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Vacant Storefronts Turned Office Spaces Are a 'Cooler' Place to Work

By Serena Solomon | August 28, 2012 6:52am

LOWER EAST SIDE — In order to find a new office space, architect Gordon Kipping shopped by riding his bike up and down his neighborhood's street.

"I wanted a less expensive space and, for lack of a better word, I wanted something cooler," said Kipping, who moved his firm G Tects to a ground-level storefront at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge last August.

"Meeting people, talking to people all day, watching traffic on the bridge, it allows us to be engaged," said Kipping, 46, labeling his occupation as both a social and creative pursuit.

G Tects is one of a handful of Lower East Side creative businesses — architects, landscape and graphic designers — that are harnessing street-level inspiration by using storefronts as their office. These businesses are also bringing much-needed daytime foot traffic to a neighborhood low on office space but high in vacant storefronts.

"Every artist in the world wants north light," said Scott Michael Stapleton, admiring the 19’ by 13’ glass wall of his SPaCe Architects’ office that is street level on East 7th Street at Avenue B. "It is the most gentle light. There is no shadow."

Stapleton, an architect of 20 years whose clients include Prada and Miu Miu, rented the space from an East Village co-op building three years ago making his office a short stroll from his apartment.

Fellow architect Jennifer Carpenter, who moved her growing firm to the storefront at 58 Hester St. around the same time, has a similar benefit.

"I want to walk to where I work and where my kids go to school," said the Lower East Side resident of 10 years.

"Originally I wasn’t looking for a storefront," said Carpenter. "But when we looked at this space I realized there were a lot of advantages to having a street presence."

While a client redesigning a café or apartment might not exactly be ripe for walk-in business, a banner for Jennifer Carpenter Architects ups the firm’s exposure to the creative neighborhood. In saying that both Carpenter and Stapleton have picked up a few extra clients who passed by.

"You really feel like you are a part of the community that you wouldn’t feel when you go up to an office in an elevator," said Carpenter, who shovels snow from the firm’s sidewalk and uses ice for parties from the Brown café next door.

G-Tects' giant glass enclosure creates a fishbowl experience for both his workers and those walking by, according to Kipping.

“If you walked by during the day or night and you look at people walking by and you get a sense of theater,” he said, adding that the new office has prompted a curious reaction from locals.

"I have gotten to know all the neighbors, which is cool," Kipping said. He said G-Tects pays similar rent for the 25 by 100 foot storefront as it did before at a TriBeCa office tower.

At SPaCe, Stapleton and his staff also ferry inquisitive questions as passers-by poke their head in.

"I had one guy ask if he could make a photocopy," said Stapleton, who got the entire story of a man turning his life around by applying for his truck driving license.

Stapleton indulged the request.

For Tim Laughlin from the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, the combination of the area's limited office space and a desire to be in a trendy area gave the businesses no choice.

"It really shows a strong desire to be in the neighborhood," he said. The BID office also utilizes an office storefront on Orchard Street.

Out of the 456 storefronts 42 were vacant or under construction, according to a BID report on the area for July 2011.

Providing foot traffic for local cafes, restaurants and boutique clothing stores is a benefit of officer workers in the area, said Laughlin.

"We are providing daytime foot traffic to the bagel store, the local hardware store when we need something, the coffee shops," he said.

Branding is a huge reason for a creative business to take up residents in Lower East Side storefront, according to real estate broker Earl Bateman from NYC Spaces.

"It is all about branding — 'We are a radical design firm so we are off the beaten path,'" Bateman said.

Storefronts below Delancey Street could go for $30 to $50 a square foot, he said, compared to an average of $85 for a Class A Midtown office with a lobby and 24 hour doorman.

However, a cool image and cheaper rent can come with a few inconveniences.

"They are not bigger then 2,000 square feet because it’s a tenement, it is old residential buildings," said Bateman. He added electrical wiring can also be an issue for creative businesses running energy-burning software on large computers.

Laughlin also said offices wanting to expand often have to leave the neighborhood for a larger space.

Others have found a solution.

Six years ago Holly, Wood and Vine needed to expand the office from its storefront of two decades on Forsyth Street.

Instead of moving to Queens or Jersey it now takes up two storefronts on the strip the business watch turn from drug den to design hub.

"As landscape designers it is good to be connected to the greater design community in New York firm," said operations manager Bob Mundell. "There is a certain charm to the neighborhood that we like."