You can see the empty street-level spaces in any neighborhood with newer multifamily and mixed-use properties. Unoccupied storefronts and expansive lobbies remain lifeless for months or years after occupancy.
The original idea to activate the street level of residential buildings with retail, restaurant, or office users – frequently executed in response to city requirements – has proved hard to fulfill. Yet leaving these spaces vacant creates an aesthetic, community and financial drag on otherwise successful buildings. It’s time to change the status quo.
In our work planning and designing commercial real estate projects, we see how developers and property managers are seeking alternative and creative uses at street level. In our view, the most promising ideas center on finding a local arts, education or cultural organization as a tenant and partner.
Benefits Extend to Nonprofits
For these nonprofits, access to well-located, visible spaces will help them to expand their reach and programming, and to solve a seemingly endless struggle to find adequate places for their gallery, studio, rehearsal, teaching and community needs.
For property owners, the benefits include a greater level of community engagement, civic visibility and support for the fabric of the communities they belong in. Arts and cultural uses also provide a lively, safe and heartwarming addition to not only the building, but to the extended community.
The new activity, whether a gallery showcasing the work of local artists or a studio for making local crafts, is appealing to tenants and neighbors. When aligned with the character of the local community, the spaces provide a welcome burst of creative energy and cultural support.
Community Art Gallery at Arthaus
One example of a street-level strategy with across-the-board appeal is the 72-unit Arthaus, a recent addition to Boston’s Allston neighborhood. Developed and managed by the Mount Vernon Co., the property’s name, design and interiors reflect the artistic and eclectic character of the neighborhood.
Instead of traditional retail space, the glassed-in Arthaus lobby level houses a gallery displaying the work of local artists. Managed by local nonprofit Unbound Visual Artists, the gallery has struck a chord with artists, neighborhood residents and Arthaus tenants.
Local artists gain a cherished exhibit space and gathering spot for special events. Tenants appreciate the uptick in activity on the block and the local connection the gallery provides. Neighbors benefit from the enhanced safety of pedestrian activity and the lit-up gallery space. And everyone gains a place to enjoy a revolving display of local Allston art to admire and purchase.
Similarly, community connections and education programming activate the ground level at Jackson Commons, a mixed-use, mixed-income residence with 37 rental apartments in the Jackson Square community on the border of Boston’s Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.
Beginning with the opening of the 58,742-square-foot property in 2015, project developer Urban Edge has utilized approximately 12,000 square feet on the ground floor as a neighborhood learning center and office space. Visible from the street, a classroom with wheeled furniture adapts to an ever-changing learning program. The large classroom area can be used as a conference room or as a community meeting space.
Inviting the Community in at Allston Green
A few blocks from Arthaus near the MBTA’s Boston Landing commuter rail station, the new, three-building Allston Green development from Partners Properties will integrate arts and community uses throughout the ground-floor spaces that are adjacent to the street and a new public green space.
This 257,200-square-foot multifamily development will activate at street level with an artist coworking space that welcomes community members in and offers supplies to help them make their art. A 4-story and a 7-story mural, both commissioned to local artists, will offer a playful interpretation of Allston’s artistic roots.
As these and other emerging examples of developers teaming with nonprofit arts, education, and cultural tenants unfold, we can apply and refine the lessons learned. Already, the evidence in Boston and other cities reveals a game-changing opportunity to distinguish the role multifamily properties fulfill as great places to experience – inside for residents and at street level for the community.
Dave Snell is a principal at PCA, a Cambridge-based planning, architecture and interior design firm.