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Conference Summary – Day 2

SESSIONS SUMMARIES – DAY 2

Welcome & Keynote Session: Marcus Westbury ‘Renewing Australia’

“Since we started Renew Newcastle in 2008, we receive 3 or 4 enquiries a week”, says Marcus Westbury. “Eventually it dawned on me that we should set up an event so interested parties could come to us, so the starting point of this conference is to learn from the projects that we’ve inspired and the projects that have inspired us … so we can see how these models can be applied elsewhere”.

“[Renew] began in Newcastle … a city where 20,000 jobs were lost in the late Eighties and early Nineties”, says Westbury. “When I was growing up youth unemployment was something like 40%. Nobody in my age group, that I knew, had a job”.

“Later I was living in Melbourne and coming back to see this city go back in time lapse”, says Westbury. Flicking through photographs of when Renew Newcastle was started, Westbury begins to reminisce about an empty Hunter Street Mall that would be the perfect set for “a post-apocalyptic zombie movie”.

“At one point there was about 150 empty buildings on the city’s two main streets”, says Westbury. “Part of what had happened goes back to the tram network when everyone was funnelled into the old city centre by a long main street. People have fallen out of the habit of coming into the city to shop, creating a negative feedback loop”.

“Renew isn’t just about empty space, it’s also about decentralised cultural production”, says Westbury. As the coordinator of the This Is Not Art festival, Westbury recognised a surge in cultural producers using the Internet to undertake creative activities. This took place around the same time that traditional retail began to stagnate because “that business model is evolving and changing rapidly as most things move online”.

“So part of my theory was simple … for these kinds of people with initiative and imagination, [activating space] was not just an opportunity for them but also for the community as a whole.

“For a long time in Newcastle, the debate has been about who is going to pay to build the thing to fix everything. You can’t expect solutions to arrive fully formed from the sky. You need imagination and you need people to invest their enthusiasm, not just capital”.

“Renew Newcastle was formed in late 2008 and we work very closely with all the stakeholders in the community. We’re very conscious of the fact we’re balancing a broad set of interests with a range of things in common but haven’t traditionally seen it that way”.

“We haven’t built anything, we haven’t bought anything. We’re a not-for-profit company that has changed the rules of how property can be used. Our goal is to give a lot of people the opportunity to start things.

The question that drives the organisation, says Westbury, has always been: “How do you enable people with imagination to make the city better”

In 2008 the Hunter Street Mall, now the epicentre of a suite of ancillary urban renewal programs, was going through a period of severe transition. “Half the shops were empty and the other half were struggling to stay there”, says Westbury. Referring to photographs of the mall twelve months later, Westbury explains the Renew very succinctly “We borrow buildings and work with the property owners to create activity”. Rattling off some of the initial products that quickly brought people back to the old main drag, Westbury recounts a story about an elderly woman who thanked him for bringing life back to spaces that meant something to her. “It’s not just about buildings it’s about places that mean something to people. If you can give the community hope about what might happen, it can be a lot more powerful than the preconception that things are going backwards”.

Going back to a map of vacant spaces, Westbury marks new activations with yellow flags and explains how the closure of David Jones predicted the death of the strip. Further before and after shops reveal that this was not the case, so too the fact that Newcastle was voted one of the top ten cities of 2011.

“One of the biggest things that’s happened here is a shift in the perception of Newcastle. The gap between perception and reality could not have been further [when Renew started]. I think we’ve done a lot to close that gap”.

In terms of economic benefits, “For every dollar invested in this scheme about $11 dollars are generated”.

Westbury, now working for Renew Australia, believes that initiative “is one of the most powerful forces in the universe”. “I want to encourage you to think about failure as a good thing”, says Westbury. “Risk is a good thing. My starting point is always to discover what works by doing it. You grow activity and you grow it from a base. You don’t simply fund and drop-in the solution”.

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Workshop 1A: The Case For Creating Spaces

Unfortunately there is no session summary available for this workshop, however Timothy Horton’s presentation can be found HERE.

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Workshop 1B: Empty Space Reconnaissance

Dan Thompson, founder of the Empty Shops Network in the UK, doesn’t have time for circuitous routes to where he wants to be. “Ask yourself, what is the quickest way to get where you’re going and do that!” Britain’s expert on the creative reuse of empty shops believes in any approach that accommodates failure as a positive outcome. “Don’t get emotional about spaces and aesthetics, don’t looks at that pretty building and say I have to have that. Ask what is the minimum and be agile with it”.

