Coffee Carts and Vacant Storefronts

Pronto Kiosk by Aidlin Darling Design, San Francisco

Don’t get me wrong, this coffee cart is cute and the perfect embodiment of the intersection of DIY Urbanism and Live!Work!Play! development strategies that are popular in high value cities. But how do we reconcile solutions like this with the issues facing cities like Springfield and Lawrence, Massachusetts, where vacant Downtown retail space is a significant economic development and urban design challenge?

Vacant building action plan, City of Lawrence, Utile

One answer might be to borrow the entrepreneurial and life-style focused ethos of the coffee cart to attack the vacant storefronts directly. The key is to persuade often-absentee landlords to provide their ground-level space to business start-ups gratis or at very low cost. But it’s the convincing that will be difficult, since the cost basis of these buildings is low and the relative costs and risks of tenants is relatively high in terms of insurance, security, and increased scrutiny by City code officials.

One solution might be a public policy that helps to pay for the minimum costs of getting potential coffee cart vendors into the buildings for test runs of six months or one year. These costs might include minimal electrical upgrades, new locks on doors, and an insurance policy that indemnifies building owners as much as possible. In addition, this policy would need to clarify that the “leases” are for temporary occupation to avoid the need for costly code upgrades that would paralyze the program. Partnerships with local community colleges and branches of state universities would be key. Start-up ventures could be a central focus of business programs, thus incentivizing storefront experiments on an on-going basis.

If even ten percent of these ventures stick, it will make an enormous difference on the Main Streets where we are doing a lot of our planning.


3 thoughts on “Coffee Carts and Vacant Storefronts

  1. This is an excellent idea but I can see a few additional complications that could stand in the way of implementation. As a way to delay required code compliance, maybe consider limit the percentage of the ground floor commercial space that could be occupied during the trial period, not more than 25%, for example. I could also see circumstances where the coffee cart creates interest in the space and suddenly the landlord finds a full paying commercial tenant and the business start-up is pushed out before they have a chance to become established. Also, I would suggest that this experiment be set up as a contract between the city government, the landlord and the start-up so that at the end of the trial period and the business is to occupy the space on a long-term basis applicable license and permit fees would be payable (possibly at a reduced rate) and the landlord would sign a long-term lease possibly with an escalator clause as the business brings in more revenue.

  2. Tim, I haven’t read enough Jane Jacobs to ascertain whether she already has commented on your idea, but I speculate that she would be thrilled to include this tactic into the strategic spirit of urban planning.

    Here in Phoenix, Arizona, we are trying to arrange for the municipal government to temporarily “lease” blighted properties at near-free cost and convert them to urban produce gardens for the local neighborhoods. But instead of attacking a problem with a singular Band-Aid, we are learning that—according to Jacobs’—”Development must happen from within.” And this means applying her five forces of economics to revitalize cities and the city regions that surround them: city markets, city jobs, city technology, transplanted city work, and city capital. The combination serves to gradually replace the city’s imported goods with ones that are locally produced.

  3. As the client and owner of the kiosk (which currently, sadly, sits in a shipping container on the piers of San Francisco), I often think about how to get it reactivated in some way. This post leads to some interesting thinking about how the strength of its design can become a de facto storefront vis-a-vis as an insert into an otherwise minimally improved space.

    As your post alludes, frequently the greatest barrier to entry and cost for someone going into a space and making that space an experiential success (an essential component to overall business success, especially in an ever-increasing competitive hospitality environment) is the design/permit/build process. How interesting to think of the kiosk-as-inserted storefront as the evolution of the (tired) shipping container reuse concept. How much more urban, urbane, and progressive to reactivate vacant street level storefronts than to put shipping containers empty lots.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas.

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