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 fa├žade, 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

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