Older, smaller, better

by John Neiuber


On a recent Friday evening, after enjoying a movie with the grandchildren, we ensconced ourselves on the patio of a restaurant at the public plaza, enjoying cold beverages and the breeze that was taking the edge off a hot day. The musicians were setting up their equipment and the visitors were beginning to fill the plaza and the restaurant patios.

Sonja Stump and Bob Fagg, “serial” volunteers and promoters of all things Claremont, were setting up the table to advertise the Village Marketing Group’s next event. A friend joined us as the music began. We said or waived hello to a number of friends and acquaintances. The grandchildren could not resist the rhythmic temptation of the music and had to get closer to the band.  

So, why is this history columnist and preservationist writing about an idyllic summer evening spent at a fairly new development? It is not historic. It is not ground-breaking architecture. No one is trying to tear it down. All correct.

Simply put, Village West is an excellent example of how a city can bring in new development that complements and enhances historic districts. It was not without controversy, however, or without its battles.

There were many residents who thought the expansion of the Village would signal the death of the historic east Village—that the businesses there would not be able to compete. Preservationists had to mount an effort to save the Packing House and the Ice House office.

In the end, the Village expanded, the size and scale of the new development was in keeping with the Village Design Guidelines, the Packing House and Ice House office were adaptively reused and the Village businesses, both east and west, flourished, except for that period of time as the result of the great recession of 2007.

The Preservation Green Lab, an initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently released a new study titled, “Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality.” The impetus for the study was something from Jane Jacobs’ book, written in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she observed, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”

The report from the Preservation Green Lab validates Ms. Jacobs’ hypothesis and found that “neighborhoods containing a mix of older, smaller buildings of different ages support greater levels of positive economic and social activity than areas dominated by new, larger buildings.”

Certainly, the decision to keep the size and scale of Claremont’s expansion to that of the existing Village and the adaptive reuse of historic buildings was the right call, which research now confirms.

The study found that older, mixed-use neighborhoods are more walkable; young people love old buildings; nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages; older business districts provide affordable, flexible space for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds; a creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods; older, smaller buildings provide space for a strong local economy; and older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density.


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