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Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern Midtown Urbanism

More "Urban" Is Not Always Better

by Michael R. Allen

The old Raiffie Vending Company building at 3663 Forest Park Avenue may not look like much, especially since its owner has let it sit without windows for the past three years. However, the two-story modern brick building has great qualities. Built in 1948, the building has a streamline modernist style that, while not greatly articulated here, is quietly attractive. Since the windows were part of the building design, the stylistic character was more clear before removal. Built of steel and brick masonry, the building is solid. This is the type of construction that is infinitely adaptable and practical for almost any use imaginable.

Of course, your mind might change when you see the new hotel that Sasak Corporation plans to build on the site of the modern warehouse. Five stories tall with wide street-level retail openings, this building adds more building density and urban connection to the site. Its masonry work is more interesting than that of the plain little box that now occupied the site, right? The hotel is a more urban building, you might think, and will add urban vitality to the site. Despite some flaws, like the 100-space garage in back being visible from the street through a pointless drive in front, this building makes the block more “urban” than the Raiffie building and thus constitutes an improvement.

Wrong.

Here is where the difference between rendering and reality comes into play. The developers are proposing to build this hotel at a cost of $90 per square foot, a price range below that of your average do-it-yourself Old North rehab. The masonry may look lovely in a tiny JPG, but it’s not going to be brick in real life. The hotel will be clad in precast panels, spaced by those oh-so-obvious black seams.

Is the shift to “more urban” worth it if it means throwing away better construction for a cheaply-built building that meets all of the rote urbanist qualities? I say no emphatically. We can’t keep throwing away buildings while we sit on an alarming amount of vacant land. There are many other sites in Midtown where a hotel could be built, and the old warehouse at 3663 Forest Park itself could be adapted if the developers wanted to try. But they’d have to spend more than $90 per square foot.

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