Older buildings outperform newer ones

oiptalkTucson’s older buildings are worth more than you think. In fact, they are potentially twice as valuable as newer buildings. This was one of the messages that came through loud and clear at a panel on Historic Buildings, Livable Cities and Local Economies. The presentation was hosted by the City of Tucson Office of Integrated Planning, and fittingly, took place at the historic Hotel Congress. The crowd was standing room only in the Copper Hall to hear the four speakers discuss the relationships between historic preservation, livability and our local Tucson economy. Lynndsay O'Neill, a junior in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture for Sustainable Built Environments attended the event and commented that the event "was as exciting as it was informative. Each of the speakers provided great insight into the Tucson economy, as well as how we can move further towards building an economically sustainable community." 14747007866_042d54e921_z

Tourism has long been recognized as a key economic driver for Tucson. Allison Cooper, of Visit Tucson, spoke about the importance of historic character in marketing Tucson as a unique destination. Tucson’s historical buildings are one of the “major assets” that help create an authentic sense of place. “Our sense of place is how we set ourselves apart,” commented Cooper. “89% of travelers want that sense of place.” Vanessa Bechtol, of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, also spoke about resources to better connect visitors and residents with Tucson’s unique, historic spaces.

Local First Director, Kimber Lanning gave a riveting presentation on the importance of local business in older neighborhoods. In terms of creating a viable business community, “You can’t successfully have large without also having the small that attract people to place,” commented Lanning.  Cities where the old historic districts have been preserved and encouraged to thrive, have seen an economic performance that exceeds that in the non-historic districts. Lanning contrasted Old Pasadena - a community of almost 100% locally owned businesses, located in primarily older buildings with limited parking that grew organically – with New Pasadena – which was planned, publicly funded, almost 100% national brands and located in all new development with maximum planned parking. “In Old Pasadena the sales tax revenue exceeds that of New Pasadena by two-to-one,” stated Lanning.


Lanning’s presentation was followed by the keynote speech from Michael Powe of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a classic work written by Jane Jacobs in 1961, Jacobs stated that “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” Preservation Green Lab set out to gather the data to test that hypothesis. Their contention was “neighborhoods containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of diverse age support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by newer, larger buildings.” The Green Lab team did exhaustive research in Washington DC, Seattle and San Francisco to put that to the test. Powe presented some of the data from the San Francisco study. What he found was that “older, smaller buildings punch above their weight class. They show 37% more jobs per square foot.” Some of the key findings were;

  • Older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable.
  • Young people love old buildings.
  • Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.
  • Older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds.
  • The creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods.
  • Older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density.
  • Older, smaller buildings provide space for a strong local economy.

The City of Tucson has received grant funding and local match funding to partner with the Preservation Green Lab and the University of Arizona Drachman Institute to conduct a similar study here in Tucson with results being announced next year.  Local First AZ is looking forward to seeing the results of a study of this type here in Arizona.

This event was an excellent reminder to the Tucson community of our great fortune in having an amazing resource in our historical buildings. "After attending the event, I came away feeling a greater need to help the community and greater understanding of what steps need to be done to create a more prosperous community," commented O'Neill.  Tucson has managed to retain and improve a much larger percentage of historical buildings than many communities in Arizona. Continuing to make historic preservation a priority going forwards, will result in amazing benefits both cultural and economic, for the city as a whole.