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State and Local Law Facilitate Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: A Case Study on Adaptive Reuse

Cassidy Yelincic


  •  The benefits of using adaptive reuse over traditional construction practices.
  • How adaptive reuse fits into the Climate Resilient Development framework, supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • A case study of Durham, North Carolina to illustrate successful implementation of adaptive reuse policies.
State and Local Law Facilitate Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: A Case Study on Adaptive Reuse
Photos by R A Kearton via Getty Images

Adaptive Reuse: A Brief Introduction

Adaptive reuse is the repurposing of an existing building for new use. It is an effective historic preservation tool and requires less resources. Adaptive reuse in cities also promotes land conservation by limiting the number of undeveloped parcels that are developed for human use. Infill development, on the other hand, is development of vacant land. Infill development can lead to more problems than adaptive reuse development because infill development may take place on a  brownfield––areas that have been previously developed where there is potential or actual chemical contamination on the property––as opposed to greenfields, or sites that have not yet been developed.     

Another benefit of adaptive reuse is that there is already infrastructure for water, sewage, and transportation available, so less construction is necessary, decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the development process. Adaptive reuse projects, particularly buildings that are converted to mixed-use developments, can reduce urban sprawl by repurposing buildings within a city, like the projects discussed below, instead of starting new construction projects outside of developed areas in greenfields. When buildings within a city are redesigned via adaptive reuse, the more sustainable reuse may cut down on urban sprawl into a non-developed area, and thus commuting time by car is often reduced, reducing GHG emissions. Combustion of petroleum-based products like diesel fuel and gasoline make up the majority of emissions from the transportation sector, which is the largest source of GHG emissions in the United States.

Typically, new construction projects use cement and metals such as steel, which both contribute to GHG emissions.  Direct emissions from the production of cement occur through calcination, which takes place when limestone is heated and broken down.  Indirect emissions from cement production occur during the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas to heat the kiln, which breaks down the limestone. Overall, the concrete industry makes up  8 percent of global GHG emissions. Steel, the most used metal in construction projects, accounts for about  25 percent of all construction-originating emissions. GHGs are also emitted during the production of steel. By avoiding new construction projects, which often require financially and environmentally costly resources, and instead encouraging adaptive reuse, emissions in the construction industry can be meaningfully reduced.

The  Climate Resilient Development (CRD) framework is a way of combining climate change mitigation and adaptation to further the goals of sustainable development. The concept of CRD first appeared in  2006 but has developed alongside scientific advancements and collaborations between both private and public stakeholders. CRD has been endorsed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as an effective method of managing climate change. CRD incorporates adaptation, mitigation, enabling conditions, resilience, and equity into land use strategies; for the framework to be successfully implemented, local land use officials need to apply it through their governance to influence private actors, utilizing tools like comprehensive plans, zoning codes, and legislation. The CRD framework encourages adaptive reuse projects to adapt to climate change, mitigate resulting damages, and foster sustainable development for all.

The  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all United Nation (UN) Member States in 2015, outlines seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs). Most relevant here are Goals 11, (to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable) and 12 (to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns). The UN recognizes in these principles that many environmental and social justice issues go hand in hand.

Historical Development in North Carolina and Relevant Policies

In the early 1900s, North Carolina was known for its unbleached cloth; plaids, ginghams, denims, towels, socks, and flannel for industrial fabrics; clothing for working people; and tobacco. During World War I, American-made textile goods, specifically blankets and military uniforms, were in high demand. This sparked the North Carolina textile industry and triggered the expansion of textile mills in the state. In 1921, the production of textiles had doubled from 1914 and the mills were producing about $191 million worth of textiles annually. By 1923, North Carolina had become the leading textile-producing  state in the nation. However, companies began to seek textiles overseas, and North Carolina mills began to close.

Between 1975 and 1985, about 800 mills closed in the United States and the employment rate in North Carolina dropped significantly. In 1973, the number of workers in the North Carolina textile industry was around  293,600, which dropped to 211,300 in 1986 in large part due to decreased demand for U.S.-made goods after multiple free trade agreements with other countries encouraged textile and apparel imports. The facilities remained abandoned until recent years, when the people of North Carolina decided to give these mills a new purpose.

