When last I counted there were over 100 vacant commercial storefronts in our community. That’s a total of well over 200,000 sq. ft. of storefront space that sits unused for any purpose whatsoever in Berkeley on any given day. Calling commercial realtors and landlords to pitch ideas for use of vacant space does just about NOTHING to change the status quo. In the last three years I have made over eighty calls to commercial realtors and landlords proposing innovative, yet practical and aesthetically pleasing uses of space for exhibits of artwork by homeless and low-income participants in the program I run, Youth Spirit Artworks. When I’ve been lucky enough to get a call back I’ve have heard countless POOR EXCUSES for why it wouldn’t be possible to engage a space that’s currently for rent…even when the property has sat vacant for three or more SOLID years.
Berkeley can do MUCH, MUCH better!
Innovative uses for vacant commercial storefronts are popping up all over the country. One example, in New Haven, Connecticut particularly stands out. “Project Storefronts” demonstrates the best of New Haven, creating low budget arts incubators for performances, education, retail and other creative businesses. Project Storefronts takes currently vacant retail space and turns that space into a showcase for artists and entrepreneurship.
According to “Connecticut Plus,” among the first storefronts to preview in New Haven is Detritus which opened its doors to the public August 27. Owner Alexis Zhangi developed her idea for a curated bookstore offering printed matter from local artists and writers alongside rare and sought after material from high profile publishing houses not yet available in the New Haven area. The bookstore will bring together many writers and poets at its upcoming readings and book events. It has a membership option as well as a retail operation. More than 200 people showed up for the opening and sales were brisk.
Additionally as “Connecticut Plus” describes, Crosby Street Presents (CSP) by entrepreneur Rob Sanchez is essentially a “pop up” gallery and performance space which showcases early and emerging artists in new media, photography and sculpture, offering very affordable ways to collect art. CSP will also formulate an emerging collectors night where artists and future collectors can come together. Work will be available across price ranges from local New Haven area artists as well as from NYC.
For those who enjoy the experience of seeing recycled goods recreated into new products, New Haven’s Upcycle Arts, started by entrepreneurs Ruben Marroquin, Lisa Spetrini and Alan Neider, is just the place. Upcycle Arts represents a variety of artists who offer re-stylized, recycled items for sale in a retail setting and it will also serve as a mini eco-boutique of products by award winning design team GG2G. Upcycle Arts will offer workshops, host gatherings for crafting groups and meet-ups for art special interest groups.
In Seattle, a creative, new program aims to transform Pioneer Square, allowing donating rental owners to “showcase their space” in an effective way. Artists will be able to use the space for at least three months. Countless more examples exist for exciting ways vacant storefronts are being re-envisioned to better communities across the land!
Both the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development and the Downtown Berkeley Association have put energy into developing programs for vacant storefronts in the last two years. The Downtown Berkeley Association storefront exhibits have been a success in showing beautiful works of art by local youth and other artists. Additionally, the Office of Economic Development funded Youth Spirit Artwork’s “Visions of the Soul” art exhibit in South Berkeley this last year, a delightful effort involving over thirty local businesses in showcasing art window banners by underserved youth involved in YSA’s program. City staff and their budgets are stretched thin in these hard times so pockets of money to fund these initiatives on their side are limited.
Without leadership from commercial realtors and landlords, commercial district merchant associations can do nothing, even if they’re motivated to organize vacant space for creative community betterment. Last year my calls to literally every merchant association in Berkeley with the exception of the DBA produced NO creative use of vacant spaces for our arts organization, since staff people felt their hands were tied if owners of vacant storefronts and commercial realtors weren’t motivated to be generous.
It’s time for local entrepreneurs and commercial realtors to step up to the plate and develop creative solutions to the many wasteful and ugly vacant storefronts in our community! Berkeley arts and other organizations like Youth Spirit Artworks will gratefully spring into action with multiple potential uses of vacant space when we receive your call!
Sally Hindman is the Executive Director of Youth Spirit Artworks