Are pop-ups just site-warming, shiny baubles of distraction, or can they shape a place? Rosie Cade speaks to Projekt’s Nick Hartwright about his new model for “meanwhile”
London has 24,000 empty commercial properties. There is 2,700ha of land that has planning permission to be developed but no confirmed start date – the equivalent of the London Borough of Lambeth. Yet affordable business premises are increasingly hard to secure, despite Sadiq Khan’s 2016 workplace pledge to support SMEs and artists.
Small companies in London are looking further afield for affordable office space, while central locations are accused of becoming campuses for large occupiers such as the tech and finance industry, which encourage their employees to have an inward-looking lifestyle. In his recent book, Building and Dwelling, Richard Sennett described their large offices as being “in the city but not of it”, and believes employees cosseted with free food and concierge services therefore miss out on the “creative spurs” of urban life – with cities the poorer for it.
Developers are realising their audiences, both commercial and retail, want more from where they live and work. They want experiences, connections and ambience.
Nick Hartwright is one of the property entrepreneurs trying to arrest the ‘blanding’ of place. His workspace company, Projekt, is finding ways to turn ‘meanwhile use’ into something more meaningful by disrupting the traditional developer-tenant relationship and making space for small businesses to grow.
I meet Hartwright in Tottenham, one of the areas of London rich with light industrial complexes that spell opportunity for local authorities and their developers. Hartwright estimates he has 500 tenants on multiple sites and while he hasn’t chased the spotlight, he’s brimming with energy to share his ideas. On a grey January day, we look up at the floors of flats over his Soho office. “People still like living above the shop,” he says.
Hartwright’s previous company, The Mill Co Project (TMCP), turned 10 years old last year. It continues to be successful as a workspace operator in the kinds of locations struggling to hold onto their desk and studio space: Hackney, Islington, Haringey. Its model is commonplace now, but at the time it seemed incredible that someone would find empty floors and boarded-up retail units worth bothering with.
“Projekt plugs into a site right at the start of a development and is still there for 25 years after completion. We manage a number of interesting tenants on the owner’s behalf”
Hartwright was in it – and still is – for the fun of the deal, as much as to make a living. “We’d take spaces that the developer or local authority didn’t really know what to do with,” he says. The in-house team would manage an inexpensive fit-out and the tenants would arrive through his network of artists and entrepreneurs, drawn by the affordable rents but staying because of TMCP’s hands-on, hands-off management style and the organic, incidental bonding that Hartwright came to realise was valuable.
“People started to not just work somewhere but to feed into it socially and care about the whole, to commit more than just their rent,” he says.
Communal spaces, often open to the public, have the kind of natural water-cooler moments Google would envy. Ironically, his second building was a disused former community centre.
Seven years in, Hartwright took stock. “Meanwhile use had come to be an accepted, even expected part of the property business, but it was so limited and there was so much horse-trading involved for a relatively short time period. We’d be taking away a risk for the developer – a rates liability or the prospect of squatters – and also generating them revenue on a pretty undesirable space. But we had no way to promise our tenants anything long-term.
“It takes time to fit it out, lease it up, bed in the tenant mix, then allow their businesses to relax and grow. With Green Rooms [an artist hotel and bar in Haringey], it’s taken us three years to be adopted by the locals.
“We looked at what we had – this ability to create something from essentially nothing – and it was clear that we needed a different vehicle, different people with different skill sets.”
Hence Projekt. Its website says it exists “to shape the character of new communities and revitalise unloved spaces” – so far, so similar to London’s other meanwhile operators. But the genius of Projekt is that it is using the cultural capital its model generates as a lever to get the landowner to agree to a longer-term commitment.
“Meanwhile use had come to be an accepted, even expected part of the property business, but it was so limited and there was so much horse-trading involved for a relatively short time period”
This is the opposite of classic ‘meanwhile’, which has thrived in cities because its low set-up costs and definite shelf-life is reassuring for cautious developers who want to test what works (retail, food and beverage) with their hard-to-predict end-users. It addresses the undercurrent of feeling that “meanwhile isn’t meaningful” – that it is “a shiny bauble to distract from what the long-term project is actually doing… social cleansing… for an economic system only interested in short-term, pop-up solutions”, as Dan Hancox wrote in ‘Fuck Your Pop-Up Shops’ in 2014 for Vice.
