OPEN and closed? Future of CoSA's pop-up experiment uncertain

Katie Pell's furniture shop and art gallery is one of the pop-ups filling empty storefronts on Houston Street. Photo by Ben Judson.

Ben Judson wrote a regular column on urban planning and public spaces for the now-defunct  Plaza de Armas. A frequent theme was a better use of downtown's vacant buildings, so we asked him to check out the Center City Development Office's pop-up shop initiative OPEN. You can check the shops for yourself today (Tuesday) from 4-9 p.m. and this Saturday from 12-9 p.m.

OPEN, a Center City Development Office initiative to fill empty storefronts along Houston Street with creative local businesses for the holidays, has been a success, but the program’s future is unclear. Tuesdays and Saturdays in December have seen once-empty windows filled with a pop-up wine bar, art gallery, and small retail stores geared to holiday shopping. “[OPEN] has been very successful. We are looking at doing it again next December, or possibly doing something similar on an ongoing basis,” said Colleen Swain, Assistant Director of CCDO.

As we head into our fourth year of Mayor Castro’s Decade of Downtown, office vacancy within the urban core remains stubbornly high at 33 percent, even as areas around downtown, such as River North and Southtown, see increased development. The costs of vacant buildings extend beyond a smaller tax base, difficulties attracting the young, well-educated workforce thought to prize lively urban environments, and the concern that tourists will face disappointment as they venture beyond the Riverwalk.

A 2005 report on the impacts of vacancy points to the costs of fires, higher rates of drug use and violence, lower property values for nearby lots, and demolition all straining city budgets. A study in Austin found that blocks with vacant buildings had more than three times as many drug-related calls to police and almost twice as many theft reports as fully occupied blocks. Over a five year period, St Louis spent more than $15 million on vacant building demolition alone.

Facing these challenges, and seeking to rebuild a sense of place, many cities have started to take a more active role in helping property owners fill downtown storefronts and office spaces. One popular approach is the pop-up store – short-term occupancy for artists and entrepreneurs who might otherwise work out of their homes and sell their wares on Etsy.

The success of Renew Newcastle has inspired a systematic approach to encouraging pop-ups in vacant storefronts. The non-profit based in Newcastle, Australia is credited with turning a largely empty, post-industrial downtown into a thriving creative center, all on a $90,000 annual budget.

Renew Newcastle connects property owners and artisans with low-risk license agreements (as opposed to leases), which give the tenant an inexpensive rental option for an as-is vacant space, while freeing the building owner from both liability and lost opportunity costs. If a new tenant comes along willing to pay market rates (or the owner decides to sell the building), the pop-up has a week to vacate. No wasted time waiting for the lease to expire, or going through a difficult eviction process.

After initially learning about this program through work with Project for Public Spaces, CCDO decided to use a similar technique to fill empty spaces on Houston Street with local business pop-ups for the holiday shopping season. CCDO recruited both property owners and local business owners, and asked them to work out the license agreement themselves, with a couple of stipulations: the pop-ups should not be required to pay any rent or electricity bills, but would be asked to purchase their own insurance. The City provided temporary Certificates of Occupancy.

Four spaces were made available to eight vendors, some of whom already have retail establishments in other parts of the city. CANVAS, which bills itself as a “Wine Gallery & Art Bar,” is a collaboration between the owners of downtown’s Fresh Urban Flowers and Vinuously Speaking, a wine shop located in the Medical Center. Vinuously Speaking co-owner Melissa Unsell told me “Tuesdays have been rock stars. The place gets packed.”

Zubiate Projects has filled a cavernous 5,000 square-foot room between Bohanan’s and The Palm with handmade furniture, original paintings and drawings, and a rotating selection of jewelry, ceramics, and even stuffed animals by local and regional artists. Katie Pell transformed the empty room into a large art gallery. She says she would love to keep using the space after December and is full of ideas for special events to keep people coming through the doors.

Whether such an arrangement will be supported by the City in the new year remains an open question. If not, hopefully the short-lived program has planted a few seeds in the minds of property owners and local entrepreneurs who can fill empty spaces with innovative projects.

Related: 5 Things You Have to Do This Week

—Ben Judson

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