The basics of adaptive reuse

Defining the three main types of adaptive reuse to plan for in your community.

Adaptive reuse is an area that is an often included, some say required, component of community master plans. But just what is adaptive reuse? 

Adaptive reuse is the process of adapting old structures and sites for new purposes. For example, there may be a part of your community that is designed as an old strip mall with older box stores and parking in front. Adoptive reuse might include moving commercial activity up closer to the road, installing sidewalks, and adding parking and connecting service roads in the rear.

Given a renewed interested in community sustainability, there are several benefits to adaptive reuse. These advantages include:

  • Infrastructure (utilities, roads, etc.) are already in place.
  • Nearby residential neighborhoods can provide employees and markets for new commercial development.
  • There is more efficient use of land, as opposed to developing greenfield sites.
  • Redevelopment is more sustainable since reuse encourages non-motorized activity and less use of land and materials. 

Adaptive reuse covers several different areas. There are three main areas to focus on for adaptive reuse, and we usually define them as follows. Each has its own issues and incentives programs to make them easier to accomplish.   


A greyfield is property that has been developed and has infrastructure in place but whose use is outdated or blocks access to the best continued use or redevelopment of the real estate. A greyfield is a site that was designed for a use that has not evolved with the times and is no longer economically viable. Many greyfields began as enclosed malls or strip malls that have been passed by as a result of market changes. Shifts in population, demographic and market changes, and reductions in traffic volumes because of new highways all contribute to a site becoming a greyfield. The original use is no longer marketable, and the existing buildings do not adapt well to other uses.


A brownfield is property in which the expansion, redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. A site is deteriorated and becomes environmentally unsafe. Contamination makes further use unsafe, and the direct cost of removing the hazards is greater than the potential return on investment. Often, brownfields began as industrial plants or businesses who had processes that resulted in contamination of the soil or groundwater or had hazardous materials, such as lead or asbestos, present in the building.


Historic reuse are buildings and sites with historical and cultural value and therefore cannot be profitably reused because of their layout and/or because the cost of preserving their historical or cultural aspects is too high. Historically significant buildings help preserve our heritage and reflect our culture. Historic reuse seeks a way to preserve these historic and cultural treasures and allow for uses that are sustainable over the long run. Most historical sites were buildings of significant civic importance. These structures are still architecturally significant and have local cultural value because of historic persons or events associated with them. Historic reuse is often truly an adaptive reuse – the redeveloped use may be totally different from the original use.

There are similarities and differences between the three types of reuse. If fact, many deteriorated sites are situations where two or all three types exist. Any one, two or three types present at a site can make the rehabilitation of the property a challenge. 

Communities that want to address adaptive reuse in their master plan need to consider several things:

  1. Recognize how the master plan plays a role in redevelopment. In order to enable redevelopment in your community, your master plan needs to address redevelopment specifically. You can amend your master plan or create a redevelopment plan. It might be integrated throughout the master plan or can be incorporated as a separate chapter. You will need to identify the types of redevelopment and the specific locations in the community which become target areas to concentrate resources for redevelopment.
  2. Identify ways to build public support for redevelopment projects. The community needs to offer opinions and ideas regarding redevelopment so that the master plan represents the public’s wishes. Because redevelopment means change for the community, this process often involves a new challenge: facilitating community consensus. 
  3. Identify the sections of the master plan that should include redevelopment. This approach typically means you add a chapter or section to your master plan that addresses all aspects of redevelopment. If creating a separate redevelopment plan, you will need to ensure that the master plan and the redevelopment plan do not contradict each other. 
  4. Identify practices that are essential to implementing the redevelopment plan. An inventory of potential reuse sites provides the community with an information base of potential development locations. This is important to allow the community to create a redevelopment plan and prioritize redevelopment areas. Inventories are started by identifying vacant, obsolete and underutilized sites in the area. Some candidates are quite obvious. They are vacant, deteriorating or have some other negative impact on surrounding properties. Just as you conduct various analyses as part of the master planning process, you need to do a redevelopment site analysis. This is not to analyze site alternatives or conditions.  The site analysis is to take stock of what you have so that you can make goal, objective and strategy (issue, policy) statements that appropriately address redevelopment potentials. The details you might consider tracking in the analysis are the size of the parcel, building dimensions, condition of structures, utilities to the site, ownership, taxes, environmental conditions, historic designations and easements. Others sites to include in the inventory are those whose current physical structure do not support the desired characteristics of the neighborhood.
  5. Identify actions the community can take to demonstrate it is redevelopment ready. Instead of waiting for a developer to come to you, the community itself can put on a developer’s hat and get the ball rolling. Communities can be proactive by accomplishing some of the up-front work that developers would normally have to undertake, sometimes at a significant cost. In order to enable redevelopment in your community, your master plan needs to address redevelopment specifically. You can amend your master plan or create a redevelopment plan

This is just the beginning of thinking about adaptive reuse in your community. Michigan State University Extension has training programs on adaptive reuse that can be delivered in your community. For more information on adaptive reuse in your community, contact a Michigan State University Extension Land Use Educator

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