Facilitating the workshop is the General Manager of Renew Newcastle, Marni Jackson. From her office in the Hunter Street Mall, Jackson has been a deus ex machina of sorts, pairing artists with the owners of vacant, suitable space in and around the Newcastle city centre. “The Renew model matches property to project”, says Jackson. “But we also look for points of difference”.

Lily Jacobs plays a similar role within Renew Adelaide, despite having a slightly different project portfolio. “[We’re like Newcastle] in that we look for buildings that are either awaiting redevelopment, seeking committed tenants, or have been recently leased”, says Jacobs. “But we’ve also learnt the importance of saying no to property owners”.  Jacobs cites the “Reading Room” on Hindley Street and the activation of suburban retail space as two examples of where Renew Adelaide has discovered that any property is not always good enough. “The Reading Room is great in that it brought more people to a street reliant on the late night economy … but it was a shared space that required a DA and the electricity was not separately metered”. When discussing the suburban space, Jacobs is a little more cautious: “I probably wouldn’t work in the suburbs again. In terms of renewal, its certainly more challenging because you have to consider the minimal foot traffic and residential neighbours. Concentrated clusters like the Hunter Street Mall in Newcastle have a far more immediate effect”. “Iconic building, whether in the city or suburbs, can also consume all of your resources and are unpredictable. I think there’s far more value in smaller projects”.

Although Coralie Winn from Gap Filler in Christchurch agrees, she is currently charged with the formidable task of activating an entire city through micro-work. “Building stock is limited in Christchurch and we’re working with the residue of what used to be in gaps”, says Winn with melancholy resignation. “The purpose is regeneration so we pick an area and demonstrate the power of small things to change perceptions”. The approach has been incredibly effective, bolstering confidence in the city’s renewal even if tangible evidence remains scarce. In terms of rebuilding Christchurch, Winn believes in allowing the community to develop a stake in their city. “[Cities] need ambassadors and the community will get on with it”, she says with reference to successful projects.  “But sponsors were also essential … I don’t like to say we exploited the earthquake, but it has certainly made us aware of ways we can become more sustainable”.

The top-down approach rebuilding Christchurch sits uneasily with Winn, and understandably so. “There’s a lack of community involvement [in the master plan] and that creates negativity”. Flicking through a series of images taken at the successful Dance-O-Mat, a concrete slab that has been activated as a coin operated disco, Winn is clearly humbled by the energy she has brought back to Christchurch but admits “it’s really hard to say if we’ve had any impact on the master plan”.

Lily Jacobs, General Manager of Renew Adelaide

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Panel: Finding & Working With Property Owners 

“I guess I’ve always wanted to ask David, was there anything about Renew Newcastle that worried you?” asks Marcus Westbury, reclining comfortably in his chair five years after securing The GPT Group as a linchpin sponsor. David Sleet, the retail development manager for that organisation, thinks for a moment. “Risk comes to mind”, Sleet starts, “But it was the risk of doing nothing. At the time [Marcus approached me], GPT had a large number of buildings in poor condition and long-term plans had stalled”, says Sleet. “We needed a collaborator who could take these properties and fill them with something of interest”. Westbury, the collaborator, helped GPT realise this short-term solution and achieved is own objectives by meeting The GPT Groups’ needs and wants better than anyone else at the time. “We both [Marcus & GPT] shared the vision of getting people back into the city”. 

Marni Jackson, the General Manager of Renew Newcastle, points to the GPT Group’s good execution of corporate and social responsibility when explaining how Renew achieved traction. “Renew has dealt with ten property owners to date, but GPT’s leadership gave us a track record and communicated that we are a responsible entity. Initially we had property owners approaching us”.

Jackson admits that the initial wave of enthusiasm did dry up, but not before partners had started recommending the process. “Cold calling didn’t really work and only one real estate agency works with us”, says Jackson. “But, for example, the owner of what is now Curve Gallery heard about Renew from friends and today his property is leased by a business that started as a Renew project”.

