Landscapes of thrift and choreographies of change : reinvestment and adaptation along Austin’s commercial strips

Date
2013-05
Authors
Minner, Jennifer Suzanne
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Abstract

Commercial strips are ubiquitous elements of the American landscape. They offer important opportunities for inquiry into the ways in which cities are adapted, preserved, and redeveloped over time. This research examines the dynamics of reinvestment along central city commercial strips in Austin, Texas. Research was aimed at understanding the relationship between reinvestment in existing commercial buildings and larger processes of redevelopment and change along commercial strips undergoing transition. Case study commercial strips were selected that had been established in the early to mid-twentieth century and that had experienced decline and subsequent reinvestment. Historic patterns of land use, transportation, and economic trends are described and related to the relatively recent growth of concentrations of local businesses and reinvestment activity along case study commercial strips. “Core samples” of preservation and adaptive reuse were examined using spatial data, building surveys, historical data, and interviews with associated actors. Additional interviews were conducted with actors who have initiated, influenced, and regulated reinvestment, including business and property owners, developers, neighborhood activists, a media correspondent, city officials, among others. This research details the private, public, and community-based actors who shape the character of reinvestment; the influx of new businesses and retention of iconic businesses; and conflicts and negotiations at the edges of commercial and residential districts and between public and private sectors. The dissertation relates observations along Austin’s commercial strips to four themes identified in the literature and their associated views of improvement: 1. commercial strips as “wicked problems” of land use and transportation; 2. commercial strips as cultural landscapes and roadside heritage; 3. commercial strips as concentrations of commercial properties with opportunities for sustainability and retrofitting of commercial properties; and 4. commercial strips as contested arenas of gentrification.

This research highlights the importance of understanding the durability of existing land development patterns and of incorporating an understanding of the continued and adaptive use of buildings and urban fabric in land use planning. It presents emerging opportunities for preservation practice beyond standard practices of survey and landmarking. It illustrates the many ways in which actors have agency, or “choreograph” change individually and collectively, in responding to opportunities and challenges presented in the context of social and economic change.

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