Manhattan's Lower East Side is a bubbling nexus of housing, commerce, and consumerism. You live here, you shop here, you stroll here, you play here—that is, if you can afford it all. Call it an urban jumble, as Jane Jacobs might have.
But Jacobs’s dream for this type of tightly knit city is dying. On the LES alone, there are 200 vacant storefronts that, given the neighborhood’s astronomical rents, will remain empty for the unforeseen future. If they’re allowed to languish in inactivity, says architect Eric Ho, they may breed further instances of blight. Whither the street?
Enter Ho’s "storefront transformer," a pop-up panacea that imbues crumbling shops with creative life, if only temporarily. The idea, which Ho is currently shopping on Kickstarter, is simple: A modular kit of parts capable of turning an urban black hole into a buzzing node of activity. If deployed en masse, they could quite conceivably reshape the landscape of a neighborhood into what Ho calls an "incubation hub" for dense city living.
In this scenario, an underused or abandoned storefront becomes host to a revolving door of diverse programs. A traveling eatery takes up shop for a few weeks before a high-end boutique settles in for the month, only to be followed by a makeshift community center. Each is different, but all are "made in LES," or miLES, the apt name of Ho’s project.
miLES is an urban revitalization group that dovetails with both the maker and pop-up movements. For Ho, "The pop-up movement is an instrument to test the fastest way to prototype a space in our neighborhood" and which, he tells Co.Design, goes hand-in-hand with the maker movement. "We make pop-ups, and prototype experiences at storefronts that are not necessarily just retails, but can be about learning, making, and sharing."
To a generation of social-minded, urban-thinking designers, miLES is resourceful, stimulating, and wholly appealing. But for a hardened landlord with an eye for a very specific type of tenant—one with lots of income and who’s in it for the long haul—it isn’t worth the hassle. After all, Ho’s ideal drop-in occupants—small-scale entrepreneurs, artists, and civil activists—hardly fit the bill. Convincing local landlords otherwise has proven to be quite a challenge.
In response, miLES has devised a two-prong strategy to overcome this hurdle and benefit both landlords and tenants. The first is the commercial equivalent of Airbnb, that is, a shop’s current tenant, working through miLES and with the landlord’s approval, rents out the space for an interval of time, generates a bit of extra income for themselves in the process.
The second is a bit trickier: miLES will negotiate with the landlord to commit them to month-to-month "leases" while the latter is searching for a long-term occupant. In the meantime, the changing roster of creative tenants will bring in foot traffic and make the property more attractive to prospective renters. It’s a win-win for the landlord and the up-and-coming talent without the wherewithal or stability to open up a more permanent outpost.
Ho and his team hope to test out both real estate schemes on the LES in the near future. If the project's Kickstarter reaches its $32,000 goal, they want to curate a seven-week-long pop-up fest in the neighborhood that would feature a curated list of "tenants," from a comic book museum and maker spaces to a nonprofit kitchen where the area’s homeless can take in a Thanksgiving meal. Beyond that, Ho sees miLES extending to other spots of Manhattan, before migrating to the boroughs, and eventually, cities around the world. "A storefront is just the smallest unit to test this prototyping process, but the same idea can extend to a whole block, to a development, to a whole neighborhood."