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.