Renew Newcastle began in 2008 in Newcastle, Australia, an industrial city on Australia’s east coast, not too far from Sydney. Like many industrial towns, Newcastle has struggled economically and had vacant properties in the downtown core. Renew Newcastle scouts out vacant storefronts and buildings and negotiates temporary use of these spaces with their landlords. The organization then seeks applications from artists, entrepreneurs, cultural programs and community groups to use and maintain the spaces until the landlord can find a paying tenant. This has the three-fold effect of keeping the propertiesin good repair; stimulating street traffic by creating new cultural options in the neighbourhood; and providing inexpensive spaces for new organizations. It’s a win-win-win situation.
Renew Newcastle serves as a sort of middle man matching landlords who hold vacant space with artists and entrepreneurs who have ideas about what to do with vacant spaces. The program is structured in such a way that it is effectively free for the landlord and very cheap for the participants. The landlord and the participants sign a license agreement rather than a lease, Renew Newcastle holds the necessary insurance, and the participants agree to pay for utilities and some other costs, as well as paying a nominal participation fee which covers some of Renew Newcastle’s own costs. Landlords don’t risk the loss of any future rental income because the agreements are made on a rolling 30 day basis. Renew Newcastle’s management screen proposals according to the specifics of a given space and then present a number of options to landlords, who ultimately choose their preferred candidate.
An Innovative Model
Renew Newcastle is an exciting project which seems to have done a lot to revitalize Newcastle’s downtown. One interesting innovation is the existence of an umbrella organization which can handle insurance, negotiate with landlords and sort through the delicious chaos of proposals that they surely receive. The presence of such an organization in any city could go along way towards making shared community spaces a reality. Another interesting idea is the rolling-lease, which is reassuring to landlords without being too onerous for small community organizations — it isn’t the ideal way to build an enduring institution, but it could be a good place to start.
Vacant Spaces in Toronto and the U.K.
The Empty Spaces Project documents a number of similar projects throughout the world. In Toronto, the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) has organized a pop-up shop project, using a similar model, to match would-be entrepreneurs with vacant retail space and revitalize their neighbourhood. Vacant retail spaces are particularly problematic in Toronto because the City of Toronto offers tax relief to landlords whose spaces are unoccupied — effectively encouraging them to raise rents and let space sit empty until they find a more profitable tenant. In 2011, Councillor Mike Layton introduced (unsuccessfully) legislation which proposed that ” the current commercial property tax relief program could be changed to encourage the support of small business start-ups, artists, community outreach, not-for-profits and other qualifying ventures, within these otherwise empty spaces by way of an Enterprise Incubation program in which property owners would need to register and make available their vacant properties in order to receive tax relief.” Such a project would benefit landlords, community groups and the city as a whole. Councilor Layton’s proposal provides a strong incentive for participation at no cost to the city without without mandating participation. With a new Mayor at the helm, perhaps this is an idea worth returning to.
Although they are doing a lot of good in their own way, Renew Newcastle and DECA’s pop-up shop project have so far mainly served to incubate new businesses — given the choice landlords often prefer projects that have the possibility of becoming market-rate tenants — rather than not-for-profit community spaces. However, one organization in the U.K. called 3space is working to make sure that vacant spaces are used for community projects. Check out their promotional video:
Valuing Space in Human Terms
In effect, Renew Newcastle gives people the chance to negotiate temporary control of space based on the originality and value of their ideas, rather than the size of cheque they are able to cut. Programs like Renew Newcastle ask landlords to consider a broad variety of criteria when choosing tenants. While yet another clothing store might be the most profitable use of a given property, an arts venue or a peer-to-peer learning facility could well produce much broader benefits to the community — including boosting foot traffic and making surrounding stores more profitable. Some landlords think in these terms already — many avoid raising rents on businesses that are important to the local community. What Renew Newcastle, and programs like it, have done is to institutionalize this relationship, creating a formal process within which people can discuss the use of space using the full spectrum of human language, rather than a monochrome of dollar signs. Legislative initiatives that provide municipal support for such programs are particularly appealing because they give organizers more leverage when advocating for the inclusion of community projects in addition to fledgling businesses.
City of Toronto Draft Legislation: Member Motion MM10.10, 2011.
DECA website: http://danfortheastcommunityassociation.com/
Renew Newcastle website: http://renewnewcastle.org/
Westbury, M. (2010) Creating Creative Enterprise Hubs: A Guide. Retrieved from http://emptyspaces.culturemap.org.au/RenewNewcastle
Westbury, M. (2011). RENEW NEWCASTLE: Reinventing the City. Municipal World, 121(4), 5-6.