Taking on a “fixer upper” means taking on the unexpected. If you are a cultural organization seeking a home, there are real benefits to obtaining a space that needs a little love—but it also requires careful planning and lots of support.
In the third part of this three part series, we look at the key lessons learned from our national survey of adaptive reuse, and some important considerations for cities who want to encourage pioneering artists to set up shop in their communities.
About a year ago the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts (NOCD) working group asked your Man About Town to write a nice, juicy case study about what happens when cultural organizations buy non-cultural facilities and fix them up. This three part series details my findings, although it’s well worth checking out the original report to see case studies from nearly a dozen cultural organizations across the country. You can also read Part I and Part II of this series to learn more about the unique opportunities and challenges of adaptive reuse.
You may also want to visit the Tumblr site I set up for this report, which includes links to a variety of additional resources for cultural organizations seeking their first home.
Rounding for Home
There are a number of important takeaways from this survey of adaptive reuse efforts around the country:
- Adaptive reuse and building renovation vary significantly from new construction. It is axiomatic in the construction industry that any time you are dealing with an older building, you won’t really know the full scope of the construction project itself until you are well under way. Structural issues, compromised electrical or plumbing systems, sewage and drainage issues—any number of these may not be in the initial expected scope of work but may be identified as walls are opened up or new systems are being upgraded. Even the most experienced contractors can’t necessarily tell you if a wall is load bearing until they pull off the old plaster and see. Proceed with caution when attempting to rehabilitate an older building, and consult engineering, code, and building systems experts before fully committing to the project. For additional reference, consult online tools such as “Square Feet Seattle.”
- As form affects function, so all capital projects interact with an organization’s mission. Moving into long-term control of a facility can provide new stability and opportunities for growth. It can also distract attention or even demand time and energy that cultural leaders would prefer to give to their creative work. Many of the group members in this case study discussed the tremendous effort they put into understanding the intersection of their creative practice and the facility they were building. Many were also clear that the development of the facility would require them to build new expertise, new capacities, new partnerships, and new resources. These had to be carefully managed so that they did not detract from the organization’s mission, but deepened it.
- Developers of adaptive reuse projects must be open to change. Capital projects are complex, have long time lines, and require multiple layers of resources. It is almost certain that even the best-laid plans will have to be amended as new information comes to light. This can entail adding new partners or dropping old ones or re-evaluating deep assumptions about what’s possible in the new facility. While it is intuitive that these changes will occur, developing a decision-making structure capable of digesting and dealing efficiently with such changes is essential to maintaining an efficient process. Again, clear lines of leadership and delegation of responsibilities up front, with an understanding that these may be altered, are critical.
- There is no substitute for local expertise in project development and management. Artspace is a frequent development partner, and additional national community development intermediaries like the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Enterprise Community Partners, the Nonprofit Finance Fund, Fractured Atlas, and others can provide much needed expertise and resource. It is clear, however, that there always needs to be on-the-ground leadership with access to key stakeholders, as well as a deep understanding of local relationships and community priorities. As noted above, plans will change. Furthermore, the more complex the project, the greater the need for anticipating community needs. Those surveyed were absolutely clear: national intermediaries were critically important, but final decision making needed to rest with local leadership who understood the community impacts of their efforts. In New York City, nonprofit culturals have been able to gain support with planning through local entities such as the Pratt Center, the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, borough-based arts councils, and many others.
- Capital projects require a careful earned revenue strategy, and many times this includes cultivating relationships with cultural partners who do not have access to a space of their own. For most groups, the process of developing and adapting space is a leap, not a stretch. A number of the case study participants built both earned-revenue and operational objectives with other cultural partners in mind. In fact, many said that they viewed their developments as not just meeting the immediate developmental needs of the organization but also increasing infrastructure for other cultural partners in the community. Several spoke of their development specifically as public service or even a utility. While funding sources (both public and private) do not frequently include this in their consideration of support, it is nonetheless clearly an established reality.