Referring to his preference for dealing with decision makers, Westbury asks Sleet how interactions with Renew Newcastle were communicated internally at the GPT Group. “We needed to ensure that the team dealing with the assets [empty properties on Hunter Street] could support Renew”, says Sleet. “By backing the entity, we needed to ensure a good interface”. In addition to ensuring clear channels of communication, Sleet also said that the power of a local expert should not be understated. “That person has respect and is accountable to the community … we can garner that expertise”.

With 107 projects under their belt, Renew Newcastle has demonstrated how effective this strategic partnership can be. “Work with what you can find … take the path of least resistance”, says Westbury. “Prioritise the decision makers in the allocation of resources”.

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Keynote session: Ryan Reynolds & Coralie Winn; Crises, Creativity & Community 

It comes as no surprise that the devastating Christchurch earthquakes triggered urban decline. Flicking through before & after photographs of her city, Coralie Winn is visibly traumatised by the city’s narrative but also emboldened by its new challenges. “[Gap Filler] was about buying time to think”, she begins.

In a city where there have been over 1800 demolitions since February 22, 2011, Winn explains that existing funding models have failed and that Gap Filler could only have began as a self-funded initiative. “Only after a series of successful projects were creative commissions possible”, explains Winn, pointing to photographs of a bicycle-powered cinema. “This initiative on the site of a vintage cycle store attracted the interest of the French embassy, who in turn asked Gap Filler to coordinate a design competition that promoted a French director’s work”.

Even Gap Filler’s office has been built out of donated materials. “It took ten days to build and the office is entirely relocatable”, beams Winn. “A sister project called Greening the Rubble has also worked on the site and a new coffee cart has changed perceptions about this part of town. What was once a light industrial precinct is now attracting galleries and foot traffic”.

Other projects including the Dance-O-Mat, a coin-operated outdoor disco, have attracted celebrity photo opportunities (Prince Charles busting a move) and in doing so created useful media opportunities. Built as a solution to the lack of places to dance in post-quake Christchurch, the Dance-O-Mat is one of several activations that represent a trend towards commercial projects. Flicking through photographs of other projects, Coralie explains how a bar has been built entirely out crates and is regularly used for markets, live music, and as an outdoor cinema. “It can be anything that meets the needs of the community”, she says.

Ryan Reynolds, an architect who is currently working at a university in Christchurch, admits that tension exists in terms of what stakeholders want out of Gap Filler. Referring to a new venture called Life in Vacant Spaces, Reynolds reminds his audience that Gap Filler has entirely unplanned and that since LIVS has been set up with council he has found himself at the helm of two very different organisations. “It didn’t matter what was happening early on”, adds Winn. “During the disempowering aftermath, Gap Filler provided a sense of agency”.

As a CBD-focused initiative, Gap Filler was not only about making sure the arts had a stake in the city’s rebuild, but also keeping the city centre relevant. At the same time, Winn says that she continues to think about how to best use this time of transition to keep her the initiatives themselves relevant. “We certainly leverage the media coverage”, says Winn. “That’s very effective when it comes to showing what Gap Filler does and attracting more support”.

Besides making conventional routes work during unconventional times, Reynolds never loses sight of the fact that vacant lots are “spaces of possibility”. “We need to preserve and communicate the fact that normal rules need not apply”, he says. Gazing over the Christchurch master plan, which seems larger than life in the Newcastle City Hall banquet room, Marcus Westbury interjects to point out that “the rebuild provides spaces for consumers, not for producers”. Reynolds agrees, refuting the argument that initiatives like Gap Filler are “temporary projects that serve as a distractions while the big boys rebuild the town”.

“This year we really want to turn down the volume on the earthquake message and push urban planning on the fly”, says Reynolds.

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Workshop 2A: The Necessary Evils; Safety Compliance, Legals & Insurance

“Compliance begins with permission”, says Kris Leck from APP. Stretching out behind the lectern, he throws his audience a dry smile. In a double-act with Roderick Smith from Evescourt Legal, Leck has promised to share “everything we don’t want to know” about activating empty properties.

“Put simply, problems only arise when you want to change the use of a space”, reassures Leck. “If there’s no change of use, there’s no DA. Thing is, there’s a difference between good practice and positive obligation”. Touching on his experiences working at The Emporium by Renew Newcastle, Leck states: “Just because you don’t need to do it, doesn’t mean you don’t”. Although there was no change of use at The Emporium (which meant no obligation to bring things up to date), a change to the built layout tenancies meant a DA was necessary. “Changing egress travel paths is one example of [a necessary evil]”, says Leck. “Where you change something like firehose reels, you need to restore lost benefits elsewhere in your work”.

