Urbanist Jane Jacobs once said, "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings" in her 1961 treatise on urban development called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. When she mentioned old buildings, she wasn’t talking about heritage-designated architectural gems from a bygone era. She was talking about plain, old—sometimes a little gritty or rundown—buildings.
Why? Because old buildings equal cheap rent. Or at least, when they do equal cheap rent, a space can create the conditions for new ideas and businesses to germinate and grow. By reducing financial risk, there is room for experimentation, creativity, and innovation—the seeds of an interesting, diverse, dynamic community.
Riversdale has seen a explosion of new businesses in recent years that represents some of the best new ideas coming from the city's artists and entrepreneurs. Why Riversdale? Well, it has lots of old buildings. And the rent is cheap…or at least it was.
Recently, I got to experience the kind of inspired creativity that can evolve from a critical mass of old buildings. My wife and I were in New York city and happened to stumble onto the 9th annual Bushwick Open Studios. Bushwick is a neighbourhood chock full of old warehouses, garages, factories, and industrial spaces that have become the pallet to the huge concentration of artists living and working in the neighbourhood. Once a year they open their studio doors to visitors during a weekend long festival that includes performances, shows, street art, pop-up galleries, music and street parties. Along with throngs of visitors and locals, we got to experience the inspired, highly collaborative local arts scene. It was free. It was frenzied. It was exciting. And completely chaotic.
It was the perfect proof of Jacobs’ thesis: new ideas require old buildings.
As we explored Bushwick artist studios or watched the electrifying street scene from a Brooklyn rooftop, we reflected on what the future of Riversdale might look like.
I've been in a love affair with Riversdale over the last 8 years. During that time, Shift Development has done a mix of projects that I'd classify as being new ideas to Saskatoon: building modern infill housing, creating a co-working community, and converting an old church into long-term artist studios.
All of these projects were possible because they started with inexpensive buildings. These days, those opportunities are fewer and farther between.
Our current project, Element Urban Village, involves new buildings and we’re really excited about designing living spaces that facilitate a vibrant, connected lifestyle in one of the cities most diverse neighbourhoods. But when I returned to Saskatoon, I kept thinking back to our experience of Bushwick. The neighbourhood of Riversdale can only maintain its diversity and character if we balance new building with the preservation of old, cheap buildings that can house creative people with ideas.
It was with this thought in mind that I made a call to an old fella who has owned a commercial property in Riversdale since 1946 but has been thinking of selling. The property isn't nice, and the building on it is really just a tin shed that's good for warehousing or hosting auctions. But it also happens to be just three blocks away from the river. He had it listed for sale for over a year but couldn't sell it. The most likely reason it didn’t sell is because he wants $2 million for the property, which works out to $285.71 per square foot of building.
To put that in perspective, the rent you'd have to generate from that building to pay the mortgage is approximately triple the market rate for rent on a building like this one. Recently, I learned that a beautiful brick building in a prime location in downtown Toronto sold for a cheaper cost/square foot. Hmmm.
While I can’t blame the old guy for trying to cash in on rising real estate in the neighbourhood, I’m constantly asking myself how we can find a way to hold on to some of the old buildings in Riversdale. Keep them old. Keep them cheap. Keep them gritty. And fill them with people who need room to experiment, create and build something interesting.
Drop me a line at email@example.com if you have any thoughts on how to make this happen. I'd love to hear your thoughts.