We are big fans of small development here at Kronberg Wall, which means we also understand how difficult it can be. Small, incremental development is critical to the success of urban areas – especially those trying to get their feet off of the ground. While the Ponce City Markets of the world are great drivers for redevelopment, not all development needs to have major capital backing or business savvy developers to be successful. In fact, a series of small yet conscientious steps can go a long way in making a place better. That part is easy to wrap your head around: that small development can be just as effective – if not more so – of a place making tool as large scale projects.
The part that isn’t easy to understand is why small scale development can be just as difficult of an undertaking as large projects. The reasons are complicated. The Incremental Development Alliance points out that our financial, governmental and social systems are geared towards a narrow range of real estate types. The Small Developer Bootcamp has done a great job at providing a roadmap for aspiring small developers to navigate these established ‘systems’ in order to make small development happen. While understanding site planning, engineering, real estate finance, construction and property management are all essential elements to development, none of that matters if your building can’t get past the major hurdle of: building codes. Building codes are formulas established to ensure that all buildings meet minimum standards for health, safety and welfare. This is incredibly important, but a major deterrent to incremental development lies in the fact that our building codes do not tend to support the redevelopment of existing buildings.
Let’s say you have a two-story historic main street building. This building has been vacant for years, and you have decided to put commercial space on the ground floor with residences above. This sounds easy and wonderful. But the building code says to bring the building into compliance with the current code, you must sprinkler the entire building. That will cost you upwards of $75,000 just to tap into the public water supply and install the sprinkler riser. That’s roughly the same amount of money that buildings like Ponce City Market have to pay; it doesn’t matter if you are 2,000 square feet or 2,000,000 square feet. But shouldn’t it?
We think it should matter. So, we have decided to embark on a mission to discover how small, existing buildings can be code-compliant and cost-effective, without causing too much brain damage for the developer. Safety is of course paramount, but we believe that the general welfare of a community is better served by breathing new life into existing buildings than by tearing them down for new, code-compliant buildings. We think that our codes should reflect this sentiment: safety first, flexibility second. But advocating for better codes is a whole different animal. In the meantime, we are researching how to navigate current codes (including our preferred Existing Building Code) in order to get small scale buildings back in business again. Over the next few weeks we will be developing a presentation to share at the Sprawl Retrofit Council, so check back soon for our findings.