Redevelopment Projects Give Historical Icons a Second Life

Relics of a previous era, historic factories and buildings around the country are getting a facelift.

American Tobacco

The restoration of Durham's Historic American Tobacco campus--now the center of downtown entertainment and nightlife--was North Carolina’s largest historic renovation project.

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"It was past its prime and that was difficult for a lot of us in the neighborhood," she says. "To know that it's going to be re-purposed now and be used for something like affordable apartments and retail—how wonderful."

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Lykens has little concern about being able to fill the space with commercial and residential tenants. Even with a brand new development laying its foundation just across the street, the Wonder Bread Lofts project appeals to a different type of renter, he says.

"People want to live in a historic property," Lykens says. "When they're sitting in their living room, they want to look down and see the old bolt holes and think, 'There was a piece of equipment here—maybe an old oven sat here.' People want the quirky spaces."

Wealthy Street: "Not an economic takeover, an economic makeover"

While some of these renovation projects seek to preserve buildings that were once a hub of community, others represent an effort to heal the community and rally it behind a common cause. That's the case for the revitalization of the Heritage Hill district in Grand Rapids, Mich., which includes the Wealthy Street corridor, once a hotbed of civil and racial unrest.

Heritage Hill is one of the largest historic residential districts in the country with more than 2,000 Victorian homes built by the industrial and timber interests prevalent in the region in the 1880s.

"It's a remarkable treasure—you look at the quality of the structures and it is absolutely stunning," says Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at economic development organization The Right Place.

But like hundreds of other cities around the nation, Grand Rapids had its share of racial and civil unrest in the late 1960s.

"The result of that was frankly a tremendous amount of disinvestment, quick boarding up of buildings, and businesses relocating and abandoning [Wealthy Street]," Chapla says. "Ironically the street had the name 'Wealthy' and it started to experience the exact opposite."

For about 30 years Wealthy Street languished, bearing the scars of the unrest that had rocked the city. The theater in the neighborhood fell into disrepair after years of neglect, water pouring in through its disintegrating roof, "teetering on the edge of self-implosion," Chapla says.

The deteriorating theater ultimately became a rallying point for concerned residents and with generous donations from lifetime neighbors, a community symbol was restored.

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"It became another one of those cornerstones of investments that signified to the community that we were serious about new investment in the neighborhood," Chapla says.

But Chapla wasn't done. Leveraging a state program, Chapla had the area designated as a "Renaissance Zone," which gave extensive tax exemptions and benefits to property and business owners in the zone. That sent a clear message to the neighborhood, he adds. "We were trying to say to real estate interests and existing property owners and remaining businesses that if you stay here and you improve, we will reward you, we are incentivizing you to invest in this corridor."

The efforts of Chapla and his team of community supporters paid off. Several new businesses have since cropped up along Wealthy Street and the city has invested millions in public works projects in the blossoming area, including sidewalks and lighting.

"It's got a cool neighborhood bakery, a great retail store for household appliances, the theater of course, bars and restaurants, and antique stores," Chapla says.

Despite the economic revival Chapla has achieved, he never lost sight of the true motivating element behind his work: preserving the unique history of the Heritage Hill and Wealthy Street districts, and most of all, unifying the community.

"If we look around in the neighborhood in a community that has rich racial and cultural diversity, the success of it was the healing that occurred and the inclusionary aspects of what we were trying to do," he says. "This wasn't an economic takeover, this was an economic makeover."