The state of North Carolina has created financial incentives for owners and developers who choose to renovate historic buildings through adaptive reuse, which allows an existing structure to be redesigned and repurposed instead of building a structure from scratch, thus reducing GHG emissions from standard construction practices, and also potentially  reducing hazardous solid waste.

The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, in conjunction with the National Park Service, administers tax credits to owners and developers of existing buildings and infrastructure. Owners and developers can receive up to a 25 percent state income tax credit for redeveloping historic structures and converting them to income-producing businesses. The volume of the tax credit is determined by  North Carolina General Statutes § 105-129.105 through 105-129.110. Property owners must apply for this credit and ensure all rehabilitation work meets the secretary of the interior's  Standards for Rehabilitation. Additionally, owners and developers can receive a state income tax credit for transforming a  non-income-producing structure. Applicants can receive an additional tax credit for redeveloping historic railroad stations or manufacturing mills through  North Carolina General Statutes § 105-129.70. Section 105‑129.71 allows a developer of a rehabilitated income-producing mill or railroad property to receive a tax credit up to 40 percent of the qualified rehabilitation expenditures. A developer of a non-income producing property can also receive a tax credit up to 40 percent of the qualified rehabilitation expenditures.

In accordance with North Carolina General Statutes § 160D-946, if developers would like a building that is not already recognized as a historic landmark to be recognized as such to receive a tax credit, they can apply to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. A property can be designated as a historic landmark if the following criteria are met, according to  Durham UDO Sec. 3.16, Historic District or Landmark Designation: 1. property is not currently undergoing renovation, unless renovation has been approved for state or federal tax credits; 2. the property is listed on either the National Register of Historic Places or on the Study List, been granted statewide significance by the State Historic Preservation Office, or the integrity of location, design, setting, materials, and workmanship are associated with local history; and 3. the governing body deems the property to possess distinction within the context or period of significance.

In addition to state tax credits, developers seeking to convert historic structures can utilize a grant from  Preservation Durham, an organization whose goal is to preserve historic structures in Durham. In addition to financial assistance, Preservation Durham offers educational and technical assistance to people who own or plan to purchase a historic property. The donations come from individuals and corporate sponsorships, not from the state or local government. The organization also keeps a  directory of members of Preservation Durham who are able to assist in adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

Implementation of Adaptive Reuse Policies

Durham’s downtown lost its appeal in the late 1900s and early 2000s due to urban sprawl and failed urban renewal, but the adaptive reuse of historic buildings across the downtown has brought attention back to the city and boosted the local economy. Renovating existing structures to suit a community’s current needs can be more cost-efficient and can liven up a previously lackluster street filled with vacant buildings.

The Bull Durham Tobacco Building, called “The Old Bull” by locals, is the oldest factory building in the city. Built in 1874, the building produced the first nationally marketed brand of tobacco products in the United States and once was the world’s largest tobacco factory. In 1987, as demand for tobacco products declined, the tobacco company shut down and the building was left abandoned until 2004 when renovations on this historic building began. Now, the Old Bull is full of office spaces, apartments, and condominiums.

West Village, located in Durham’s Historic District, is a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development that comprises six historic tobacco manufacturing structures, built between 1899 and 1926. Through adaptive reuse, they were converted into 375 apartments, office and lab spaces, retail spaces, and an Amtrak Station. These renovated structures span nine acres near multiple forms of public transportation, encouraging the use of Durham’s bus and train systems. Chesterfield Building, a part of the West Village, is the state’s third largest historic tax credit project. The total investment for this project was $84,000,000.

The Golden Belt is a restored textile mill, originally constructed in 1901, which produced cloth bags for smoking tobacco and  cigarette cartons until 1996. Now, the structure contains modern offices, lab space, art studios, dining options such as the locally known Two Roosters ice cream shop, a stage for live music and Hi-Wire Brewing. What once was an abandoned building is now a meeting space for people of all ages to enjoy. Events that happen at the Golden Belt are typically cost-free for visitors, meaning that there are limited financial barriers to enjoying this historical structure.

Enabling Conditions in North Carolina

These adaptive reuse projects further the  Downtown Durham Historic District Preservation Plan. This plan was adopted in 1989 and last amended in 2016. The plan’s purpose is to establish a formal policy on the preservation of the architectural heritage of Durham. This plan sets guidelines for potential owners and builders of historic structures that want to repurpose the space as well as signal which zoning districts are appropriate for adaptive reuse projects. The plan also showcases multiple examples of successful adaptive reuse projects in Durham. There have been  123 income-producing tax credit projects in Durham County since 1976, and 489 non-income-producing tax credit projects since 1998.