At only twenty-three pages, The Emporium DA was a comparatively slim document made up of:

  • A statement of environment effects
  • A BCA report including annual fire safety statement
  • A proposed floor plan, and
  • An application form

According to Leck, it’s also important that anyone undertaking work similar to that conducted by Renew Newcastle familiarise themselves with the Work Health & Safety Act. The objective of the act is to ensure the safety of volunteers and employees and a PCBU (person conducting business undertaking), or “duty holder”, must do all that is reasonably practical to ensure a safe working environment.

With reference to a series of slides, Leck informs the room that effective WH&S implementation involves five steps:

  1. Conduct meetings
  2. Manage risks
  3. Train personnel
  4. Review performance
  5. Conduct audits

When it comes to determining appropriate legal structures, Roderick Smith takes to the lectern. Having worked for Renew Newcastle pro bono since its inception, Smith is quick to point out the benefits of a company limited by guarantee. “Renew Newcastle has its own legal personality … [which] gives it more gravitas”, says Smith.

Smith’s nuts and bolts approach to the Renew Newcastle structure included brief summaries of contracts, deeds/agreements, and lease/licenses. “The essential ingredients of a contact are offer, acceptance, consideration, intention, and certainty”, says Smith. “Contracts allocate risk, regulate behaviour, and eliminate uncertainty and any element of surprise”.

“When it comes to deeds and agreements, remember that a deed is a different kind of contract or declaration that affirms or confirms. It does not need exchange or consideration. An agreement, however, needs all the ingredients of a contract”.

On the question of occupying properties, something particularly pertinent to the Renew Newcastle model, Smith differentiates leases and licenses in this way: “A lease creates an interest in land in favour of a tenant, this is a leasehold interest and it allows the tenant to take possession in exchange for rent”. On licenses, however, Smith explains: “a license agreement allows the property owner to control the property as little or as much as they want”. Renew Newcastle, he goes on to say, adopted license agreements because they make it easier to exercise control over properties. “Conditions of license can be as extensive as either party wants and sets out the baseline”.

Insurance policies, says Smith, are also contacts and Renew Newcastle has “insurable risks”. Umbrella Public Liability Insurance (PLI) is “base line coverage” that eliminates the risk of under-insuring and reduces the barriers to entry that irk Renew Newcastle founder, Marcus Westbury.

“Insurance applies to each [project] the same as if separate policies had been issued. This means our PLI needs to be backed up by well documented and consistently enforced systems”. When it comes to discharging duty of care to individual participants, Smith says that Renew Newcastle relies on the severability clause in its policy.

Although this policy has served Renew Newcastle well, premium creep has prompted Smith to review the organisation’s policy and he looks forward to a time when there’s a market for an off-the-shelf insurance product that better meets the needs of Renew Newcastle.

Roderick Smith of Evescourt Legal

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Session 2B: Low Budget Conversions

Unfortunately there is no session summary available for this workshop.

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Workshop 3A: Perfect Match, Projects & Spaces 

“Renew Newcastle begins with the properties”, says Marni Jackson. “Because we’re an organisation brokering access, we don’t chase properties. We look at the vacant spaces and the available projects and then create something that is a good fit”.

“Projects always have to be presentable state and property owners tend to prefer the idea of business activities”, says Jackson. “Sometimes we have to be rather precious with the space and then we have to find a suitable project”. Referring to The Roost, an artist collective that includes graphic designers and is now located in the Hunter Street Mall, Jackson explains that the participants’ “sharp design edge” and professional pitch made Jackson confident that she could work with the group. “[The Roost] also developed a strong relationship with the property owners, who even referred to the project as their lucky charm”, she says.

“Eventually they got notice to move out, and that was just when they were getting going”, says Jackson with a smile and a shrug. The Roost has since moved on to a new space, from which the collective has continued to grow.

Jackson goes on to discuss Loop Space, a sound art gallery that was created by a team of people in the former Fletcher Jones building on Hunter Street. “We needed to make sure the participants had the resources and the ingenuity [to activate] that space”, says Jackson. “Rolling up your sleeves and doing some of the hard work is part of the project. Because they could demonstrate their ability to handle the space, they ticked all the boxes we have when matching projects to spaces”. Problem was, according to Jackson, it became difficult having such a niche project in a very public space. “It probably wouldn’t be the kind of project I’d put in the Mall now, but at the time when the street was empty it was a good thing to do”.

