Older, smaller buildings are better for cities, study says

WASHINGTON — While small, older buildings might not make for an impressive skyline, they may be better for cities than massive, gleaming office towers, according to a study released Thursday.

Neighborhoods and commercial areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings make for more vibrant, walkable communities with more businesses, nightlife, and cultural outlets than massive newer buildings, according the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s study.

Researchers examined block-by-block data from Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington in part for their hot real estate markets and development pressures.


The analysis found that corridors with smaller, older buildings generally perform better for the local economy than areas with newer buildings that might stretch an entire block.

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Older buildings become magnets for young people and retirees alike, researchers said. They draw more shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, small businesses owned by women and minorities, and jobs.

On a per-square-foot basis, small building corridors have a larger concentration of jobs, businesses, and creative sector jobs than downtown skyscrapers.

In Seattle, commercial areas with smaller, more age-diverse buildings have 36.8 percent more jobs per square foot than areas with newer, larger buildings.

Historic corridors in these cities are often active from morning to night, said lead researcher Michael Powe, an urban planner with the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab. In Washington, these areas draw more nonchain, local businesses. In San Francisco, they generate more jobs based in small businesses.