1 March 2024

What’s Next?

Repositioning Strategies to Transform Cities

Shannon Carpenter Bearden, AIA, RID, NCARB

Recently, a former client challenged me to think about the next generation of building asset repositioning. With record-breaking office vacancy rates across the country, rapidly evolving workplace preferences and the growing need for affordable housing, our nation’s downtowns are facing challenges nearly unheard of before the events of 2020. The commercial real estate market has put forth a range of ideas, from office-to-residential conversions to extreme calls for demolition and clean-slate redevelopment. These concepts, however, often fall short because they are limited to addressing individual buildings in a piecemeal approach. A more meaningful solution addresses the needs of the future by thinking beyond singular building walls.

I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience and complete the repositioning of existing buildings for nearly two decades, including three iconic Dallas office towers—Santander Tower (formerly Thanksgiving Tower), Parkside Tower at 3500 Maple, and Reunion Tower—and the transformation of the original Neiman Marcus headquarters into the new Administration Building for Fort Worth ISD. Each of these projects had the common theme of bringing new life to a tired, yet strong and beautiful structure. Our goal was to amenitize and create a best-in-class experience for those who spend their workdays within these walls or, in the case of Reunion Tower, captivate travelers from all over the world with an experience unlike any other. These projects are the reason I fell in love with renovations and repositionings – creating new futures for our existing building stock by being intentional with how we transform the built environment.

By definition, building repositioning refers to the process of revitalizing or repurposing underutilized buildings and spaces to meet ever-changing market demands, enhance value, and improve overall performance. The idea began to draw significant attention during the financial crisis of 2008 and has gained momentum as a sustainable and cost-effective approach to meet evolving market demands. Instead of demolishing and rebuilding structures, repositioning projects involve strategic modifications to existing buildings that optimize their functionality, aesthetics, and market appeal. This approach promotes environmental sustainability, preserves architectural and cultural heritage, and maximizes the value of real estate assets.

Tryba Architects has stood out as a leader in repurposing and revitalizing cities for over thirty-five years through innovative adaptive reuse and repositioning. One of my favorite examples is Denver’s 1900 Sixteenth Street, an 18-story mixed-use office tower adjacent to the city’s iconic Millennium Bridge, linking the Central Platte Valley to Lower Downtown. Tryba’s original 2008 design includes enduring features such as a light-filled two-story lobby and a unique landscaped entrance plaza surrounded by ground-floor retail and tenant amenities. However, over the years the neighborhood emerged from the fringes of downtown to become one of the city’s most vibrant locations. Given the unique opportunity to reinvigorate the lobby in 2020, Tryba transformed a formerly pass-through lobby into an activated gathering space with a range of social and quiet zones, a library, and coffee shop. Local materials and artwork create a unique sense of place, while a bold mix of colors and textures add variety and elevate the experience of the grand entrance. The newly reimagined and amenitized space now reflects the vibrant Union Station neighborhood and the forward-thinking tenants the building has attracted.

The same repositioning strategies used for individual buildings can be applied to revitalize urban environments. Designers and developers can play a major role in enhancing experience of place if we look beyond individual structures, leveraging surrounding buildings’ assets and amenities, working together to provide best-in-class amenitized campuses within a city. For example, in this diagram, a downtown city block is shown in its current state, with a large surface parking lot surrounded by a variety of vacant buildings and underutilized parcels. The site is characterized by a sea of asphalt, a lack of landscaping and virtually no opportunity for moments of pedestrian inclusion. Applying next-generation urban repositioning strategies, we create a vision for a campus-like network of fully-utilized repositioned and infill buildings that work in tandem to establish an integrated environment, connected by a shared park amenity that benefits all users.

A variety of other simple strategies can include converting one-way streets for intentional moments of pause, adding exterior dining experiences, thoughtfully designing bike and pedestrian lanes, carefully studying parking needs and parking utilization and reinventing the plaza with less concrete and more greenery. Designing for the human scale, we can create the feeling of safety, comfort and wellbeing that inherently leads users from space to space and generates a desire to come back and further explore, or continue to visit.

Tryba Architects was a pioneer in adaptive reuse and urban-scale repositioning with Mercantile Square, winner of the AIA Colorado and Western Mountain Region’s 25-year award for remaining vital and vibrant nearly three decades after completion. The six masonry buildings that comprise Mercantile Square date from the late 1800s and turn of the century, encompassing 250,000 SF of mixed affordable and market-rate residential units, locally-owned retail and an innovative activated pedestrian alley. The restoration and adaptive reuse of the buildings created a new town center for the neighborhood and weaves the area's heritage with the needs of the present. Mercantile Square was the first multi-building mixed use adaptive redevelopment in Lower Downtown—the catalyst for reinvestment in and preservation of today’s revitalized historic district.

As architects, planners and interior designers we are challenged to consider how our built environments provide ease of use, simplify daily tasks, and maximize real estate investments. Perhaps most importantly, we must consider how we can create places that connect us. Renowned urban planner Jane Jacobs stated, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Successful design focuses on the human experience—arrival, psychological safety, and longevity of timeless craft. A cohesive and connected live/work/play/worship ecosystem provides greater ability for choice and freedom in one's daily schedule, enhanced by greater access to community amenities such as parks and green space. The result is the creation of a thoughtful destination of choice for employers, employees, visitors, residents, and future residents.

At the heart of repositioning remains the individuals impacted by the building(s) and the built environment through daily use. Studies show high performing workplaces, retailers, and urban residences are located in "amenity rich" neighborhoods. Repositioning singular buildings does serve a purpose, much like renovating your own home to your current aesthetic and needs. But what if we thought even bigger, and embraced repositioning on an urban scale? By imagining a city block, a campus, or a neighborhood as one large mixed-use development combining multiple functions, such as residential, commercial, and recreational spaces, we can create vibrant communities and capitalize on synergies between different property types.

As our cities and our patterns of living and working evolve, the challenge for designers and developers is to think about the future and those who will use the built environment beyond our lifetime. By re-examining our approach toward reuse and repositioning, we can prevent the environmental consequences of unnecessary demolition, extend the useful lifespan of buildings and infrastructure, and allow these assets to re-emerge as vital contributors to the economic and cultural life of our cities.