For adaptive reuse projects to be feasible, they must be allowed by local land use law. Ideally, this involves amending a city’s comprehensive plan to encourage adaptive reuse and then adopting zoning amendments that permit multiple new uses for older buildings. Site plan regulations should be similarly flexible, and waivers of standards must at times be permitted by administrative agencies, which should expedite the review and approval process. The planning and land use regulatory documents in the city of Durham exhibit all these characteristics.

For example, Durham’s Planning Department implemented a form-based code in the downtown area to allow mixed-use developments and address the needs of the downtown area better than Euclidean zoning could. Form-based codes permit multiple uses of buildings, making possible the adaptive reuse case studies described above. The adaptive reuse examples above are all located in the form-based code area of the downtown. The codes enabled all these projects to be mixed-use instead of just having one use, such as residential.

The Durham Planning Department understands that mixed-use zoning in a downtown area promotes commercial, dining, retail, etc. uses in the same area. In 2012, the city eliminated parking minimums and instead implemented parking maximums to lower costs for developers in the city.  Eliminating parking minimums allows a developer to utilize space that would otherwise go to parking. These changes in zoning and parking minimums were possible because of the enabling conditions that facilitated successful adaptive reuse projects in Durham.

Circumstances in Durham exhibit the existence of “enabling conditions [that] are key for implementing, accelerating and sustaining adaptation in human systems and ecosystems” (SPM C.5).  Enabling conditions are “political commitment and follow-through, institutional frameworks, policies and instruments with clear goals and priorities, enhanced knowledge on impacts and solutions, mobilization of and access to adequate financial resources, monitoring and evaluation, and inclusive governance processes.” Enabling conditions are key to the CRD framework.

There are a few ways in which these incentivized adaptive reuse projects in North Carolina could better fit into the CRD framework. The North Carolina General Statutes § 105-129.105 through 105-129.110, which establish the extent to which a tax credit can be claimed by owners and developers of these historic structures, could set more strict guidelines about what type of development is allowed and what type of retailers, housing, etc. can be incorporated into the updated structures to further equity in North Carolina. For example, a developer could be required to build a certain percentage of affordable housing options within the structure, or to use renewable energy sources.

Furthermore, Durham could create financial incentives for developers who utilize wood in their adaptive reuse projects in lieu of steel or cement. Recent research has shown that construction of buildings using wood and other bio-based materials, such as hemp and bamboo, can create a  carbon sink if enough buildings use these resources. Durham could also create an incentive for developers who prioritize  pedestrian-oriented design by ensuring that adequate sidewalks and bike lines are built outside of their developments.

The UN has stated that to achieve Goal 11 of the SDGs, municipalities must focus on implementing inclusive, resilient, and sustainable development policies. Adaptive reuse coordinates with Goal 11.4, which is to “strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.” These adaptive reuse projects in Durham restored historic structures within the city and honor their history while creating a productive space for the city to enjoy. Goal 11.A of the SDGs is to “support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” Again, these adaptive reuse projects in Durham were possible because of regional development planning and lead to positive economic, social, and environmental links within an urban area, while also preserving history, and encouraging use of public transportation. Lastly, adaptive reuse projects satisfy Goal 11.B, which is to “substantially increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans towards inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change[…]”. Adaptive reuse projects are an efficient use of resources because resources can be reused in a way that benefits the community the development is in, as well as mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions in the construction process.

Finally,  Goal 12 of the SDGs is to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, which involves encouragement of reusing, recycling, and refurbishing items to reduce waste and resources. Adaptive reuse, and specifically the projects in Durham, involve reusing and recycling building materials to redesign an existing structure. Therefore, Goal 12 is satisfied by adaptive reuse projects in general.

In conclusion, adaptive reuse projects are only as great as the enabling conditions of the municipality they are located in. Without the enabling conditions from Durham’s form-based code and the state tax credits, the above projects would not have been possible. Towns and cities alike should be encouraged to create such enabling conditions that allow for adaptive reuse in their municipality. This would not only further climate change adaptation and mitigation, but also sustainable development for all.