The New York Times had a good article up a few weeks ago wondering what will happen to all the vacant suburban buildings in a post-foreclosure America. As the author writes, "These insta-neighborhoods were not designed or built for flexibility or change." In contrast, one thing I like about cities is the way they can evolve over time to meet the needs of the present generation. Every time a building is repurposed, another layer of history is added, until the location tells a long story about itself.
Some of the coolest repurposed buildings lately have been on Broadway Auto Row. It's funny, because a car dealership/showroom would seem to be such a specific building style that one wouldn't expect it to be converted very easily into, say, a grocery store. But the Whole Foods on 27th is a great use of the space.
Another successful adaptation is the new restaurant Mua, on Webster and 26th. The owner, an artist, has made the most of the industrial setting. With the high ceilings, roughly sketched artworks leaning against the walls, and industrial building style, it has the look and feel of an artist's loft.
The key with these spaces is to keep some piece of the building's history right there, for all to see. One smart way of doing that is to leave the original building's sign up, as shown above. (I still remember a restaurant/bar in Brooklyn with a "Zapatos Para Toda La Familia" sign above their store.) But when major parts of the interior are maintained, and the buildings sit next to ones still used for their original purpose, it can take thing to the next level. The industrial materials and warehouse dimensions feel "cool" and "edgy" all of a sudden.
The slow diversification of Auto Row properties is also a great way to buffer the local economy from the decline of the U.S. auto industries and improve the neighborhood at the same time. The unexpected new uses of a building can create a whole new anchor for a neighborhood. In this regard, I definitely tend to prefer the innovations of the free market to overly rigid zoning regulations that determine what a building can and can't be used for. To me the important thing is to preserve what's good about the visual character of the buildings.
Not every conversion is a good one. Bank buildings seem very hard to successfully transform into new functions. Maybe it's their stern, dignified appearance that just makes them look ridiculous as anything other than a bank. Perhaps a library or government building would be a fitting new use, but don't even think about turning it into a nightclub. (Which has been tried, by the way.) This building, on the corner of Telegraph and Claremont, was turned into a dvd store. Let's just say it didn't make the cut and is now closed:
I'm not an expert, but I'm guessing that the heavy industrial use of buildings such as this one means that they would require extensive (and expensive) environmental cleanups in order to be converted into a site suitable for humans to dwell in, eat at, grow food on, etc. It's a shame because I could easily picture these properties being used for all of the above and more. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this subject in the comments section.
To me the smartest transformation so far of any buildings in West Oakland is Soundwave Studios. Music studios are similar to industrial sites in that they can be noisy, unpleasant neighbors. This building keeps them removed from residential areas and lets people rock out (or get hyphy) without worrying about neighbors calling the police. Normally a city district might be concerned about the "seedy element" associated with music studios, but in this part of town all the musicians coming and going definitely improve the area and make it safer.