Transitional projects boost economy

17:00, Apr 26 2014
Brie Sherow and Jessica Halliday
STYLISH TRANSITION: Brie Sherow and Jessica Halliday outside some of the transitional stores of Cathedral Junction.

The transitional projects of Christchurch have been recognised by global press, including the Guardian, New York Times, and Lonely Planet as a "creative rebirth" in a city "rising from the rubble".

But the temporary installations and innovations have become far more than art projects - they have had a enduring impact on the economic landscape of the city.

Business owners, property managers and entrepreneurs say the transitional initiatives of the city have been vital in sustaining existing business, incubating new start-ups and redefining the city's image for investors.

A UNIQUE ARRANGEMENT FOR A UNIQUE TIME

When the inner-city Cathedral Junction complex opened in late 2013, many of the shop fronts remained empty.

The building was among the first shopping destinations in a mostly demolished CBD, and foot traffic was so slow tenants feared they would not last beyond summer.

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Brie Sherow works for local organisation Life In Vacant Spaces, funded by the Christchurch City Council, brokering access to empty lots and buildings, and made an inquiry about using vacant shops for transitional projects.

Cathjun Ltd property manager Teri Tekii said "let's talk", and the pair decided to trial letting the empty shops rent-free to temporary projects.

"When I found out it was these sorts of enterprises, I thought that's exactly what we're looking for," Tekii says.

"My thinking is that this is a new environment, from a commercial point of view. It's part of the rebuild, so why not open up those opportunities? It gives them a chance to sit alongside fulltime commercial entities, and definitely has an advantage for attracting commercial tenants," he says.

"It's a unique arrangement, for a unique time in the city."

Sherow says the idea was "to create buzz around the space, to increase the foot traffic and make the best use of the space so when the time is right, the right commercial tenants can be attracted".

"So it's an interim measure. It's also about giving start-ups and entrepreneurs a low-risk way to trial their brand, so they can take that knowledge gained and that experience to a more permanent and polished business."

Life in Vacant Spaces has "activated" more than 75 proposals in the city so far, including eight at Cathedral Junction.

Born of pragmatism as much as generosity, Tekii says the plan makes real commercial sense for the property. "Without a doubt it helps our commercial tenants. I've asked them, what do you think? And they say, we love it, because it brings people - they stop, they talk, and then they buy."

Fantail Gifts owner Rebecca Slattery was among the first shops to return to Cathedral Junction, and business was slow.

She says having transitional projects on site has helped the paying tenants survive.

"For us existing businesses, it's important because it brings more people through, and it's nice to have no empty shops. They've definitely brought foot traffic. It fills those spaces, and it's given the junction a more vibrant feel."

"Some, like Anissa Vintage, have a really established following, and they've brought those customers here."

Vintage clothing store owner Anissa Victoria Armstrong began by running a marketplace at the Pallet Pavilion. After her time at Cathedral Junction, she's now begun a small business course, and is looking to take her store to a permanent space.

"It still seems surreal, having my own store," she says. "But it was such a great opportunity to give it a go."

The hope, Sherow says, is that, "by giving them that kind of grace period at the beginning, they will transition to something more permanent".

If a commercial tenant wants the lease, the transitional projects have to leave at short notice.

"We try to be very careful to work with the local business community - we don't want to be competing with them or taking away from them. Our goal is not to undermine existing businesses but to put what's complementary," Sherow says.

"A lot are hoping to transition to a commercial lease, but it's about giving them that bit of a boost at the beginning to see what works and what doesn't."

A NEW GENERATION OF ENTREPRENEURS

Chef Alex Davies is one of many in the city who have transformed a temporary project into a fully fledged business.

A Local Food Project began when Davies sighted an unused pizza oven at the Pallet Pavilion.

After working as a chef for eight years, he was cooking at a local pub and feeling "pretty disillusioned with what Christchurch restaurants were doing".

He took a proposal to Gap Filler to start selling local ingredients pizza fresh from the Pallet Pavilion.

"I always wanted to work with local produce because I think that's ethical . . . and there wasn't anyone really doing that."

For Davies, A Local Food Project was an experiment - testing whether there was a market for hyper-local food.

"I wanted to know, can you apply a philosophy to food? If you limit people's choice, does it work? Will people try it? And they did."

The pizza sold out each week, and Davies developed a regular following.

"It gave me an identity as a chef - I wasn't just someone in the kitchen, behind the scenes. It put me out there in the public eye, so people saw what I was about."

