legal hacks, theatrical props, and kitchen tabletop start-ups
December 31, 2015 4:08 PM   Subscribe

I feel that the "liquidity crisis" in real estate described in here is not at all uncommon. The big difference is that we're seeing more visceral reaction against real estate banking of empty luxury buildings in Vancouver or London, hedges by the wealthy against political upheavals in their home countries.

Something like what happened in Newcastle should be just as repugnant, though. The real estate is obviously not valueless. It should not take a sweet-talker like Westbury to make it not-useless.

It's relevant that the article brought up Detroit, however bleakly. Every time they have to fight a fire in a vacant house so it doesn't burn down the one next door, everybody pays. There is an actual civic cost to maintenance left undone.

Good God, did I just reinvent the "broken windows" doctrine?
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 7:49 PM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

It should not take a sweet-talker like Westbury to make it not-useless.

ivan ivanych samovar I take your meaning, but if there's one thing Marcus Westbury is not, it's a sweet-talker. In the first instance, he's worked like a bastard against official intransigence, government ignorance, and a profoundly anti-arts culture in Newcastle and beyond to make this happen. His blog details some of that, but some years ago he managed to convince the ABC to screen his documentary series Not Quite Art which goes into some pretty unvarnished truths about fringe, independent and student art in Australia.

That's an important thing to remember about the Renew programs in Newcastle and nationwide: it's not targeted at already-capitalised businesses and money-hungry 'entrepreneurs' who already have the wherewithal to make a viable business. The projects in the spaces can't make any changes or add fixtures and fittings to them, the residencies are for weeks or months rather than years, and the seed funding is on the order of '$500 to print your tshirts' rather than covering your manufacturing or staff costs. It gives 'dead' sites (like the soulless developer-driven hell of Melbourne's Docklands utility, and community. It's hard and pretty thankless, because the immediate knee-jerk reaction against 'gentrification' and 'hipsters' plays out at every level - from the landlords and property managers who get uptight about 'the yoof' getting something for nothing, to the residents who resent 'outsiders', and governments and local authorities who want their carefully-committee'd developments to be monster commercial successes rather than the crumbling fuckups they secretly suspect them to be.

Not being familiar with the Zappos or the Quicken Loans developments ITFA, it sounds a lot like they are gated communities for workers who are virtually indentured to their 'startup' (seriously, billions in capital is a 'startup' now?) FFS, the Quicken Loans workers live in accomodation that they have bought with... Quicken Loans.
posted by prismatic7 at 9:04 PM on December 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks; I enjoyed the article a lot. The matter of quite why I should find this particular example of vibrant urban renewal "repugnant" and the chap who actually got the ball rolling to achieve it merely a "sweet-talker" (sic) will have to remain a puzzle for another day.
posted by Wolof at 9:05 PM on December 31, 2015

Thanks for sharing this. It's a great reminder of how the demands of our financial systems can negatively impact our streetscape.

As an example, there are several buildings in my city's downtown core that have had vacant storefronts for years. One is a massive space, perfect for a large restaurant or something, where the pedestrian mall intersects with the light rail station (the light rail runs directly from the airport to downtown). I cannot think of a more ideal place to put something, and it's exactly the type of storefront that should be "activated" due to its' proximity to a new transit line, but it has sat empty for at least the last 10 years or so. I'm sure if they reduced their rent for the space in order to attract a tenant the building would "lose value" so it will probably sit unused in the future. So they have missed 10 years' worth of rent in order to maintain the value of the building on paper.

Similar story happened when the small business I work for went to lease office space. We signed a 5-year contract that required we pay X in rent per month for the last 4 years, but they gave us the first year for free. Seems like it would've made more sense just to reduce the rent and spread it out over that period, but my guess is that would make the space seem less valuable.
posted by antonymous at 7:15 AM on January 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I’m not seeing the difference between this and regular gentrification. Brooklyn and Oakland were also full of short-term warehouse-dwellers ~15 years ago, and once they helped create an aura of coolness in each place the normal property developers moved in. I lived in a West Oakland art/music warehouse in 2003/4, and there was always a commonly understood persistent background expectation that the landlord was going to raze it for condos once it was worth the effort.

The two organized efforts I’ve seen that work in a more permanent way are from Amsterdam and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in SF’s Tenderloin. In SF, Rainin is helping artists and non-profits buy buildings so they can establish a durable toehold in a location and ride the property value wave if/when it comes. In Amsterdam, the city government itself provides fixed-length space arrangements to artists and technology groups, instead of allowing them to dash themselves on the rocks making a new part of town interesting for money. In both cases, the tendency is counter to Westbury’s ephemeral approach from the article:
In Westbury’s words, “We don’t build anything, we don’t buy anything, we don’t own anything.”
posted by migurski at 11:13 AM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

In Amsterdam, the city government itself provides fixed-length space arrangements to artists and technology groups

That's precisely what the Renew Programs are doing, in partnership with local government. Renew is non-profit (ITFA, and the additional links I provided above). A project that is supported by Renew may fail, certainly, but only in the sense that many artistic or small 'creative' business endeavours fail. They are absolutely not left to

dash themselves on the rocks making a new part of town interesting for money.

Renew Australia (and Marcus Westbury) approach the problem from the perspective that these spaces are owned by business interests for whatever reason, but not used. In Newcastle particularly there was virtually the entire retail district boarded up or occupied by short-lease $2 shops and payday loan firms.

Renew's project is not gentrification (Westbury's book goes into detail about that), it's about fostering creative communities, and encouraging councils to keep space aside for creative projects in underutilised areas everywhere, not just 'cool' or 'trendsetting' locations, and it really sells them short to say that they are just benchwarming until the monied interests raise rents and bring the rich kids in. We're not talking about coolsie bars and studio apartments here, we're talking about theatres and chemists and real estate agents offices lying vacant for ten or fifteen years being used in the short term as galleries, performance spaces, short-term offices, community choir rehearsal spaces, whatever. There is certainly a motive to make a profit for all of these things - in the sense that no-one wants their project to die.

(Disclaimer here: I have met Marcus on several occasions, starting over beers at This Is Not Art in 2008. He's a very driven guy, and utterly committed to the development of a strong youth arts culture in Australia. I have never been a recipient of any Renew Australia support, although a number of artists and theatremakers in my addressbook have)
posted by prismatic7 at 5:39 PM on January 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

If Renew can keep it up long enough for the process to become reliable and predictable, then it’ll be a close match to the Amsterdam model as I understand it.
posted by migurski at 10:11 PM on January 1, 2016

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