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Preserving place

I was recently asked: How do you go into a neighborhood, build new, and not erase and/or sterilize what makes that neighborhood interesting in the first place? 

Gentrification is a controversial topic in city building. Too often I think we ignore what happens when we don’t invest in communities, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be deliberate when we do make investments.

Development is filled with tensions. We are constantly trying to navigate through constraints and balance out the wants of each and every stakeholder. It becomes an art. It doesn’t always work out as planned.

To state the obvious, I would say that it starts with caring. If you’re not interested in community and city building, then the default response will be to simply replicate what worked on the last project.

But every place has a local culture. And if city builders are to have any hope of preserving and building upon what makes that place unique, we have to first understand it. What made it successful in the first place? What is its DNA?

Because then you’re in a position to think about both built form and programming in a way that is culturally sensitive.

One example that comes to mind is the proposed redevelopment of Honest Ed’s / Mirvish Village here in Toronto. 

The “micro tower” design is intended to create the sense that the area was built up organically over time. And the fine grain retail (50-60 individual retail spaces) is intended to house local retailers, micro retail startups, and pop-up shops. To me, both of these elements speak to the history and fabric of the area.

Adopting a unique approach can also sometimes mean rethinking how you measure ROI. If all you care about is who will pay you the highest rent – right now – then you’re going to make a decision based on that metric.

Maximizing revenue is not a bad thing. That’s what businesses are supposed to do. But sometimes there is or should be a larger vision at play. And sometimes you need to take a longer view.

In Toronto’s Distillery District, the developers made the decision to eschew large chains and franchises (in favor of more local retailers) so that they could create a very particular place. Ultimately that particular place became a great place to sell condos, but they suffered early on for it.

I like how Gary Vaynerchuk put it when he asked: What is the ROI of your mother? Sometimes you may not be able to measure it, but that doesn’t mean the ROI isn’t there.

Any other suggestions?

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