Adaptive Reuse: A Green Alternative

Adaptive Reuse: A Green Alternative

The term adaptive reuse is defined as “the process of reusing an old site or building for a purpose other than which it was built or designed for” [Wikipedia]. Basically, it is the idea of repurposing an older building for a new or different use, as an alternative to demolition and redevelopment, or perhaps more simply – recycling existing buildings.

Adaptive reuse is often favored for its sustainability, the preservation of significant structures and/or its economic benefits relative to new construction. I’ve become increasingly aware of how much adaptive reuse happens in the marketplace, so it seemed worthwhile to explore this interesting concept in a bit more detail.


Specifically, old houses (or occasionally small residential income properties). Back in the day, a lot of older dwellings were located along what have become commercial thoroughfares. Many of these were torn down over the decades to facilitate construction of office buildings, shopping centers and other commercial uses. But a lot of these older homes still exist in some places, and because people aren’t usually excited about living on busy streets, they are often repurposed for a variety of commercial uses.

A great example of this phenomenon is in and around the Plaza Historic District in Old Towne Orange (on the National Register of Historic Places), specifically along Chapman Avenue and Glassell Street near Chapman University. Many historic period homes along these two streets in this locale have been converted to professional offices and related uses; the photo above is illustrative.

There are many others, usually scattered around in various commercial locations. The photo above is a popular burger place on Pacific Coast Highway south of downtown Huntington Beach, noting that restaurant use is also fair game for these old residential properties. Interestingly, the adjacent structure (to the left in the photo above) is a small apartment building still used for residential purposes on a street with daily traffic counts approaching 40,000 cars.

Old dwellings are less commonly converted to industrial uses, something that most often happens in areas that were originally residential and subsequently rezoned for industrial use; the photo above is an example, located in an unincorporated area in west San Bernardino County.

Above is an example of an old home in Beverly Hills, converted to a hotel. Built in 1939 as the home for silent movie stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, the mansion was subsequently converted to a hotel – Maison 140 – in 2001.

Large historic homes are also sometimes converted to cultural centers or event spaces; notable examples in Orange County are the Muckenthaler mansion in Fullerton ( and Casa Romantica in San Clemente (, both listed on the National Register.


In major cities across the United States and around the world, obsolete or under-performing office buildings are being converted to alternate uses, with hospitality a popularchoice. The economics and sustainability of adaptive reuse for hotel projects is clearly a factor, and such projects often have significantly shorter timelines compared to ground-up construction. A number of historically significant office buildings have been preserved by converting to hotels – the Press Hotel in Portland, Maine; Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.; and Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina are notable examples.

Excellent examples of this trend can be found along Century Boulevard heading towards Los Angeles International Airport. The LAX office submarket has historically under-performed (low rents and high vacancy), sparking interest in conversion, since hotels in this area enjoy strong occupancy rates. One of the first of these conversions was a 12-story office built in 1982, converted to a Residence Inn that opened in 2015. The photo above depicts another 12-story office built in 1963, converted to a dual-branded Hilton product that opened in 2017. The Airport Center office building adjacent to the Residence Inn is currently in the process of hotel conversion, and at least one other vacant 1960’s office building in the LAX submarket has also had multiple proposals for conversion to a boutique hotel.

An online article has photos and stories about eleven unique hotels around the world that were creatively adapted from former uses (, one of which is the Liberty Hotel in Boston, a former mid-1800’s prison where I attended a wedding several years ago.

Conversion to residential use is also not uncommon for office buildings. A great example is the 1100 Wilshire building just west of downtown Los Angeles shown above. The structure was originally designed and built as a triangular glass office tower over a parking structure in the late 1980’s, but never occupied, ultimately purchased by a consortium including Forest City Development in 2004, and converted to 228 condominiums. This high-rise building has the distinction of being the first modern structure converted under the city’s 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance.


While office buildings are being converted to hotels, distressed or obsolete hospitality uses are sometimes converted to other uses as well, frequently low-income housing. A recent article notes how this trend is playing out locally and around the country (

The photos above are before and after depictions of one of the properties mentioned in the article, originally a blighted motel in Santa Ana, converted to 72 units of homeless housing that opened earlier this year (before photo courtesy of Ken Steinhardt at the Orange County Register in an article originally published 10/28/16 at Same building, with a different look and different use.

A number of hotels and motels are being converted to homeless housing, including the Sandman Motel referenced in the article, and others in Los Angeles that have been acquired by the Aids Healthcare Foundation. The Foundation is encouraging the city to utilize the adaptive reuse model in connection with $1.2 billion in Proposition HHH bond money for supportive housing approved by voters in 2016, noting reduced costs and timelines to provide needed housing for the homeless.

In a slightly different spin on hospitality, the old Queen of Angeles hospital (above) is a highly visible structure off U.S. 101 between downtown and Hollywood. It was originally built in the 1920’s and closed in 1989, subsequently acquired by the Dream Center, a Pentecostal Christian Church, currently using the property for supportive housing and services.


As an alternative to demolition, obsolete industrial buildings are often converted to creative office space, capitalizing on the open layout of such buildings and a strong demand for creative space, which is no longer considered just a niche office product. Older loft buildings have also found new life as residential projects, particularly in downtown Los Angeles.

Throughout areas of central Orange County, older industrial and flex product is being converted to creative offices, exemplified by this building, one of three in a project called Create Tustin. Similar conversions are happening elsewhere in Tustin, Irvine and Costa Mesa, including the old Los Angeles Times printing plant, proposed for conversion to The Press, a 350,000-square foot creative office campus.

