14 July 2008

Build New vs Rehab in OTR

Thinking out loud: Pendleton Glasshouse Condos and Dandridge Townhouses: compare and contrast.

In the recent past there were only a handful of people rehabbing multiple buildings in OTR, and they refined their methods over the years. Now there are many new builders deciding to give it a try, and some are making mistakes. And now we are seeing some of the first new construction in the neighborhood, and it is interesting to see what works and what doesn't.

Some of the new guys are people who were builders in the suburbs, and now that work is slow there, they have decided to try building in the city. I personally know one guy, Steve, who built hundreds of single family houses in Butler County. He is now finishing a project on Reading Road called Glasshouse Condos. This is a rehab of an existing factory type building into condos.

Recently I talked with Steve, and he has sold several and is rushing to finish all eleven units for the home tour in the Fall. Seems like they are doing OK, although they had a bit of a learning curve, because rehab of a historic multifamily condo is much different than building a new single family home. Their design provides one common outdoor rooftop space but did not have private outdoor space for each unit, and I think that may be turn out to be a big mistake. A private balcony no matter how small is important for condo buyers. However, rehabbing is more forgiving than building new, and they should be OK selling them.

In contrast, last week, Kevin, at Building Cincinnati reported that the Dandrige Townhouse project has halted work, and that the builder is... surprise... blaming the City for not helping. He also blames the market downturn. I think his project is a good learning lesson for newcomers.

Here is a drawing of the Dandridge Proposal:

Let me be clear, I have no inside information on this project. Most of what I know about this project, I know from this one drawing. However, I had concerns about this project as soon as I saw the drawing. You cannot build just anything in OTR and have it sell. Prominent garage doors, dryvit, and goofy boxes on the front were warning signs.

Many builders have a mindset that new is better, and that rehabbing is a major headache. This may be true, but rehabbing is much more forgiving of bad design.

The problems with new construction are several: windows are typically smaller, the materials are cheaper, and the rooms are boxier. People like old buildings. They like the unusual spaces created when they are renovated, and it is too expensive to replicate the quality of an old building in new construction. On top of all that, architects today have not been trained to build anything except modern looking buildings. Sometimes they try to build a traditional building, but it turns out to be very hard to do correctly. And time and time again, buyers reject modernism when buying their own house. In the suburbs buyers want neo-colonial, and in the city buyers prefer either a townhouse, or the loft look. Suburban drywall and vinyl crap will not sell here.

And think of this. The Dandridge project was proposing an entire street of the same townhouse. This is a problem because psychologically, people in OTR want something unique.

Now I am not saying that design faults led to the project's failure. I don't know that. What I am saying is that these faults indicate that the builder was an urban rookie. Being a rookie, other things such as litter and crime came as a surprise to him.

My guess is that he didn't know what his buyers wanted and he didn't know the difficulties that he would find trying to build here. Thus his utter surprise when he discovered that the Cincinnati Water Works wanted him to pay for a new water line on the street. He says his buyers were scared off by the neighborhood, but my guess is, he had the wrong buyers. Empty nesters who want security and garage parking are not going to buy on a small street hidden in the eastern corner of OTR. They want the riverfront, downtown or the hillside. Buyers here would be firstimers and non-traditional families.

The non-traditional family angle is important here. Smart developers have noticed that not every family consists of a mom, dad and 2 kids (or that same couple after the kids go to college). More and more homes are being bought by gay couples, siblings living together, divorcees, single parent households etc.

Builders would be smart to examine the buyer before attempting to build for them.


Anonymous said...

couldn't agree more. I only hope that builder reads your post. There is NO way people are going to buy riverside condos in otr.

That would have been a travesty regardless of sales

VisuaLingual said...

Yeah, the notions of "household" and "family" encompass many structures [and aesthetic/lifestyle preferences], and builders can/should/do keep the needed flexibility in mind. I still it's possible for infill to be contemporary and context-sensitive. This just isn't it.

The builder was quoted as saying, "You'd have to be pretty liberal-minded to want to live there." Ha!

CityKin said...

Contemporary does not equal modernism IMO.

Contemporary on a budget usually results in the suburban look. Maybe it doesn't have to be this way, but that is usually the result. IMO traditional urbanism aka Leon Krier would be the best all-around solution.

VisuaLingual said...

I mean "contemporary" in the sense of "this moment in time," not necessarily of a particular philosophy or aesthetic. There are precious few successful examples of this. The one that always comes to mind is this infill project in East Cambridge, where I used to live. Most of the neighborhood looks like this. I think the two meld together well, without the veneer of neotraditionalism.

CityKin said...

Of course I'd rather see a fine design like the East Cambridge example than a pseudo historical like Dandridge, but I would contend that the given example is modern, as it follows all the rules of the modernists of the 1930's: no symmetry, no ornament, no color, no base, no pitched roofs etc..

Why must a contemporary building follow rules made in the early 20th century? Contemporary should be a continuum of the past, not a rejection of it as 1930's modernism was.

Anonymous said...

I'll buy one of those condos for 50 K finished.I can make it my Man-cave.

justforview said...

Infill in OTR should be contemporary in that it is aware of its context spatially, historically, culturally and socially.

This project didn't seem to this in terms of design, marketing or financing. It is the "build and they will come" mentality that denies the context, or maybe just jumps the gun (no pun intended).

The liberal minded comment fits well within the trend revealed in the book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop.

By the way: Isn't neotraditional following the rules made in the 19th Century and rejecting the history of modernism? (just giving you a hard time).

CityKin said...

^neo traditional, yes. Building and expanding on a 2,000 year tradition, no...

VisuaLingual said...

I wish I had more/better photos of the East Cambridge situation, because the contemporary infill is appropriately proportioned and unadorned, and I think the materials are well-chosen for the area. It wouldn't work in OTR, but it tell me that the right contemporary project could work here.

I love historic architecture but, if a structure isn't old, then it should be genuinely new. If a building comes 150 years after its neighbor, it should reflect some of what has changed, or what's been learned, within that time.

I'm not sure what about that East Cambridge project speaks of 1930s solutions. I can definitely see the connection between Dandridge and suburban subdivisions and, my own bias aside, it seems fairly obvious that it doesn't fit the context from the outside at least. I don't know about accommodating needs on the inside, but this builder's quotes in the article don't give me confidence that he understood his audience.

CityKin said...

Ask yourself this. Why is ornament not allowed on buildings today? It is not because we have advanced technologically, rather it is because Adolf Loos called it Criminal.

To counter your post of the Cambridge houses, I will post a new apartment building with ornament:

Is this building of it's time?

Jimmy_James said...

Great post!

"I love historic architecture but, if a structure isn't old, then it should be genuinely new. If a building comes 150 years after its neighbor, it should reflect some of what has changed, or what's been learned, within that time."

I don't know. I see what you're getting at, and I agree to some extent. But I also think it's important that new architecture compliments the existing area, so as not to diminish the character and identity of the pre-existing structures.

"Ask yourself this. Why is ornament not allowed on buildings today? It is not because we have advanced technologically, rather it is because Adolf Loos called it Criminal"

I'd never thought of that. I'd always assumed that it was because of the same reason that everything seems to be made in China now; Americans are obsessed with getting a bargain, to the point where they've completely forsaken quality.