Reuse, repurpose, refurbish: “The rise of the ‘meanwhile space’: how empty properties are finding second lives”
“Hospitals are rarely places of cheer and creativity, but the former Saint-Vincent-de-Paul hospital in Paris’s 14th district is one of the most exciting places on the left bank. Former ambulance bays and car parks now house allotments, a boules court, a makeshift football pitch and an urban campsite, and up to 1,000 visitors a day come to browse its market, eat at its cafes or catch a free live performance.
Renamed Les Grands Voisins, or The Great Neighbours, the site is a magnet for Parisians and tourists alike, its former treatment rooms, A&E building and wards now a hub of social and commercial enterprise. Alongside a hostel providing 600 beds for the homeless are artisan studios, pop-up shops and startups.
It’s like a village, an inclusive space with social areas and job opportunities where different people can interact,” says William Dufourcq, director of Aurore, the charity that runs the homeless shelter. “We were overwhelmed with its success.”
Closed since 2011, the hospital is slated for redevelopment into a new neighbourhood with eco credentials, private and social housing, shops, commercial and public facilities and green space.
Planning, clearance and construction on such a large scale takes time and, rather than leave the 3.4-hectare site empty for years, the developer, Paris Batignolles Aménagement, opened it to local organisations rent-free. The lease was scheduled to end this year, but has been extended until mid-2020 while construction begins on other parts of the site.
Les Grands Voisins is an example of a “meanwhile space”: a disused site temporarily leased or loaned by developers or the public sector to local community groups, arts organisations, start-ups and charities. Calls for making use of such spaces in other crowded urban centres are getting louder. A report published in October by the thinktank Centre for London highlights both the need for and positive possibilities of utilising empty urban sites and how this could transform the landscape of cities around the globe.
“The aim was to show the value ‘meanwhile use’ can add in cities where there is pressure on space,” says Nicolas Bosetti, one of the report researchers. He says public and private operators in Paris are more ambitious than those in London in exploring the use of disused buildings from metro stations to former nightclubs for short-term use as charity and cultural venues.
Other meanwhile spaces in Paris include Exelmans, a former police residence repurposed as a shelter for the homeless and refugees, run by Aurore on a two-year lease, and the Parmentier electricity substation, where the art collective La Générale has operated since 2008.
The substation, which is soon to be redeveloped, was included in Paris Reinvented, an initiative from the mayor’s office currently in its second year. Disused public sites are put up for auction to developers and architects who compete with plans for their redevelopment. “Les Grands Voisins showed how something like this can change an area and help plan future urban projects,” says Marion Waller, adviser to Paris’s deputy mayor for urban planning. “We didn’t want to sell buildings to the highest bidder but to the most innovative solution.”
The idea of loaning empty urban spaces to worthwhile causes is gaining ground elsewhere, with thriving projects in the Danish city of Aarhus and Philadelphia in the US, where it’s called “temporary urbanism”. However, in space-squeezed London, urban sites can remain empty for years, mainly because they have no obvious commercial potential or are waiting for permission to be developed.
The Centre for London found that an estimated 24,400 commercial properties in London are currently empty, with around half having been unused for more than two years. The total available vacant space, 6.5m sq metres, is equivalent to 27 times the footprint of Westfield London, Europe’s largest shopping centre. The majority of such places are owned by local authorities and developers. “Only one of 33 London borough councils publishes a database of vacant property and only one council keeps a list of groups interested in vacant spaces,” says Bosetti.
Bosetti thinks property owners could do more to match available sites with needy groups but says local authorities are afraid of squatters or allowing in destructive elements. “One of the main barriers to meanwhile use is the perception that hoarding a site is safer,” he says. “Often the opposite is true. Opening a site to a community and encouraging interaction with residents usually sees a reduction in antisocial activity.”
Squatting and vandalism are more likely if a building remains empty for too long, so one benefit of temporary tenants is the reduction in security costs. Another, according to Simon Hesketh, director of regeneration with the British developer U+I, is the connection a meanwhile space can forge with the community prior to redevelopment.
“We’ll try to organise events in temporary spaces for the widest cross-section of residents, to get their views and ask what they’d like and what works,” he says. “Not just to smooth the planning process, but because we can learn what we might include in our proposals.” …
Let’s hope prices won’t be too high for locals. Bed and breakfast at his nearby Lympstone Manor starts at a cool £250 per person per night – or a reasonable offer of £330 per room on Hotels.com.
Lunch costs £39 for 2 courses, £49 for three courses with a nice dinner for £125 per person – lobster, grouse, passion fruit souffle as an example.
Perhaps the seafront restaurant will use the leftovers!
Is Grenadier’s funding perhaps contingent on EDDC moving the road? A big gamble for EDDC …
“Save Exmouth Seafront campaigners have expressed concerns after East Devon District Council pushed through plans to realign the Queen’s Drive road and car park.
Seafront campaigners have hit out at ‘arrogant’ plans to fast track the redirection of Exmouth’s Queens Drive to make way for a new watersports centre.
Save Exmouth Seafront (SES) said it ‘views with grave concern’ the decision by East Devon District Council (EDDC) to proceed with diverting Queen’s Drive behind the proposed Watersports centre, because the decision was ‘taken at very short notice’.
The campaign group’s concerns are in response East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) cabinet approval for work to begin on phase one of the regeneration, despite no ‘legal commitment’ from Grenadier Estates for ‘phase two’.
Nick Hookway, SES chairman, said: “This decision by the EDDC cabinet, taken at very short notice and voted through before residents had a chance to speak, shows yet again the arrogance of this council and the contempt with which residents’ views and concerns are considered.
“This decision raises a whole range of questions.”
He said the campaign group wants to know why the new road is being moved behind the before the developer has fully signed up to the project, and questions why EDDC was funding it.
