Everything Old Is New Again

by Don Friedman on October 24, 2016

Auditorium Building in Chicago, completed 1889: constructed as a theater, office space, and hotel.

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The Times Real Estate section recently noted the increase in mixed-use buildings, most commonly with apartments in the floors above commercial space. The recent trend is described as a logical response to the insanely inflated prices that can be had for high-end residential space in central Manhattan: a developer would be abandoning profit if he or she built only an office building, but there’s still a demand for office space. Views have a greater effect on the sale price of apartments than the rental price of offices, so putting apartments higher than offices makes sense. Apartments also work better on smaller floor areas than offices, so setbacks in the building shape also encourage apartment use higher than office use.

The separation of uses that we all know reaches its logical conclusion when we look at metropolitan areas on a grand scale, with all-residential areas in suburbia and suburban fringes of cities, industrial uses concentrated together, and office and retail space concentrated in downtown areas and in select secondary centers scattered around. This is not an accident but rather the result of decades of work of organizations such as the Regional Plan Association. The growth of car-oriented suburbs and urban renewal after World War II helped fix in place the current planning regime, with uses relentlessly separated from one anther.

The further back in history you go, the more intermingled various uses are. For example, the construction of the Croton water system, one of the early triumphs of urban infrastructure in New York, was necessary in part because sources of water within the city were used by both residents and industry and had become badly polluted. A more basic example is the concept of living over the store, which was common in the small-scale, low-rise American cities of the first half of the 1800s.

The new buildings described in the Times article are modern versions of the Auditorium Building and its peers: large, mixed use, and complicated. Who knows? The phrase “city within a city” may make a comeback. And it’s all to the good: monoculture is unhealthy for farms and deathly boring in cities.

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