- Capital projects require significant financial support, and having a clear strategy about how the acquisition and rehabilitation will be financed or funded is key. Many projects surveyed were directly supported by a combination of public funds (usually from the city or state), private funds (from foundations and individual donors), and even borrowed funds (from a lender or nonprofit intermediary with lending capacity). Understanding how much capital the project will require, what the likely sources are for obtaining that capital, and timing the many complex pieces to come together is very demanding. Many nonprofits made use of a wide array of friends, stakeholders, contractors, and experts to accomplish the fund-raising and financing alone—even before engaging in design or construction. In addition, a number of cities blessed with a relatively large pool of capital funds nonetheless face extremely high demand and competition for support. Funds awarded can be channeled through bureaucratic processes that substantially attenuate project development. Getting clear on the nature of the entire process and establishing strong working relationships with funding partners and other stakeholders (particularly elected representatives if the project is publicly funded) will significantly improve success.
- Leaseholds can provide a helpful foothold, but be wary of the landlord. A number of case study examples in this report leased their current facilities (and some had leased several properties in their evolution). All reported being justifiably wary of the landlord’s intentions for the ultimate disposition of the property, and several reported that the landlord was clearly bringing in artists to both improve the condition of the property and increase the overall desirability of the location. Most case study examples secured leases of between one and three years. Leases of five years or more were very rare and were reported only in those cases in which a landlord truly valued the cultural partner or, conversely, saw little value in the property. Most cultural organizations also had some form of negotiation under way to acquire the leased property but were fairly realistic about the possibility that the landlord would not sell the building and simply replace them with a higher-paying tenant at the end of their lease. It’s important to note that while leased spaces pose the risk of displacement, they can also provide an opportunity to obtain a space at a relatively low cost. Several cultural organizations were careful negotiators and secured inexpensive leases or more favorable terms in exchange for their investment of “sweat equity” in cleaning up and preparing a dilapidated space for occupancy. Finally, a number of nonprofit culturals also planned carefully, doing only as much work as necessary to make the space usable and planning investments in equipment and furnishings so that they could be removed at a later date if they relocated.
When All Is Said and Done
“Adaptive Reuse” is a broad topic. Still, there are consistencies. Potential developments tend to find us as much as we find them. The ability to develop and manage partnerships with a multiplicity of local stakeholders is both a necessary strength and a critical buffer. Partnerships are essential, but they add complexity that requires clear leadership and decision-making. Having a plan that extends beyond the development through operations, including engaging other cultural partners, strengthens the chances for success.
Important issues remain:
- How can small culturals be supported in accessing temporary spaces more consistently? Most nonprofit culturals are small nonprofit culturals. For many, engaging in facilities development on their own can feel far beyond their reach. There is a need for funders, particularly public sector funders, to maximize the utility of existing cultural venues both for their primary occupants and for those there on a temporary basis. Funds to increase the operational and maintenance capacity needed for greater use would be a powerful tool to make more spaces available.
- How can opportunities for adaptive reuse, which are rare, be identified and targeted early? Ideally, public sector partners would provide more access to lists of publicly held vacant lots, blighted properties, and other underused spaces suitable for adaptive reuse. They would also create incentives in the forms of economic support, technical assistance, pre-funding for planning, and tools for financing on terms that small culturals could work with.
- How do you select cultural partners who are reliable, flexible, and community oriented? Like choosing a roommate, finding cultural partners who will help build out programming and perhaps even share some of the operational burden of a new facility can be challenging. Very little attention has been paid to this issue, and a sectoral dialogue about the difficulties and importance of making sound decisions is needed. Furthermore, standard legal agreements that can help structure and govern these relationships would go a long way toward preserving clear lines of responsibility.
Adaptive reuse, the recycling of older venues for new purposes, has long been linked with the work of nonprofit cultural practitioners. Fixer-uppers are more difficult than is new construction, but they are also less expensive and working on them frequently overlaps with other mission-oriented goals. This is likely to remain true, and with some process improvements, they could yield even greater benefits to cultural groups and communities alike.
Thanks Dear Reader for joining on this journey. Until next time remember to stay strong, stay dapper.
(Photo by Cindy Cornett Seigle CC BY-NC-SA)