to show what they want and how many of them want it. Look at the storefronts below the "Welcome to Shock" sign. OK, that's actually the "Welcome to Shockoe Bottom" sign, but in any case, the signs and the storefronts below are all painted on the flat side wall of a building facing the parking lot. One cool way to illustrate demand is to paint the storefronts on the building, then paint the glass of the storefronts with chalkboard paint. At the top of each "window" paint "Here's what I'd like to see here:" and then paint blank lines below, and leave a lot of chalk. People will tell you what they want. In the case of the Tennessee Brewery we just talked about, the architecture is there already and doesn't need to be painted. Just paint on the boarded-up windows and storefronts… that's all the people will need.
People are more likely to talk about the businesses they'd like to see in the building you're saving if you get them together in the same place. And when you do, they'll think of other ways of supporting the cause that we can't even conceive of right now. Some part of the building or its outdoor space should likely serve as a physical gathering place for the community you're creating… someday. But you need to create the community now, and the easiest and quickest ways to do that are online. Advocates for the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati are doing an excellent job of building community not just for one building, but for their entire historic district. You should study them. They use many of the tools that follow… and you should consider using several of them as well. People that are on Twitter don't necessarily spend a lot of time on Facebook and vice versa, for example. So cover your bases by using several (or all) of these tools:
Open your Twitter account today. Allow your most passionate advocates to post there. And encourage others to open similar Twitter streams as well, or to tweet about the building on their existing streams. Here's one of several that support Over-the-Rhine, for example.
Start a Facebook group next. It's a great way to get a group of neighbors talking and working together quickly. Be sure to post links to all the stuff below as you start generating content on your other nodes.
Instagram is the most social image site… by far. So open an account for the building and start posting beautiful images of the building, even if it's in a dilapidated state… that can be romantic. And whenever you're around places that have been restored and repurposed, shoot them and say "here's what we could have at the Tennessee Brewery" or whatever.
Start a YouTube channel for the building. If you're lucky, there may already be great stuff up on YouTube like this excellent segment on the Tennessee Brewery. You can easily link to existing videos, and then do some of your own as well. It doesn't have to be nearly as professional as this video, but it does need passion… which comes in many flavors.
Any serious effort to save something good really should have a blog, which is the keystone of most New Media ecosystems. Let several of your most passionate advocates blog there. You don't have to start with the blog, but consider adding it soon. The Alton Road blog is a great example.
Expand your blog with supporting pages. I'd strongly suggest pages for three groups: developers interested in buying the building, business owners interested in locating there, and customers or clients interested in doing business there. Consider these your "matchmaker pages"… or "online dating for historic buildings."
Once the idea picks up steam and someone offers to spend a little money to support it, consider printing Idea Cards that tell people in a few words why you're so passionate about the building and then direct them to other parts of your New Media ecosystem.
Life After the Building is Saved
If you save the building, you probably won't just close up most of these New Media assets. Instead, you'll likely find that they have become digital cornerstones of a community of people that are now neighbors, not just co-habitators of a certain part of town. Because of this, many of these things may live on for years, doing cool stuff for you and your neighbors that you can't even anticipate today.
Here's the link to the book I mentioned earlier. It describes how to do all of these things in detail, assuming that you're starting as a complete beginner. And it does some other cool stuff as well, like putting ⅔ of the content on the web so that the only stuff in the book is what everyone needs and you don't have to slog through a lot of stuff you don't need. But this post isn't primarily about selling books… it's about saving buildings. So get out there and get started today!
What do you think? What have I missed? What other great strategies and techniques have you heard of that I haven't included here?
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.