In downtown Los Angeles, old industrial lofts are also being converted to creative office space, like the Harris Building. This 7-story structure dating to the 1920’s is located on the edge of South Park, to include retail and restaurant space on the ground floor, and creative offices upstairs. A similar concept is envisioned for the old Herald Examiner building a block away, originally designed by architect Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst (

During the 2000’s, there was a flurry of multi-family development downtown, including conversion of many old industrial lofts; depicted above is the Barker Block in the Arts District, an old warehouse converted to 310 live/work condominiums in 2007.


It’s no secret that the popularity of online shopping has upended bricks and mortar retail stores. Think about any number of large retailers that have bit the dust – Borders, Circuit City, Radio Shack, Sharper Image, Sports Authority and Tower Records, to name a few.

Sears is the latest to succumb to the new market dynamics, announcing the closure of hundreds of stores nationwide over the last two years, including local Sears stores in Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Santa Monica, City of Industry and Thousand Oaks. Two of these in Boyle Heights and Santa Monica are iconic Art Deco structures that will be repurposed into mixed uses – creative office space, shops and a rooftop garden in Santa Monica (exterior above, click on for interior renderings); the Boyle Heights location includes a 10-story distribution warehouse, with plans to convert to over 1,000 live/work units, offices, food court, event space and rooftop restaurant.

Westside Pavilion, a hugely popular regional shopping center back in the day, has also been impacted by online shopping, plus competition from nearby retail centers, including Westfield Century City, Santa Monica Place and Third Street Promenade, recently losing its last two anchor tenants, Nordstrom and Macy’s. Over the next three years, most of this shopping mall will be converted to creative office space. (It was recently announced in January 2019 that Google has leased most of this property, now called One Westside, in a 14-year deal expected to start in late 2021.)

On the subject of department stores, the Eastern Columbia building (above), a well-known art deco landmark in the Historic Core of downtown Los Angeles, was originally a department store built in 1930, converted to 147 residential condominiums with rooftop pool in 2007.

Going way back in time, there are those of us old enough to remember the chain of White Front discount department stores that existed through the mid-1970’s. Growing up in Downey, I definitely remember this one, purchased by Calvary Chapel in 1978 and converted to a church campus.

The photos above depict what was once a citrus packing facility in Anaheim, built in the 1920’s and listed on the National Register, since converted to an upscale food court – the Anaheim Packing House.

Automotive uses are not immune to this trend either, often converted to a variety of more conventional retail uses. The photos above depict an old auto service facility that has instead been converted to a very nice event space – the Smog Shoppe – I actually attended a wedding here a few months ago. Note the second photo, showing various features of the original building that have been retained and incorporated into the reworked design (photo from venue website, courtesy of Smog Shoppe).

Another example is the original Gilmore Gas Station in Hollywood, a 1930’s Streamline Moderne design that was a popular backdrop for movies, commercials and photo shoots. Although designated as a historical-cultural monument in 1992, the structure was vacant for the next 20 years, before being restored and converted to a drive-through Starbucks (before photo from property website, courtesy of Starbucks).

Anyone traveling to Palm Springs on Highway 111 will probably notice the distinctive Tramway Gas Station before entering town, a mid-1960’s collaboration of noted modernist architects Albert Frey and Robson Chambers; this structure was almost demolished in the 1990’s, but was preserved and is now home to the Palm Springs Visitors Center, recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Since we are out in the desert, there was a popular restaurant in Cathedral City built in the 1950’s, a place that morphed into a nightclub over the ensuing years. Its most infamous incarnation was a place known as “The Last Nights of Pompeii,” complete with a replica of Mount Vesuvius next to the building. The nightclub was eventually closed, purchased by Glory to God Ministries in 2006, and ultimately converted to a church (above).

Other Interesting Stuff

The Queen Mary is a rather extraordinary example of adaptive reuse. For years after her maiden voyage in 1936, the ship was considered one of the grandest ocean liners in the world. The vessel was stripped of its luxury accoutrements and used to transport troops during World War II. The ship was refitted for passenger use and resumed service to Europe in 1947, continuing for two decades until her retirement in 1967, at which time she came to Long Beach and has been a popular hotel and event venue ever since (my 10th and 35th high school reunions were held here). Go to for more information.

The Tustin Marine Corps Air Station dates to World War II, used to house lighter-than-airships (blimps), and subsequently converted to use for helicopter operations during the Korean War, ultimately decommissioned in 1999. A central feature of the property is two giant blimp hangars (one shown above), among the largest wooden structures ever built, earning them a listing as Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks, also listed on the National Register. They have been featured in a number of well-known movies and TV shows, and are now located within a large master-planned community known as Tustin Legacy. While there is clearly a desire to preserve at least one of the structures, it doesn’t appear that anyone has figured out exactly what to do with them. Read more here:

Lanterman State Hospital in Pomona originally opened in 1927, and over several decades (and name changes) of serving the needs of people with developmental disabilities, ceased operation in 2015 and was acquired by Cal Poly Pomona, recently in discussion with FivePoint Communities to take over master development of the 300-acre site, which would likely include repurposing existing buildings, some of which may have historical significance (

A nondescript group home on Manzanares Street in Mexico City was constructed in the late 1500’s, the oldest house in Mexico City and one of the oldest in North America. It was recently acquired by a city housing agency with plans to demolish and rebuild modern apartments, until they discovered the age of the building; it is now being renovated and converted to a community center (

Rocky Flats was a nuclear weapons production facility northwest of Denver that operated for four decades after World War II, ceasing operation in 1992 after extensive plutonium contamination of the surrounding area. A subsequent cleanup effort removed 21 tons of weapons-grade material, achieving closure in 2006, following a criminal investigation by the FBI and Congressional hearings involving the DOJ. While the “central operable unit” remains a Superfund site and off-limits to the public, the surrounding buffer zone has been repurposed as the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, despite lawsuits and skepticism about the safety of the property (