Jackson reminds the audience that participants need to ask themselves how much they want to invest in their activation project. “Renew Newcastle does support projects with professionally rendered signage so they fit in with the commercial feel of the area. We need to make sure things look good for our own reputation”.

Lara Torr from Renew Adelaide agrees with Jackson that it is important to be sure you can work with project participants. “Not everyone is great at writing applications because traditional paths to what they want to do don’t always work out”, says Torr, “but if they can give you an idea of the look and feel of what they want to achieve that can give you an idea if there’s a fit”.

“When selecting people to work with, avoid email”, suggests Torr. “It takes too long and it’s not possible to get an idea of who they are. If you can, you should meet them face to face”. Tension and anxiety are, however, completely normal, says Torr. “But you’re not a social worker, make sure you maintain mental boundaries for your own benefit”. In summarising her approach to matching projects with properties, Torr says she has a preference for small teams and people who are open to the option of working in teams.

Coralie Winn believes Gap Filler approaches brokerage in a slightly different fashion. The circumstances of Christchurch’s decline have made possible very different avenues to activation, says Winn. “There’s certainly no lack of space in Christchurch, so we don’t work in the suburbs and we often look for spaces that match projects”. Rattling off successful initiatives like the Dance-O-Mat, Winn says that she has been involved in “gap hunting” after people have come to her with ideas. “We get three to give ideas a week”, says Winn. “And I must say it feels very bad to be a bottleneck, but that’s the way it is because we’re only a small organisation”.

“We have three project levels to reflect how much support Gap Filler needs to provide”, explains Winn. “Level Three is really just brokering, and Level One requires funding. Since we’re swamped with ideas, we’re hoping to pass Level Three projects on to our new initiative called Life in Vacant Spaces”.

“When we look at new ideas we always apply our core principles to make sure we’re doing things that have broad community appeal”, says Winn. “That said, we do try to keep it mixed up and interesting by also considering niche installations and events”.

“Who needs a space in your community, what’s the need, and what’s lacking in your town” are questions that drive Winn. “Putting a sign up in the space to ask people what they’d like to see there is a way of involving the community and creating a mix of ideas”.

“But what I’d really like to reinforce is that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Allow creative people to respond to spaces”, says Winn.

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Workshop 3B: Nurturing Creatives

Make Space, a not-for-profit artist run collective that has activated several shopfronts on Hunter Street, was a good place for Ali Jae to evaluate her products. Now running her own store next door, Ali has been flying solo for eight-months and continue to complement her friends work by generating more foot traffic in and around the western end of the Hunter Street Mall.

“I’ve been able to develop niche products and test them in a retail market”, Jae tells her audience. “Up until [joining Make Space], I only sold my products at markets and since then I’ve found that what sells at markets might not sell in a shop and vice versa”.

Angela Hailey has had a similar experience, joining a handful of Renew Newcastle participants who have “graduated” to leasing their own properties. Celebrating its first birthday in March, Studio Melt started off as a Renew project in which Hailey could move her garage operations to the high street. “I wanted greater control over my situation”, Hailey says. “I wanted to pick where I was located and I invested in a bench/gallery design”. To gain better exposure for her jewellery and related products, Hailey moved Studio Melt into a commercial property very quickly and worked with The Roost (another Renew Newcastle project) to develop a professional website that would attract suppliers.  “I continue to source unique products so I can create a destination business”, says Hailey as she flicks through photographs of her custom-made interior.

Less concerned with street exposure is Zak Zavos, a Gen X entrepreneur who dragged his website “Lost at E Minor” out of the sunroom and into an old clinic on the corner of King and Newcomen Streets. “I liked having third party space”, says Zavos, who has since moved his business into permanent space above an old bank on Bolton Street. “Having space to collaborate meant I could engage with and hire people very early on. Costs that I would have otherwise put into rent went into growth and working in The Clinic created an opportunity for business to cross pollinate”.

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See You At The Pub: Creating Spaces War Stories & Advice At The Pub

 

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Dinner & Pecha Kucha sponsored by RDA Hunter at Newcastle Museum