Inspired advice for Danforth and Gerrard

A packed house at the Naval Club at Gerrard and Woodbine gathered on March 7 to hear a visiting Australian speak about how a little bit of effort and a lot of creative thinking transformed a partially abandoned downtown in an industrial town in Australia into one of Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Cities of 2011.

The evening was arranged by the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) and the Gerrard East Community Organization (GECO), to help spur ideas and inspiration for dealing with closed-down street-level buildings in both of their respective neighbourhoods. One such idea is arranging temporary occupancy of shuttered storefronts.

Marcus Newbury started Renew Newcastle several years ago, with a goal of making some of the many closed-up storefronts available to people with interesting ideas. It’s not all businesses, not all art galleries, and there’s an intentional mix of everyone from 20-year-old hipsters to retired seniors making crafts. While previous ideas for the town had focused on attracting high-end chains to the downtown area, Newbury had a different plan.

“Instead we filled it with things you can’t find anywhere else,” he said, and now people drive past the high-end chain stores in the suburbs to go downtown. “We didn’t build anything, we didn’t buy anything, we don’t own anything. What we’ve done is change the way systems work.”

Anyone with an interesting idea and initiative can apply. Renew Newcastle will arrange for a space, on a ‘rolling 30-day cycle,’ meaning the owner of a building can take that space back at any time on 30 days notice. That means owners don’t have to pass up the chance for paying tenants, while the temporary residents spruce up the building and, simply by inhabiting the space, make it more attractive to both the public and potential paying tenants.

Another key to the concept is drawing talent from local pools. Everyone who has inhabited a storefront through the organization has come from the neighbourhood. Newbury also emphasized that the idea is not necessarily to incubate successful new businesses – although that has sometimes been the result.

“Some of our most successful projects lose money, and they’re going to continue to lose money for as long as they exist,” he said.

Another aspect of the project’s success is its independence from politics. Only one of the 70-plus projects housed through Renew Newcastle has needed rezoning. The system is designed to do things that don’t need permission or ‘help’ from municipal governments.

Answering a question from the crowd about dealing with local governments, Newbury replied, “allow me to metaphorically demonstrate dealing with the city,” then proceeded to bang his head on a nearby counter several times. Interestingly, some of the biggest laughs came from the five city councillors in the room.

Newbury advised going for “the low-hanging fruit” when approaching building owners. “We’re not trying to solve the hard problems, we’re trying to solve the easy ones…Start with the buildings that could be used tomorrow, and find a way of using them tomorrow.”

Other questions focused on issues like graffiti and parking problems, but he again emphasized that for the Renew Newcastle model, ignoring those issues and staying true to the goal of “giving lots of people chances to explore lots of ideas” was the key to its success.

Belynda Blyth from GECO said the presentation was inspiring, and some aspects of Renew Newcastle could definitely be applied to some of the derelict storefronts on Gerrard west of Coxwell.

“Our challenge will be to find landlords that are willing to do that,” she said. “It’s the very, very beginning, it’s just a seed, but it’s doable, completely doable.”

Despite Newbury’s frustration in dealing with municipal governments, Blyth hopes the attendance of local city councillors is a sign the city might be willing to work with local community groups on similar projects.

“Hopefully the city would come behind us and help us with funding so that we could do something like this,” said Blyth.

Sarah Kiriliuk, a spokesperson for DECA and member of its Businesses Revitalization Team, agreed that the ideas presented were definitely food for thought for her organization.

“We would have to implement a model that works for us and works for our neighbourhood,” she said.

Despite the differences between Gerrard and Danforth, such as transit access, she believes that both areas share an influx of young, new eager residents looking to help make their neighbourhoods better.

“I really feel like the energy is there to change the neighbourhood, the desire is there,” said Kiriliuk. “DECA is thrilled that GECO has been formed, and it’s nice to have an ally in the East End that has the same sort of vision and same sort of drive.”


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1 comments

I attended the energy charged Renew Newcastle presentation. It was a wonderful example of how a group of concerned individuals can come together to make change in their community one step at a time. Many thanks for DECA and GECO and the Navel Club for organizing the event.

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