Innovative partnerships revitalise empty city spaces

Unimed's new office building in Gloucester Street, Christchurch, with New Regent St in the foreground.
Joseph Johnson

Unimed's new office building in Gloucester Street, Christchurch, with New Regent St in the foreground.

OPINION: 

Cheap deals and incentives may be needed to lure tenants to new central Christchurch offices, according to a report this week. Brie Sherow and Jane Gregg from Life in Vacant Spaces address the issue of vacant space in new central city buildings. 

Central Christchurch feels more alive each day, full of construction projects if not yet full of people. It's uplifting to see buildings going up rather than coming down, but while some areas of town are taking off commercially there are many new buildings that remain persistently empty.

Owners are charging premium rents in an attempt to recoup the escalating costs of construction. The result is that only corporates and multi-national chain businesses can afford the space, while local creatives and start-ups are priced out of the market.

New Zealand is built on innovative, small-scale, locally-grounded businesses; what kind of city will Christchurch be if they're absent?

Some banks even cite lack of activity and foot traffic to deny loans to businesses wanting to establish themselves in the CBD. It's going to be critical to reverse this trend before urban blight becomes entrenched.

In the next phase of the rebuild we must deal with vacant spaces by engaging our citizens in the task.

It's only people who can solve the problem of uninspiring emptiness; people inhabiting and engaging with their city.

The forthcoming proliferation of new buildings is an opportunity to reclaim Christchurch by exploring different ways to make productive use of vacant space.

Rent-free or low-cost temporary activation is one such solution. By granting untenanted space to local start-ups on a temporary basis, innovators would have an opportunity to trial and grow their idea while the building owners seek a suitable commercial tenant.

The Christchurch City Council's new rates rebate scheme is one mechanism designed to make this a practical option for landowners.

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This is a one-year trial that grants a rates rebate to owners who make untenanted spaces available for temporary use by licensing them with charitable trust Life in Vacant Spaces (LIVS).

LIVS works to broker spaces, arrange insurances, curate projects, and support landowners.

By making rent-free sites available to people who have community-focused and entrepreneurial project ideas, LIVS allows innovators to test their ideas in a low-stakes setting.

LIVS has supported art installations, small business start-ups, food trucks, and temporary gardens. Having already worked with hundreds of participants in the past three years (mostly on rubble sites) LIVS sees even more work ahead in the coming period as the city is faced with a glut of vacant new buildings.

One such space is at 165 Gloucester Street. Prior to the quakes, the owners (insurance company Unimed) had a modest office block on this site that housed a number of businesses. Post-quake it was demolished, and in 2012 LIVS licensed the site.

During the initial LIVS occupancy the space hosted a number of activities and events including the inaugural Festival of Transitional Architecture (FESTA). Between 2012 and 2013 the site hosted markets, artist residencies, a bike repair workshop (RAD Bikes) and a range of other events - all on a rubble site while the owners were waiting to rebuild.

The Unimed site was eventually redeveloped, and in May 2015 LIVS re-licensed the ground floor of the new building to make productive use of the space while the owners seek a commercial tenant.

It is currently hosting Fabriko's digital fabrication lab and an exhibition by Te Pūtahi: Centre for Architecture and Citymaking.

Gaining access to this space has made all the difference to the accessibility of both of these projects, which have been well patronised by local visitors and tourists.

Dr Jessica Halliday says Te Pūtahi has used the space to learn more about how to engage their audience: "We learn what we need to do to attract an audience, to build an organisation - but without committing to long-term rents on our minimal incomes."

The goal is to enliven the space; making it more attractive to potential commercial tenants, increasing foot traffic in the area, and providing a platform for people to put their ideas in motion.

LIVS is working with diverse partners in the space including The Body Festival, Audacious Festival, and locally based designers and retailers. Unimed CEO Dermot Martin says of Unimed's collaboration with LiVS: "The temporary projects arranged by LIVS in our vacant ground floor have brought our building alive and I believe have enhanced our building as an attractive lettable proposition".

Once the space is leased to commercial tenants, LIVS will vacate, but the ideas and the experiences of the participants leaves a permanent trace. It is possible that some of these initiatives may go on to greater longevity. Regardless, all have been given an opportunity. This experimentation shapes the character of the city.

Remaking a city is no small task, but by taking an innovative partnership approach to managing the problem of vacant spaces, we may be able to get through this next phase stronger, with the power of people doing things together to enliven our city.

 - The Press

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