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Architect Looks to Turn Vacant LES Storefronts into Quick-Hit Rental Spaces

By Serena Solomon | August 20, 2012 10:34am

LOWER EAST SIDE — Call it ZipCar for event spaces.

A Lower East Side arts and architecture group is looking to turn the neighborhood's numerous vacant storefronts into quick-hit rental spaces for community meetings, art exhibitions, stores or even a friendly potluck dinner.

"How this all started is that I saw so many vacant store or lots, and I wanted to know why," said Eric Ho, 31, from Architecture Commons, one of the six organizations that make up the group MiLES (Made in the Lower East Side). He noted that there are roughly 200 vacant storefronts on the Lower East Side alone.

The concept includes creating an online catalog of vacant stores and lots, with the option for community groups, businesses and local residents to rent spaces directly from landlords.

"This could be daily, weekly, monthly and — ambitiously — hourly," said Ho, a Harvard-educated architect.

A profile for each vacant space could be created online with a description and images, and those seeking a temporary space would be connected with willing landlords, Ho explained.

He has already presented the idea to Community Board 3 and begun networking with landlords, and the group is currently seeking funding to get the the project off the ground.

The $5,000 grant MiLES is vying for from the Good Maker Art Challenge would allow the group to create a portable presentation unit they could take to landlords to show them how easily their empty space could be converted to host an event.

"It is basically a mobile stage or mobile unit, which would go around to existing stores or lots," Ho said of the structure.

The foldout prototype will be able to transform into a meeting table, a stage or a projector station for presentations, with the ability to be wheeled through narrow doorways and become operational in minutes.

"It is an idea that people can use a vacant store or lot without much intervention," Ho said. The unit could be moved by a person or two, and even towed behind a bike, he explained.

Landlords' biggest concern, Ho said, is temporary tenants' ability to move in and out of the space quickly and with ease.

He added that the vacant spaces could still be on the market angling for long-term tenants while making some immediate income from the quick-hit rentals.

While attempting to secure funding, volunteers with MiLES will begin hitting the streets to survey local residents as the initiative takes shape. 

The group's presentation to CB3 was met with a positive response from members, though the board did not officially endorse the idea.

Ho came up with the concept at the beginning of the year and hopes to be in business by July 2013. If the group is successful in winning the grant, MiLES hopes to have the prototype available and in vacant stores for demonstrations by October of this year.