The secret to courting businesses like Amazon: older and historic buildings

“Our research has found that Philadelphia’s blocks of older, smaller mixed-age buildings in its historic neighborhoods help foster robust, sustainable local economies that benefit residents at all income levels,” writes Stephanie Meeks..

 

Ever since Amazon announced its plan to open a second headquarters that would host up to 50,000 workers, cities across the country have been vying to entice the Seattle-based retail giant to their town. While Philadelphia is very well-positioned in this “Amazon Race” due to its unique historic character, equally important for the city’s future are the many opportunities that Philly’s older buildings present for creating businesses of all shapes and sizes.

While Amazon may be considering any number of factors for its move, we have already seen what many other major American companies are looking for in a headquarters these days: a distinctive downtown that can attract and retain employees looking for a more authentic living experience. Already, companies like General Electric and McDonald’s have forsaken their suburban office parks for the character-rich downtowns of Boston and Chicago. Aetna has moved from Hartford to the meatpacking district of Manhattan. And Wal-Mart has invested millions in downtown Bentonville, Ark., to give its home a more distinctive flavor.

That’s a key reason why, in today’s economy, Philadelphia’s historic character is one of its most important and irreplaceable economic assets. With its trademark rowhouses and cobblestone alleys, Philadelphia is well-primed to take advantage of this renewed emphasis on place.

“In the Old Economy, markets mattered,” says Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute. “In the New Economy, place matters most. … In a world where capital is footloose, if you can’t differentiate [your city] from any other place, you will have no competitive advantage.”

But the economic advantages provided by Philly’s old and historic buildings go well beyond enticing corporate conglomerates. Our research has found that Philadelphia’s blocks of older, smaller, mixed-age buildings in its historic neighborhoods help foster robust, sustainable local economies that benefit residents at all income levels. These character-rich blocks — the type of urban fabric one finds in neighborhoods such as Old City and Powelton Village — contain more than twice the population density and twice the number of jobs in small and new businesses than areas with large, new structures.

As the venerable urban activist Jane Jacobs put it nearly 60 years ago, “Cities need old buildings so badly that it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

And it’s true: Neighborhoods with older buildings tend to have more small, local (non-chain), and female- and minority-owned businesses. They also tend to have more diversity in housing types and costs, and more activity at all times of day, making them more lively and diverse — exactly the recipe Jacobs thought critical to urban success.

So Philadelphia already has the building blocks it needs to become a more inclusive, diverse, and economically vibrant city: approximately 70 percent of Philly’s buildings were constructed before World War II. At the same time, only around 2 percent of its 490,000 buildings are protected through local designation — far lower than in many other cities, especially in the eastern United States. This means one of the key drivers of the city’s ongoing renaissance is threatened by insufficient protections — which is especially concerning in Philadelphia’s hot markets, such as Graduate Hospital and Fishtown.

That’s why the work of Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force is so important. Formed in April, this panel is charged with crafting recommendations on the best way to protect the historic fabric that makes Philadelphia so special. Comprised of architects, planners, preservation professionals, and community leaders, including representatives from my organization, the task force will be meeting in neighborhoods and Center City over several months to listen to residents’ concerns, values, and aspirations for the city they love.

Every voice must be heard in this process and we encourage every corner of this city to represent its views as part of this conversation that will consider how the best of Philadelphia’s past — its rowhouses, modest bungalows, factory buildings, and sacred spaces — can be the drivers of a bright and inclusive future. Fashioning and sustaining lively, diverse, and character-rich neighborhoods through the amazing powers of historic preservation can help bring exciting new neighbors like Amazon to this great city. But more important, it can generate more growth, opportunity, and prosperity for the residents and businesses that already call Philadelphia home.

UPDATE: Philly one of 20 finalists for Amazon HQ2

Stephanie Meeks is the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the co-author of  “The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America’s Communities.” smeeks@savingplaces.org