Sunday, February 25, 2007

I Got My Hip Badge at The Loft

I had the good fortune to attend a spoken-word / poetry slam / performance art event last night at The Loft Literary Center just outside downtown Minneapolis. The event featured two artists (David Mura and Beau Sia), both of whom masterfully translated the depth of their experience as Asian-Americans to the stage. Overall, it was a fantastic evening, and I highly recommend you look into these two impressive performers.

But this is an urban planning blog! Enough about poetry slams! What's the urban planning angle?

(Drum roll please) Let's take a look at The Loft itself. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting writing, reading, and all things literary. It is housed at Open Book, another nonprofit similarly dedicated to the books and the people who love them. Open Book owns and operates a 52,000 square foot building in the heart of St. Anthony Falls Historic District of Minneapolis. Open Book leases this space to a number of literary-related enterprises, including a publishing house, a center for the "art of the book" itself, a gallery, the aforementioned Loft, and a coffee shop (people have to have somewhere to read, after all!). It's quite an impressive success, housing all these related institutions in a single building. Last night's crowd is certainly proof of that--at least 50 people braved the snowstorm to see the performance!

Open Book's success got me wondering whether the one-building-housing-many-tenants arrangement can be successful in the long term. Open Book is itself a nonprofit, so it relies on donations and user fees to balance the books. Some (but not all!) of its tenants are also nonprofits, so they too depend on the vicissitudes of donors to survive. Based on last night's turnout, I'd say they're doing great. Open Book has been in operation since 2000; for better or worse they've been able to keep tenants for seven years.

Generally speaking, this warehouse-of-tenants system works because it provides a number of important benefits to its tenants:

(1) Cheap rent - Usually these warehouses-of-tenants are themselves converted former warehouses. Since old, unused warehouses usually come cheap and are in undesirable neighborhoods, nonprofits can buy them more easily. Those nonprofits can in turn rent out space more cheaply to their tenants.

(2) Very small space - For very small startups (say one or two people), it's often difficult to find a location that will rent out 150 square feet. In a nonprofit warehouse, however, it's much easier to find such space.

(3) Institutional support - Since these warehouses-of-tenants are often dedicated to housing like minded tenants (in Open Book's case, literary-minded tenants), new tenants immediately become part of their like minded community.

The warehouse-of-tenants model succeeds when there exists a strong and dedicated community of patrons to keep the warehouse vibrant. The West Side Market in Cleveland, for instance, overflows with shoppers when it's open, as does the North Market in Columbus.

On the other hand, there are also warehouses-of-tenants that have failed. Portland (Maine), for instance, is home to the Public Market, a large building housing all kinds of arts-related tenants. The last intel I got on the Public Market, however, was that it was losing business and might soon close. Market 25, in Cleveland (Ohio), also was a short-lived warehouse of small-scale restaurants. It shut down due to lack of customers.

The warehouse-of-tenants model can, I believe, be successful on occasion. I'd like to investigate further under what conditions the model can work. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know...


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