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Reversing Entropy in Downtown Buildings Part 2

16 Oct 2019 6:47 AM | Jim Correll (Administrator)

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas

In part 1, we discussed the entropy of downtown buildings and districts and about how the National Main Street purpose is to provide for the preservation of these historic buildings through revitalizing our downtown districts. The idea is that revitalization of business districts will provide enough revenue for both the sustainability of downtown businesses and the maintenance of the downtown buildings.

Our historic buildings didn’t decay rapidly and, in most cases, reversing decades of downtown building entropy rarely happens quickly. Building conditions are on a continuum ranging from near collapse on the left end to fully restored to modern safety and building codes on the right. Most likely, eighty-five percent of the buildings in our Kansas rural communities are in conditions on the continuum somewhere from one-third to one-half from the left. Most are moving to the left with every passing year. Once the outer “envelope” has been compromised—failure of roof and exterior walls to keep out the elements—the slide to the left of the continuum accelerates.

Most of our related public policy, i.e. local and state laws, codes, ordinances and tax policy, are not conducive the building preservation. Public policy demands that anyone trying to fix up and repurpose a historic building reverse several decades of entropy in one expensive project moving the building condition all the way from the left half of the continuum to the extreme right end in one fell swoop. This is unnatural. If you think about it, our public policy actually impedes progress on building preservation with no practical approach to encourage a natural path to building preservation over time.

I have an example of this right now involving one of the Lab’s growth accelerator clients. She wants to buy a building and fix it up for her business. She’s now learned that our public policy, from local ordinance to state safety laws make it more cost-effective to build new instead of fixing up the old. Is that really what we want? Policy that encourages building new instead of repurposing the old?

Occasionally someone with deep pockets, sometimes with tax-payer assistance, restores a building transcending it from dilapidated to state-of-the-art all at once, but most building owners don’t have the resources to accomplish this leap in one initial effort. They need time for the business(es) within to grow and make enough money to support continued building improvements.

As with the continuum of general building conditions, the fire risk associated with a building can also be thought of as being on a continuum; extreme fire risk at the left end and fully compliant with state-of-the-art fire safety features, as required for NEW buildings, on the right. Every rural downtown business district in Kansas and America includes buildings with fire risk near the left end of the continuum. While we may choose to debate whether or not it’s reasonable to subject a 100 year old building to the same fire safety specifications as required for new construction, surely there is somewhere in the middle or slightly right of center on the fire-risk continuum where we could all agree the building is safe enough to continue to use while other rehabilitation occurs over time.

Maybe it’s time for us as a community and society to decide whether or not we’re really interested in preserving our historic buildings, especially in our downtown districts. If we are, we need to require that our policy makers; from state legislators, to local governing bodies, take a look at current policies that require an unnatural and prohibitively expensive one-fell-swoop approach to an approach that would require minimum building and safety standards in the beginning of the rehab process with gradual continuous improvement over time. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com.

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