Twelve individuals and businesses — ranging from artists and performance groups to a barbershop, a fashion designer, and a design center — were awarded up to $10,000 to occupy a physical location downtown. Paull helped broker deals with landlords for street-level space varying in size from 600 to 8,000 square feet, and with leases ranging from two months to three years. The Downtown Partnership also gave grantees business advice on how to scale their ideas to a physical space. The program not only fills empty storefronts, enlivening the street, it also allows people to incubate an idea on a short-term basis with the goal of building a business long-term.
What natural functions do storefronts perform in a city?
I’m studying ecology and urban design at the same time, and I’m looking for parallels. This isn’t unique - Jane Jacobs offered an ecological view of how cities work 40 years ago. I’m finally reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her basic point is that urban planners don’t understand the natural functions spaces in cities perform. For example, building set back from the street to buffer those in them from strangers actually make everyone less safe because that means fewer eyes on the street and more isolation.
In restoration ecology, natural function is a central concept. In a degraded landscape, how do you reestablish how things used to work? For example, more rainwater used to infiltrate into the ground before the trees were cut down, now there’s erosion. Let’s plant trees.
Light rail and road construction on University Avenue is a disturbance. The dynamic between merchants and customers changes when it’s harder for them to connect. Naturally, there are now fewer stores open, and they look less inviting with vacant spaces around them. If it’s good that those vacant spaces get filled, how?
If you’ve gotten this far, and you’ve suspected that this is all lead-up to me saying that this new project we’re working on is the answer, and awesome - no. But I’m convinced the answer is related to the insight that planners often script things too much. There are hundreds of vacant storefronts in Baltimore, no one seems to want them… let’s pay people to occupy them. How much spaces can we control with this grant? Six? Six storefronts. Okay, let’s take applications and decide who should get the money. By what criteria? Well, let’s make something up. There, that oughta do it.
Maybe that’s the best approach, I honestly don’t know. But it seems to me that the real raw material you’re dealing with is people who think their idea could work. I think it’s generally goofy to get in their way. Vacant storefront project models that include a heavy gatekeeper kind of weird me out. As does the theory that the source of a new storefront tenant should be community input. New storefront ventures are assertions. I think one of the natural functions of storefronts is to let people try things out. What’s the simplest way to facilitate that?
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