One of my current projects is with Glasgow City Council and local stakeholders to develop a regeneration framework for Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill in Glasgow – part of a major investment in the city centre in the next few years to make it more people-friendly. It’s a flagship project for the City Council, as well as for me.
Working with Gehl Architects and others, the commission is partly about creating people-friendly streets and spaces – but it’s also about helping businesses, institutions, community groups and artists to bring more life and activity to the area. A wide ranging stakeholder engagement programme is taking place to make sure that local stakeholders really do set the agenda and help drive change – you can read all about on sauchiehall.net and our facebook and twitter channels.
This post is about one particular issue: vacant units.
We’ve heard from lots of people in the area over the last few weeks that something needs to be done about the number of vacant shops on Sauchiehall Street. One popular suggestion, particularly from businesses and artists, is to work out a way of enabling easier access to vacant property for short periods of time. So, rather than a shop unit sitting empty and bringing the street down while the owner waits for a new ‘permanent’ retailer to occupy it, it could be occupied by an art studio or a popup business on a short term lease.
The benefits would be massive – bringing more footfall, helping local businesses, and providing much needed space for the arts and creative sector. All these things would help to bring more life and interest to the street, which what we’re all about.
The challenge is how to make this happen, given that most of the retail units are in private ownership, which means that it is difficult to make their owners open them up for short-term uses.
Fortunately, other places have already succeeded in doing just the same thing, so we can learn from them. One place that has been running a scheme for the last four years is New Haven in Connecticut, USA: the home of Yale University, and part of a metropolitan area with 850,000 residents.
The scheme is called Project Shopfronts, and the rationale was remarkably similar to what we’ve been hearing along Sauchiehall Street: to bridge the gap between artists in need of space with space in need of tenants. Since 2010, the project has been filling empty retail spaces with galleries, studios and arts-related offices, creating low-budget ways for entrepreneurs to test business plans in real conditions. The city hoped it would create a more activated area and would help to spur economic growth. (Sounds familiar?)
The local authority had a key role, working with property owners and helping to negotiate free access for initial 90 day periods – long enough for start-ups or artists to move in and get set up. Organising promotional events and festivals was also an important part of raising awareness amongst potential occupiers and encouraging people to come and visit the newly invigorated part of the city centre. You can read more about the project here.
To get a taste of the kinds of people and businesses who have brought new life to empty shops in New Haven, have a look at this 5 minute video: