By Ryan McGreal
Published January 30, 2012
A number of RTH readers have recently sent me links to an initiative in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia called Renew Newcastle. The brainchild of Marcus Westbury, Renew Newcastle is a not-for-profit company established to put short- and medium-term tenants - mainly artists, community groups and creative projects - into otherwise vacant downtown buildings.
The idea is to revitalize the downtown core one building at a time by bringing productive niche uses into the buildings.
Renew Newcastle launched in 2008 and has focused tightly finding good matches between willing property owners and interested artists and organizations.
Spaces is rented on a rolling 30-day basis, with either side able to end the agreement on 30 days' notice. This frees owners up to redevelop their properties for more permanent use as opportunities arise - there are no opportunity costs to getting 'locked in'.
For landlords, any tenant - even a nominally-paying one - in a building is better than leaving it vacant to suffer deterioration, vandalism and neglect.
Prices are negotiable, but the first batch of projects pay just $20 Australian (around $21.22 Canadian) a week.
For artists and community groups, the initiative provides flexible swing space at an affordable rate.
Many startup projects that would otherwise not be feasible become cost-effective with access to cheap office, studio or retail space, so this doubles as a kind of business incubator. At the same time, temporary or ad-hoc community organizations can form, have an affordable space to organize and carry out their mandate, and then dissolve without legacy assets to disperse.
Urban communities, in turn, enjoy filled storefronts, increased population density and economic diversity, and the social benefits of 'eyes on the street'. It's not hard to see how this could bootstrap community reinvestment by demonstrating - and, indeed, cultivating - a viable market for urban properties.
Westbury is actually an art director and newspaper columnist who launched Renew Newcastle as a side project. In a video posted a year ago, Westbury explains how the program worked over its first 18 months:
Today, the Renew Newcastle site has a map of 15 active projects, each of which houses one or more individual tenants, including art and photography studios, boutique shops, sustainability consultants, interior architects, film and TV producers, cafes, costume designers, animators, and free public wifi hotspots.
I contacted Glen Norton, the City of Hamilton's manager of urban renewal, to ask if there is any interest in the city for this model. His response was enthusiastic.
I actually met Marcus Westbury last year at a 'Rejuvenating and Revitalizing Downtowns Summit' in Toronto, we were both speakers. I loved his presentation and the results have been spectacular. I certainly would support someone from the private sector creating an organization like Marcus'.
Norton sees a real opportunity to apply this moel on Barton Street, "where there are currently a fair number of empty buildings."
He concludes, "If the Councillors are interested in having a further discussion, count me 'in' for the meeting."
RTH contacted Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr and Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie to ask if they think this is something that could work in downtown Hamilton and is worth pursuing here. More to come if and when they respond.
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