“Projekt is an organisation that plugs into a site right at the start of a development or regeneration scheme and is a partner all the way through the planning process, into the sales or leasing, and is still there for the 20, 25 years after completion,” counters Hartwright. “Having us involved de-risks an element of the scheme. We take the head lease on the existing and eventual commercial space and find and manage a number of interesting tenants on the owner’s behalf.”
The owner doesn’t have the option to move tenants out or put up rents substantially when the site is finished.
But it does have access to a ready-made, often richly diverse group of characters and an ambience of on-site enterprise and activity that’s a marketing dream.
“Rather than trying to backfill spaces, seed things through the early phases and keep them on,” Hartwright says. “Then you’ll have somewhere people [homebuyers] actually want to be, somewhere that is already good, rather than having to sell your scheme with computer-generated pictures as somewhere that could be good.”
But how does singing for their supper detract from or contribute to these early tenants’ daily output? Something about the trade-off makes me uneasy.
I speak to Gideon Berger, one of the two owners of Block9, a designer and producer of huge immersive events. The company has an affordably priced 10,000 sq ft space in The Silver Building – a massive 1960s building in Canning Town once occupied by the Carlsberg-Tetley Brewing Company that has planning consent to be developed as part of a huge mixed-use scheme. This must be a rare find for a creative company in a global city like London.
“The phrase ‘meanwhile use’ has been around long enough for creatives to understand their position in the development food chain,” says Berger. “Artists have wised up and are aware they will be part of the process. This can be a good deal for a few years, until the inevitable hoarding goes up around the building – sadly, often referencing the arts, design and events that are disappearing.”
He adds: “I hope that pressure from the government downwards and creative businesses upwards will make long-term, affordable leases more than a carrot dangled in front of tenants prepared to pioneer these rougher parts of cities. Projekt is one of the few landlords that seem to be making this promise a reality.”
Block9’s offices are a huge amount of space for a developer to commit to one occupier so far off the scheme’s completion. How did it happen?
The answer may lie in planning. The Greater London Authority owns one third of the property, while Keystone owns the rest. With the current concerns about conversions from workspace to residential usage, the new scheme is tasked with providing the same amount of commercial usage as there was in the 1960s building.
“Developers all over are realising their audiences, both commercial and residential, want more from where they live”
A company happy to contribute to the overall placemaking and pay rent in an unfinished scheme shouldn’t be a hard sell. Projekt can certainly articulate the value of ‘cool’ in highly commercial terms. The surprise is that more mixed-use developers haven’t clocked on – Hartwright admits to having just four sites currently, albeit with prospects in the pipeline. Nevertheless, he believes the model has a future.
“Every largish city is under the same pressures: land values, population growth, challenging retail and commercial environments. We’re seeing more meanwhile uses in third and fourth-tier cities – Reading, for example,” says Hartwright, who reveals Projekt is pursuing a site there. “Developers all over are realising their audiences, both commercial and residential, want more from where they live. People are changing the criteria they use to pick where they settle, and it’s more about experiences, connections and the ambience than about the size of their garage and the white goods thrown in.
“The growing, purpose-built rental market is especially interesting as a market force because rental tenants value location and experience over the intrinsic qualities of the home they get; they want to arrive with a couple of suitcases and have a ready-made community – a real one.”
Hartwright adds, grimacing slightly, “People these days think: ‘There’s no way we can buy, so we might as well rent somewhere which takes a great picture…’”
As well as considering other parts of the UK, Projekt is looking abroad. Hartwright spends a lot of time in Berlin, but his next location of choice is less obvious: Porto, in Portugal.
“It’s got the large empty port warehouses, a history of trading with the UK and a mean creative undercurrent,” he says, painting a picture of a libertarian meanwhile utopia. “We’ll be there in 2020.”