Many landlords are content to sit on empty properties until the perfect, high-paying, long-term tenant comes along to sign a lease.

miLES wants to transform that underused real estate into stores and spaces for community organizations in the downtime between long-term leases.

miLES hopes to fill its first space with co-workers in the day, classes and events in the evenings, and a pop-up shop on the weekends. The flexibility of the scheduling and affordable pricing could be a big draw for startups and nonprofits, given the highly desirable location.

2013-03-21

Co.Exist

This "Airbnb For Storefronts" Is Creating New Opportunities In A New York Neighborhood

Operating in the Lower East Side, miLES is trying to ignite the community by filling empty commercial space with interesting businesses and organizations on short-term leases while the landlords wait for the right long-term tenants.

Despite its rapid gentrification over the past decade, New York City’s Lower East Side is still surprisingly full of vacant storefronts, as many as 200. According to Eric Ho, an architect and founder of neighborhood revitalization group miLES (Made in the Lower East Side), that’s because many landlords are content to sit on empty properties until the perfect, high-paying, long-term tenant comes along to sign a lease.

The result is a constellation of unoccupied spaces that add little value to neighborhood residents, business-owners, and visitors. MiLES’s mission is to activate those storefronts, by matching up vacant units with temporary tenants, including entrepreneurs who might want a space to run a pop-up shop or education and community focused organizations looking for affordable meeting space.

It’s a tough sell, of course, in a city notorious for cutthroat landlords, but the fact that miLES is at their mercy doesn’t deter Ho. “The landlord can do whatever they want. They can wait for their long-term tenant when they come. But we’re trying to capture the time between when they find the long-term tenant to occupy the space […] to bring back something valuable for the community,” he says.

To pilot the project, miLES is collaborating with the East Village arts organization Fourth Arts Block (FAB), who will let miLES rent out part of its space, formerly used as a cafe. Applications to join miLES are due on March 22, which include a brief description of how you’d use the space, and miLES hopes to fill its first space with co-workers in the day, classes and events in the evenings, and a pop-up shop on the weekends. The flexibility of the scheduling and affordable pricing could be a big draw for startups and nonprofits, given the highly desirable location.

Ho thinks of the concept as a “Zipcar or AirBnb for storefronts,” two other services that capture the value of underused property, making it so “everyone can afford a storefront for their own use.”

The idea originally came out of a design challenge hosted by OpenIDEO, which asked teams to come up with plans to revitalize urban space in areas that were depopulating or blighted. Inspired by what he saw come out of that challenge, Ho decided to adopt the plans to fit the context of New York, where blight is less of a problem but other economic forces keep spaces vacant.

The first miLES storefront will open at FAB on April 1. Ho says that miLES is also in talks with a neighborhood coffee shop to rent out their space after the cafe closes at 7 p.m. “These are the kind of places that we want,” Ho says.

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3 Comments

  • turfgrrl

    In Connecticut, Norwalk 2.0 is doing the same thing. Check out Pop City for ideas on how to use vacant storefronts and revitalize neighborhoods.

  • Domain Admin

    Thanks for the article! As the director of FAB, I just wanted to clarify that our storefront will be a partnership with miLES to open more opportunities for community building, creativity, and small business development. FAB has been an advisor to miLES since the start of the project, so we were excited to pilot the idea in the space that we currently lease. We are also lucky to be tenants of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, a low income housing cooperative, who not only keeps their rents below market, but also tries to support artisans, women and minority owned businesses. We look forward to seeing how this movement can grow across the neighborhood!

  • Sara

    The problem with the LES is greedy landlords setting prices too high for the market. They have no incentive to negotiate as they own the buildings and are exempt from RE taxes while they sit vacant. They are content to wait for a fool to come along without a viable plan and accept his 4 month deposit. As he will inevitably fail within 12 months and they get to pocket that deposit, the new investment in the property and raise the price even higher for the next fool. Some are even brazen enough to ask for key money to cover the previous tenants investment.

    In the past week I looked at 3 LES properties. 
    1) 800 sq ft basement with 7 ft tin ceilings w/ dirt floor: $4500/mo
    2) 800 sq ft "Pizzeria". No fixtures, illegal venting. Started asking $10k/mo 2 years ago. Recently lowered asking price to $7.5k/mo.
    3) 1k sq ft restaurant w/1k sq ft basement bar. Sitting open 6 years now. Asking $13k/mo If that exemption was to be repealed then occupancy would be at an all time high. The area would be truly saved without a bunch of temporary, unsustainable, vanity projects further raising prices and reducing incentives for landlords to price fairly. Of course Bloomberg only hears the voices of his wealthy landlord buddies so can take that off the table.