By Ryan Kailath
A recent walk along the three-block length of East First Street revealed 12 vacant storefronts. Ten were boarded up or behind rolling grates, with forlorn signs advertising square footage, a broker’s phone number and stipulations like “No restaurants allowed.” One space was under construction.
The 12th storefront, at the very end of the block abutting Second Avenue, was a small, garden-level retail space, empty save for three lamps, a series of boxes and about 30 well-to-do young New Yorkers milling about and chatting. Six small businesses were simultaneously using the 650-square-foot space as a pop-up shop, displaying their wares — from boutique fashion to do-it-yourself pickling kits — in plyboard boxes of various sizes.
The storefront, at 37 E. First St., housed Pac Lab, a photography store, until October 2013, when the retailer’s long-term lease ended. Unwilling to re-sign, Pac Lab vacated, and the “For Lease” sign went up. And stayed up. For six months.
“A lot of times landlords are waiting for the next gentrified client to come in,” said Eric Ho, a 34-year-old architect and entrepreneur. “They don’t want to give a five or 10-year lease to someone paying less.” This is where Made in the Lower East Side comes in.
Made in the Lower East Side, or miLES, is Ho’s brainchild. Partners and collaborators around the city consistently told Ho that their primary need was simply space — a room in which to realize their projects. Walking to work from his Chinatown apartment, Ho began to notice all the vacant storefronts in the neighborhood — more than 200, by his count. So he began to call the phone numbers taped up in the window.
“We open storefronts to possibilities by creating short-term multi-use spaces as community hubs,” Ho said. “We lower the entry barrier for entrepreneurs, creatives and locals to use expensive real estate spaces.”
At 37 E. First St., the owner was looking for a long-term tenant at $4,000 per month, and getting no takers. When Ho approached him about using the space short-term until a tenant signed on, the landlord dropped the monthly rent to $3,500, which miLES paid for by signing businesses on for the pop-up shop.
“Brokers don’t care about short-term uses because there’s nothing in it for them,” Ho said. “So we try to hunt down landlords directly.” Ho found the landlord at 37 E. First St. via neighbors.
Brendan Gotch, director of retail leasing at Massey Knakal Realty, concurs. “It’s a lot of work and not a lot of payoff for us to get involved in those deals,” he said. “If I were a landlord, I’d definitely take the money, though,” he added. “I’d put the pop-up in.”
However, the lack of a trusted agent to broker the deal can make many landlords wary about short-term uses; miLES faced several rejections before doing their first pop-up last year, on East Fourth Street. After they secured the blessing of a local community group called Fourth Arts Block, the landlord agreed to let miLES use the storefront as a co-working space during the day, and an event space at night.
Short-term rentals “can be logistically complex because of insurance requirements,” said Tim Laughlin, executive director of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. “The way around it is to make a licensing agreement instead of a lease.”
“Making short-term leases is definitely more complicated,” said Amber King, VP of the co-op board at 35 E. First St. King’s building worked with miLES last year, when their own retail tenant vacated. While they looked for a tenant, miLES hosted a rotation of artists’ events and gallery shows.
Gotch says that landlords often panic when they notice a string of vacant storefronts; they wonder if the market is in a free-fall or if the neighborhood is losing value or desirability for various reasons.
King’s co-op also enjoyed the community feeling and cultural cachet that miLES brought to their building. “We’re mostly artists ourselves here in the building.”
For its part, miLES makes a point of dedicating its spaces to community projects when the pop-ups themselves are underbooked. Israel Quitcon, 51, is an ex-convict who is launching a business incubator to help secure employment for newly-released inmates, and the long-term unemployed in the community. He’s currently operating his business out of a miLES space — and former diner — at 399 Grand St.
“It’s like a laboratory,” said Quitcon. “Having this space gives me a chance to become intimate with what works and what doesn’t. The financial risk is minimal, and I learn so much.”
Quitcon met Ho at an art show on Attorney Street, in the eastern end of the neighborhood. “I liked Eric right away,” he said. “Because we’re doing the same thing, you know? He saw the unused potential in all these spaces, and I’m working with all the unused human potential in this community.”
Ryan Kailath is a radio and multimedia producer living in New York City. His work has aired on WNYC, KUOW and PRI.