Monday, May 23, 2016

Repurposing stranded assets for arts and artists

By Leonardo Vazquez, Executive Director, The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking

Preface: PlanSmart NJ, an NCCP partner, is exploring how to reuse vacant suburban office parks and retail centers at its Regional Planning Summit on June 7, 2016.  Here are some thoughts on how these spaces can be revitalized through creative placemaking.

Fifty years ago, central cities with industrial spaces were facing their own challenges with stranded assets.  Manufacturers and warehousing companies were leaving urban centers to move to new suburban spaces around the region (or elsewhere in the country.)

In some neighborhoods, like downtown Manhattan south of Houston Street, the spaces weren’t empty for long.  Painters and sculptors enjoyed the big industrial windows that let in a lot of light, the high ceilings, and the open floor plans.  Musicians, dancers and other performers could practice their craft in buildings that were strong enough to handle noise and vibrations.  They had the room to live and work in the same space, which were often affordable because back then most people who weren’t artists didn’t want to live in or a near an old warehouse. By 1973, that part of downtown Manhattan became SoHo, and the ‘loft’ spaces that artists pioneered are highly desirable real estate.

Today’s suburban office parks and vacant retail spaces can be just as useful to working artists.  Many office park buildings offer spaces with large open floor plans that can be easily subdivided for individual artists, conference rooms that could be used for collaborative work, plenty of electrical power and high speed internet capacity, and room in the lobbies and in outdoor spaces for exhibitions and performances. 

While some suburban office parks around the United States are getting wholesale conversions into
Vacant office building in Colorado. 
mixed-use spaces, using all or part of an office park for artists’ spaces is relatively new. In 2015, the nonprofit Artomatic held a six-week exhibit of visual art, music, performances and films at 8100 Corporate Drive, a Hyattsville, Maryland office park.  More events like Artomatic could help create a proof of concept to show that artists and their patrons would use these spaces.

Turning suburban office parks into spaces that provide housing, retail and businesses – essentially creating mini-districts or new neighborhoods can be relatively expensive and carries enhanced risk.  Providing low-cost space – and surplus furniture and equipment -- to artists, makers, and small entrepreneurs could be a faster, less expensive and less risky approach to repurposing a property.

In many cities, owners of vacant retail spaces allow artists and entrepreneurs to create pop-up stores.  The stores may last for a month or a season. Many owners who allow pop-ups see this as a way to generate some income and interest potential long-term tenants in the spaces.  In some cases, such as in Chelsea Food Market, some spaces are permanent pop-ups.  The vendors change, but the space remains for temporary uses.  (Often these uses are for clothing, jewelry, artwork, or other commercial uses that do not require the installation of new equipment or the creation of new interior spaces. Individual merchants can separate themselves with divider spaces, temporary walls, or just by spacing themselves apart from one another. This low-cost, low-risk approach allows a property owner to offer new and different experiences that can bring back shoppers.

The biggest challenges for owners of suburban stranded assets are visibility and consumer concept. In busy urban areas, many people might pass by a building on foot and can be drawn in by clever signage, an interesting faƧade, and what they can see through the windows. It takes very little time for someone to step into a building directly from the street. Tourists and other visitors tend to be open to the surprise of going into a converted bank or warehouse.

For the most part, suburban office parks and suburban shopping centers are designed for people who already know they want to go there.  A person driving near a steel-and-glass office park that is set far back from the street is unlikely to stop there to see ‘what is going on.’  Suburban malls tend to hide their activities from the street behind solid concrete walls and seas of parking spaces.
To increase visibility, property owners should consider working with artists to develop highly visible displays of arts – such as murals, gardens as well as outdoor art exhibits and performances.  To help change what consumers and potential lessees think of suburban office parks and malls, host a wide variety of events.  One event may not quickly change many minds, but many events can get more people to think more creatively about these spaces.

The NationalConsortium for Creative Placemaking, based in Union, NJ, works to build capacity, community and connections for better creative placemaking in the United States.  NCCP partners with PlanSmart on building the field of creative placemaking in New Jersey.

Image: By Xnatedawgx (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Learn how Community Coaching can help you do better creative placemaking

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP

Community Coaching is a proven way to build high-quality creative placemaking plans and the stewards to help implement them.  You can learn more about this unique approach to community planning and team building this week at an online information session or an exhibition of a successful Creative Placemaking plan.

On Tuesday, May 24, 1 pm eastern, NCCP will host an online information session on Community Coaching.  On Thursday, May 26, from 6 to 8, the Perth Amboy (NJ) Arts Council will hold a special reception and exhibit of Creative Perth Amboy, their award-winning creative placemaking plan developed through Community Coaching.   If you can't participate in either of these events, there will be another information session on June 23.

Community coaching in Perth Amboy, NJ. Image by Noelle Zaleski
Community Coaching, which was created by The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking, brings together a diverse group of community stakeholders for six to nine months to develop a creative placemaking plan and a team to help guide its implementation.  The group is paired with a Community Coach, who meets with the members regularly to help them develop their vision, clarify their values, select and prioritize strategies, and determine how best to organize to guide its implementation.  The group also explores social, cultural and economic challenges to achieving the goals of the plan.

Sixteen communities in Louisiana and New Jersey have participated in Community Coaching, and have implemented significant portions of their plans.  In 2016, the City of Perth Amboy received the statewide Outstanding Plan - Municipal award from the American Planning Association New Jersey chapter.  The program is available throughout the United States.

Not only does the process lead to plans and leadership teams, it also helps participants understand better the various roles that arts and artists can play in enhancing communities, nurture new partnerships, and build the confidence of team members in their leadership skills and capacity to produce lasting impacts.

Questions?  Please feel free to contact NCCP Executive Director Leonardo Vazquez at 973-763-6352 or by email.

Monday, May 16, 2016

NEA grant will help NCCP, PlanSmart NJ and partners build creative placemaker community in New Jersey

By Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP

The National Endowment for the Arts Our Town program has approved PlanSmart NJ and The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking for a two-year, $50,000 grant to help build the field of creative placemaking in New Jersey.  The grant, announced in May, was awarded to advance this growing practice.

This grant will help grow several strategies to build a supportive, learning community among people who work to make places better through arts and cultural activity.

Funding will support convenings that bring together hundreds of people, such as the Creative
Community building at the 2016 Creative Placemaking
Leadership Summit
Placemaking Leadership Summit
, the Creative Placemaking Knowledge Exchange and Creative Team Roundtables; thought leadership to build a more welcoming climate for arts and creativity; and Community Coaching.  Each community that completes Community Coaching will receive an extra 10 hours of technical assistance per year, thanks to the grant.  PlanSmart NJ and NCCP will create a community advisory board of partners and representatives of Community Coaching teams to enhance the impact of the upcoming work.

Through research, policy briefings and guides, PlanSmart NJ influences leaders and policymakers in New Jersey to make wiser decisions around land use and sustainable development.  The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking (NCCP) works to build capacity, connections and community among creative placemakers throughout the United States. NCCP organizes interesting, informative and useful convenings; designed and leads the Certification in Creative Placemaking program at The Ohio State University; conducts webinars and workshops; designed and conducts the Community Coaching program; conducts research on the creative economy; and influences leaders from the neighborhood to the national level. 

PlanSmart and NCCP have worked together on several projects.  Among them were the development of the creative placemaking research and strategies in the award-winning Together North Jersey initiative.

To learn more about how this grant can help your community, please contact NCCP Executive Director Leonardo Vazquez by email or at 973-763-6352.

PlanSmart NJ Executive Director Ann Brady contributed to this report.