The group asked what would happen if Grenadier Estates did not go ahead with the watersports centre and whether there was a contingency plan, fearing residents face a future with a derelict seafront site.
EDDC said it was ‘making sure’ it was on track to deliver what residents want.
An EDDC spokeswoman said: “The council is not prepared to allow further delays on the delivery of a new road and car park, which will pave the way for the much awaited water sports centre and a vision for the wider Queen’s Drive site.”
She added: “We also appreciate that there are a number of long term detractors who have their concerns about how the new seafront is taking shape, so we want to provide reassurance that we are constantly keeping under review the programme of development and maintaining progress while keeping Exmouth people informed on what we are doing.”
She said the council was ‘fully committed’ to the ongoing consultation with the public about changes to the seafront.”
“A series of East Devon District Council Independent councillors strongly criticised Tory proposals to commence work on a replacement car park, as part of the Queens Drive Regeneration Project, at the EDDC Cabinet meeting on 31 October.
Leading the criticism was Exmouth Councillor Megan Armstrong (Exmouth Halsdon – Independent) who referred to the planned new road as “a road to nowhere”.
Other Independent Councillors expressing concern about the Tory course of action were Independents Roger Giles, Ben Ingham, and Rob Longhurst and EDA Members Cathy Gardner and Geoff Jung.
The first criticism related to timing. Although it was a major and contentious issue, the report for the meeting was issued just 24 hours before the meeting.
Megan Armstrong urged that the report be deferred to allow councillors time to properly consider the proposals, and the implications. She said that sending out the report so late was “manipulative management.”
Cathy Gardner said it was “extremely regrettable that such short notice was given for such an important issue”.
It had originally been agreed that the go ahead for construction of the car park would only be given when agreement had been reached between EDDC and Grenadier about construction of the Watersports Centre by Grenadier.
However the EDDC Cabinet was informed on 31 October that no such agreement had been reached. Merely that verbal assurances had been made.
Roger Giles warned the Cabinet that going ahead without the required agreement carried substantial risks. He cited paragraph 2.7 of the report which said : `Cabinet should be aware that this represents a risk that the council is incurring costs without Grenadier being legally committed to delivering the Watersports Centre thereafter.`
Roger Giles asked whether independent audit advice had been sought about the inherent risk. He was told it had not.
Ben Ingham was strongly critical of undertaking such a high risk strategy.
Rob Longhurst criticised the lack of a business plan, and the absence of costings, and said there was a lack of justification for the departure from the previous strategy.
Geoff Jung questioned the income assumptions; he asked how a smaller car park than the original would generate increased income. He also expressed concern about EDDC`s responsibilities anf financial burden, should Grenadier not develop the site.
Megan Armstrong pointed out that the Cabinet agenda papers (item 10 pages 31 to 35) contained the minutes of the meeting of the Exmouth Regeneration Board on 20 September. The minutes contained no reference to the proposed early construction of the car park!
Megan Armstrong asked a series of critical questions, including about the three outstanding `condition precedents`, and seeking explanation of the beach access agreement.
She complained that questions asked by herself, and by other independent councillors, had not received proper answers. Council Leader Ian Thomas told her he would ensure that she received answers after the meeting; Megan Armstrong was very critical of councillors being asked to make a decision – and then to receive the pertinent information AFTER the decision was made: she said “That is a very poor form of decision making.”
In spite of the failure to achieve the necessary agreements the (Conservative) Cabinet agreed to proceed with early construction of the car park after only 3 Cabinet Members spoke very briefly.
After the meeting Megan Armstrong was highly critical of the Cabinet decision.
“Tonight Tory councillors made an important decision relating to Exmouth, and they denied the people of Exmouth the opportunity to comment on it. The Tory councillors agreed a very high risk strategy without justification for it, and without proper safeguard for public funds for which they are responsible. It is irresponsible political management; Exmouth deserves better.”
“… In the planning application’s support statement, Alison Hayward, the district council’s senior manager of regeneration and economic development, said: “The council now has the ability to undertake the development as approved but this will not happen immediately.
“With that in mind, the council wishes to continue operating the temporary attractions from the site for another year until March 2020, after the current temporary permission expires in March 2019.” …”
“Work is set to begin on phase one of the Exmouth seafront regeneration scheme this month after East Devon District Council (EDDC) cabinet gave its approval despite not having ‘legal commitment’ from Grenadier Estates for ‘phase two’.
The developer, which is planning to begin construction on a new watersports centre in spring 2019, says it is ‘committed and on schedule’.
Councillors at the cabinet meeting on Wednesday (October 31) were told there were ‘verbal assurances’ from Grenadier but that waiting any longer for a written commitment would result in works on the road, which had originally been expected to begin in September, being put back until next summer. Members were told the council had sought independent commercial advice in case Grenadier decided to pull out.
Speaking at the meeting, Councillor Megan Armstrong warned that verbal assurances are not good enough, adding: “The council is incurring costs without Grenadier being legally committed and if the council is willing to spend all this money on possibly a road to nowhere then so be it but I actually despair of this council making this decision.”
However, councillor Jill Elson said: “We have already incurred costs of £63,000 and if we delay any more we will be adding another £63,000 and we need a better car park.
“I believe we should be saying to Grenadier we are pushing to get on and we want this done in the winter and don’t want it done in the summer.
“I think it would be horrendous in the summer, not only for the tourist industry but there will be a health and safety issue for members of the public.”
Councillor Ian Thomas, cabinet committee chairman and leader of EDDC, said: “It’s incredibly important that we keep the Exmouth regeneration programme moving than allowing it to stagnate.
“It’s important that building works aren’t scheduled in the middle of the summer season and the disruption it will cause on the seafront in Exmouth.”