The Huddle: Developers & Landlords

April 19, 2016

By: ArtPlace America

We’re excited to continue our new blog format: The Huddle. As anyone who’s journeyed through our ArtPlace website will see, we have a very diverse group of funded projects that make up the ArtPlace family. But as with many large and dispersed families, it’s often hard to connect with one another.

The Huddle recaps conversations where our ArtPlace funded projects and organizations came together to talk through topics, get advice, and perhaps even gossip a little. After each one, we will use these blogs to recap the insights, questions, and provocations from these conversations.

This round featured a conversation with Victoria Frey of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Chase Fisher of the Five Points & Cultural District, Brad Carlin of Fusebox, and Sherry Dobbin of the Times Square Alliance on the question: How can creative placemaking better engage private developers and landlords?

The first step in any creative placemaking project is to think creatively about place. Sounds simple enough, right? Think again.

Sometimes all the questions can feel overwhelming: What types of spaces do specific projects require? How does changing a space effect the community at large? How can organizations work to mitigate the effects of involuntary displacement? How do organizations foster healthy, productive relationships with developers and landlords?

Is your head spinning yet? During this edition of The Huddle, our funded projects sat down to talk about their experiences with private developers, landlords, the outcomes of displacement and more.

Brad Carlin, the managing director of the Fuse Box Festival in Austin, TX, has been working for the last 2 years on thinkEAST, a 24-acre real estate development project in east Austin. Brad and his team are continuing a 30-year community effort to turn a former brownfield into a revitalized space. To do so, they've been working with private developers, but the road hasn't been easy–Austin is a rapidly growing and changing city. Some longtime residents are distrustful of the change, but, according to Brad, that's where arts organizations can step in as a facilitator of dialogue.

"[When the look and feel of neighborhoods change] people need to personify who to be upset with or who to have questions with," Brad explained. "That's where the role of the arts organization, at least in our case, was so powerful. We weren't the private developers, nor were we the city. Our neighborhood inherently distrusted anything the city said and anything the private developer said, so we were able to walk between them and work with them at the same time, especially in getting the community to see the difference."

Relationships between community stakeholders, landlords and private developers can be contentious and complicated, especially when cities change and property values go up.

Victoria Frey, executive director of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, shared her firsthand experience dealing with the effects of displacement in Portland: "We don't own the properties we program in.  We seek space throughout the community to mount programs appropriate to the work and the art we're presenting. We're sort of the original pop-up," she told us.

“Portland was a very different twenty years ago when we founded. There were many under developed neighborhoods with large underutilized buildings.  We built full theaters and exhibition spaces in vacant warehouses throughout what is now the Pearl District - then a dying industrial neighborhood. For the last four years, we've been finding this practice more and more difficult to maintain as the city rapidly develops and there is more out of town investment. We're engaging in very different ways with landlords now, we're becoming a larger part of the conversation about what neighborhoods can be, how to pull back on gentrification and what it would mean for us to reserve space for art and culture."

According to our funded projects, actively working to reserve space for the arts and culture is paramount–not just because the arts are great but because erasing culture from an area can actually make a tough situation even worse. Increased property values due to new development can (and often does) displace residents, but they also have the potential to strip a place of its identity and, eventually, its economic value.

Sherry Dobbin, the director of public art for Times Square Alliance, works tirelessly to bring contemporary art into one of the world's most polarizing urban spaces. Dobbin and her team bring performances, art installations, concerts and more into Times Square to ensure that it offers enrichment to everyone–tourists and NYC residents alike.

"[Displacement] can cause a loss of diversity. You lose the diversity of interaction, of interests, and you can start to lose the complex, layered identity that makes a city so rich. Our stakeholders desperately look to us to be the soul, to bring richness into the space. Otherwise, if it's just going to be about strictly going for the bottom line and the grossest profit, you can actually neutralize the identity of a place and it doesn't become very exciting and its profit drops."

Building strong partnerships with landlords and developers can help ensure that unique identity remains intact. But how do you do that when landlords live out-of-town?

Luckily, Chase Fisher, president of Five Points Cultural Commission in Montgomery, AL, was able to share his strategy with us: "The key thing is knowing who and where the landlords are. All of that is publicly available information–you can get it from GIS programs online or from your local planning department," he explained. "So I'd just start calling these property owners and asking them about their intentions for their property."

Some wanted to sell; some were interested in improving their properties but lacked money, time, or vision.

"We started offering those owners some strategies: long term leases, our facade improvement program which provides matching grants if owners will contribute a certain portion, etc. We've also had some really receptive property owners who we've added to our board. They've caught the vision for what we want to do and now they're putting their own money into developing their property in line with the vision that we had," Chase said.

In terms of strategy, Brad suggested exploring alternative economic models like land banking, co-opping, allowing for community investment models to help offset potential property taxes, and initiating things like Austin's homestead preservation district, which "allow[s] for a baseline property tax and values to be set. Then, as the area develops, new or increased property taxes are immediately re-invested back into the neighborhood as opposed to being stripped off and put into the general fund."

Dealing with developers and landlords can seem daunting or even scary, but our funded projects emphasize that maintaining an open mind is key to finding solutions to place-based challenges. "Approach developers from a place of confidence and added value, rather than a place of you needing them," Chase advised.

"Help them catch a vision for your work and, most of all, learn how to think like a developer."

What advice would you give for engaging with private developers and landlords?