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A lesson on architecture from Motown

While Detroit probably is not the first city that comes to mind when we think of great urban centers, there is one important lesson we can learn from The Motor City.  A building’s architecture, whether it’s good or bad, remains with a city for a long, long time.  Since buildings are seldom demolished simply because they are unattractive, a city should work to build inspiring, timeless buildings.

I spent the past week in Motown as part of the Urban Land Institute’s Spring Meeting.  Detroit has undergone an amazing renaissance over the past 10 years.  People young and old are flocking to the downtown core.  Old office buildings that sat vacant for years have been remodeled and vacancies are at an all-time low.  Wonderful new mixed-use projects and delightful city parks are being built.  Detroit is the only city in the world with four major sports franchises located together in the core.  Believe it or not, downtown Detroit has become very cool.

One of the major components to Detroit’s revitalization is the quality of its buildings’ architecture.  Detroit’s skyline is dominated by unbelievably gorgeous buildings, most of which were built in the early 1900’s.  Tech companies like Quicken Loans, Microsoft, Facebook and LinkedIn, along with more traditional tenants like banks and attorney firms, occupy these 100-year old gems.  Vacancy in these buildings is nearly non-existent.   There is no doubt that Detroit’s stock of beautiful, iconic buildings is key to its resurgence.

The lesson here is obvious. Buildings last a long, long time, so we need to make sure that what is built will stand the test of time.  It might seem counter-intuitive to have a developer argue that we need to set a higher bar for our built environment, but that is exactly what we need to do.  Downtown Boise is dominated by buildings that have been value-engineered to the point that they are simply uninspiring, tan boxes.  Of course, we developers argue that if we are forced to build something of timeless value, it will be too expensive and will no longer be financially feasible.

Those of us who care about and can influence the look and feel of our downtown core need to be diligent in making sure that our buildings are ones we will be proud to show our grandchildren.  Yes, that means costs will go up and it may be harder for projects to make short-term economic sense.  Some projects may not be built. That is alright.  We are much better off with one or two fewer buildings in our core, than with lowering our standards and ending up with a downtown filled with lackluster buildings that look like they belong in cold-war era eastern bloc countries.

As long as we accept mediocre architecture, it is difficult for any developer who wants to build a beautiful, inspirational building to effectively compete.  The developer who was able to slide through the permitting process with a relatively inexpensive box will always have a cost advantage.  This leaves the developer who desires to build something with lasting architectural significance at a permanent cost disadvantage.  We need to motivate the right behavior.

Join me in asking our city, architects and developers to step up their game and raise the bar on downtown buildings.  Let’s make sure we are proud of our built environment and leave our grandkids with a city they can be proud to call home.  We only get one shot at this; let’s make it great.

Scott Schoenherr is a Partner at Rafanelli & Nahas. He is on the management committee of the local chapter of The Urban Land Institute and a former President of the Downtown Boise Association.

About Scott Schoenherr

One comment

  1. kristin@neudesi

    Agreed – more often people consider dollars as the deciding factor, rather than the quality of product and how it impacts the occupants within. As architects, it is our responsibility to find efficiencies while also granting our clients something affordable – this is best done when a client is willing to not be “bottom dollar” but will to have a few portions of their personalities come out in their buildings (yes, a little extra dollars that will have a return on the investment over time).