Environment: Being Bold with the Old

One of the more remarkable aspects of downtown renewal today is not really construction at all. Instead of tearing down sturdy old structures (what would Rome be if that had been the Italian approach?), builders are renovating them and turning them to new uses. The process—alas, called "recycling" in current jargon—has caught on across the U.S. In Salt Lake City trolley-car barns now house an entertainment center; a Cleveland power plant has become a theater; what was once a torpedo factory in Alexandria, Va., is an arts center.

The rationale is part aesthetic—the old buildings often have a certain charm and a...

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