He joined forces with Shop Eight cafe owner Liz Phelan to install a kitchen and begin his own restaurant night service.

The menu changes daily to reflect seasonal produce from small Canterbury producers, and has won Davies and Phelan critical acclaim from food critics Ray McVinnie and Julie Le Clerc.

But without the Gap Filler pizza oven, Davies doubts he would have had confidence to open his own place - let alone one with an experimental menu and strict local ethos.

"It was empowering in that sense - that people are willing to give things a go. If I'd started straight into a business, I would have been reluctant to do that."

Sherow was part of brokering space for Davies' original pizza oven, and says Davies is among many entrepreneurs who have used temporary locales in the city to transition from experimental project to fully fledged business.

"We've had a number of groups in the past who have started quite DIY, or cobbled together, and have really made that transition into a more permanent space."

"It gives opportunity for businesses to exist that otherwise would have stayed a bit of a dream," Sherow says.

Architectural historian and director of FESTA Festival of Transitional Architecture, Jessica Halliday, says the projects can incubate entrepreneurship and foster creative businesses.

"Sometimes the transitional's not necessarily about the project, it's about the person," she says.

Even if the original projects are temporary, the skills gained can transition forward, to have a permanent impact on the business life of the city.

"The activities and the people, they will transition. Most of the projects aren't designed to be permanent, they're designed to provide experience, knowledge and to be a means by which a person or group can find their way into a more permanent expression."

The transitional movement provides space for experimental projects to be trialled in a temporary, lower-risk environment - allowing a new generation of entrepreneurs to try their own business.

"One of the thing that's so powerful about the transitional is that it is accessible to nearly anybody who's got a decent idea and the determination and wherewithal to realise it. And that's an incredibly powerful thing - for a community to suddenly have an avenue to be involved in the making of the city, rather than just a recipient of something that someone else has designed, led and delivered."

CHARACTERISING THE CITY

Halliday says it is still the transitional elements of the rebuild that are most compelling to outside eyes.

"If you look at all the articles on Christchurch that have come out of the big overseas media organs, they're not talking about the blueprint, they're not talking about the major projects. The city has now been characterised by its transitional nature."

Despite this, transitional projects of the city are at times dismissed as "just arts and community projects", and not acknowledged for their broader impact

"It's funny how the transitional [description] has become solely focused on activity that is community-led," she says.

"In the early days after the earthquakes, the transitional was more readily recognised by government and business as a mechanism for recovery."

In contrast to the coverage of temporary and transitional works, the international press has been largely silent on the larger-scale outlines for the city's design.

The city plan, dominated by big-ticket "anchor" projects and stymied by delays and dried-up cashflow, has largely failed to capture the public imagination.

But projects such as Re:Start, EPIC, and Shigeru Ban's cardboard cathedral, which began as temporary measures, have been hailed as "icons" of the rebuild, and kept on for the longer term.

Re:Start mall has housed 30 retailers in its container shops since 2011.

Founder Paul Lonsdale says the project was essential to keeping life in the CBD, and stemming the flow of businesses out into the suburbs, and aiding positive perception of the city.

"We realised that, if you don't return life back to inner city after a six- to nine-month period, recovery becomes much harder."

"We knew that, when the cordon lifted and people came back to the inner city, they would be shocked at how much had gone. But we wanted them to feel another emotion too: for people to say ‘wow, this is quite amazing'. Imagine what it would have been like if it hadn't been there."

When the mall was scheduled for removal, it fielded a groundswell of support from the public, tourism and business sectors, and the Government agreed in March on a $1.27 million grant to keep it running another year.

Designer Barnaby Bennett, who is completing a PhD on temporary and transitional architecture, says the economic value of transitional projects will endure long into the city's recovery.

"Many cities around the world such as Melbourne, Sydney, London, New York, Vancouver, Zurich, and Newcastle have similar projects that are considered a critical part of the economy. These small, innovative, experimental projects are important to the life of any contemporary city - not just those recovering from disaster."

"They offer a more democratic form of capitalism that allows for more experimentation and less risk. I think it's naive to think that their value diminishes as the city starts to rebuild."

Halliday agrees.

"If anyone wants to question the value of it, imagine the city without it - without the Pallet Pavilion, the shops on New Regent Street, the cardboard cathedral, without Re:Start. It has been really important for the city - and important for that external perspective on the city, for the world looking in."

The Press