Renew Newcastle: A Promising Model for Bootstrapped Urban Revitalization

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 30, 2012

A number of RTH readers have recently sent me links to an initiative in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia called Renew Newcastle. The brainchild of Marcus Westbury, Renew Newcastle is a not-for-profit company established to put short- and medium-term tenants - mainly artists, community groups and creative projects - into otherwise vacant downtown buildings.

The idea is to revitalize the downtown core one building at a time by bringing productive niche uses into the buildings.

Renew Newcastle launched in 2008 and has focused tightly finding good matches between willing property owners and interested artists and organizations.

Spaces is rented on a rolling 30-day basis, with either side able to end the agreement on 30 days' notice. This frees owners up to redevelop their properties for more permanent use as opportunities arise - there are no opportunity costs to getting 'locked in'.

For landlords, any tenant - even a nominally-paying one - in a building is better than leaving it vacant to suffer deterioration, vandalism and neglect.

Prices are negotiable, but the first batch of projects pay just $20 Australian (around $21.22 Canadian) a week.

For artists and community groups, the initiative provides flexible swing space at an affordable rate.

Many startup projects that would otherwise not be feasible become cost-effective with access to cheap office, studio or retail space, so this doubles as a kind of business incubator. At the same time, temporary or ad-hoc community organizations can form, have an affordable space to organize and carry out their mandate, and then dissolve without legacy assets to disperse.

Urban communities, in turn, enjoy filled storefronts, increased population density and economic diversity, and the social benefits of 'eyes on the street'. It's not hard to see how this could bootstrap community reinvestment by demonstrating - and, indeed, cultivating - a viable market for urban properties.

Early Success

Westbury is actually an art director and newspaper columnist who launched Renew Newcastle as a side project. In a video posted a year ago, Westbury explains how the program worked over its first 18 months:

Today, the Renew Newcastle site has a map of 15 active projects, each of which houses one or more individual tenants, including art and photography studios, boutique shops, sustainability consultants, interior architects, film and TV producers, cafes, costume designers, animators, and free public wifi hotspots.

Model for Hamilton?

I contacted Glen Norton, the City of Hamilton's manager of urban renewal, to ask if there is any interest in the city for this model. His response was enthusiastic.

I actually met Marcus Westbury last year at a 'Rejuvenating and Revitalizing Downtowns Summit' in Toronto, we were both speakers. I loved his presentation and the results have been spectacular. I certainly would support someone from the private sector creating an organization like Marcus'.

Norton sees a real opportunity to apply this moel on Barton Street, "where there are currently a fair number of empty buildings."

He concludes, "If the Councillors are interested in having a further discussion, count me 'in' for the meeting."

RTH contacted Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr and Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie to ask if they think this is something that could work in downtown Hamilton and is worth pursuing here. More to come if and when they respond.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 16:07:54

Howdy RTH Readers

My name is Jeremy and I've been doing basically this for the past 8 years in our community. We've worked with the private sector to develop over 70,000 SF of space in otherwise underutilized and vacant space in Hamilton for creative tenants - everything from artists to architects, cafes to film production studios.

There are some major differences here, primarily the short-term nature of the space that New Castle offers and the willingness of property owners involved to actually rent out their vacant space.

I've toured upwards of 50 vacant properties in Hamilton over the past 10 years. Even after successfully tenanting hundreds of studios I'm still confronted with building owners who would rather leave their space vacant, those who are only will to rent our rat holes for $20/SF, or building owners you actually cannot reach - completely detached from their holdings.

The new vacant building registry may decrease the incidents of the later group, but it will likely only lead to more knowledge about people who don't care about their buildings enough to tenant them.

Our work has created over 100 studios in our community, generated well in excess of $100,000 in property tax for the City of Hamilton, and over $1M in rental revenue for the private sector. It works. It revives buildings. It builds legitimate, safe, and professional space for artists and creative businesses in our community.

In a few weeks we'll be launching our new branding and website which has an increased emphasis on our role in developing space with and for creativity in Hamilton and neighbouring communities. I encourage you to get involved, support local models that work, and fix our community as Glen Norton proudly says "one brick, one building at a time".

Jeremy Freiburger
Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:32:17 in reply to Comment 73504

May I humbly suggest that the fundamental reason you have trouble - and the reason the Newcastle model won't work here - is that we currently reward landowners with significant tax savings for vacant spaces.

To implement this model, the rent would need to be greater than this tax break - plus more to cover different insurance needs of a tenanted building not to mention heating systems, roof repairs, utilities etc.

In order to do this "properly" we would first need to eliminate the vacant building tax credit, and even better, rework the tax credit system to reward building owners for making fundamental upgrades to their buildings.

When we moved Bike Hounds last year, the previous owner had a vacant building application with the city which we did not renew. As a result, in 2011 our taxes rose significantly from what the previous owner paid. On top of that we had to buy a $12,000 boiler system. This is not a sustainable situation for many new businesses, and we took a great risk in doing this, based on faith in the bike shop and faith in Downtown. Without this faith, it would not have happened.

But Imagine if the system was reversed - what if the previous owners had to pay full taxes? And what if we got a tax break for creating a use for the building? And what if we got a rebate for installing a new heating system? What if we were rewarded instead of penalized for using the building?

If we reworked the taxes in this way, then this sort of revitalization could be feasible for small start ups. Imagine the effect on downtown if all of a sudden these vacant buildings started bleeding money for the absentee landowners. They would jump at the chance to unload them, and those who bought them would be encouraged to actually use them. We could end this rampant speculation and demolition by neglect overnight.

To put it simply, our system is fundamentally broken, and until we change it, we'll see more of the same - namely, absentee landowners who know they'll be penalized if they try to do anything with their buildings.

The city created this problem. It's time to create the solution.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 01, 2012 at 08:37:56 in reply to Comment 73521

Thanks for the kind words :-)

Maybe we can get creative here and deal with this ourselves:

  1. Identify zones where we need to address absentee landlord-ism and demolition by neglect

  2. Raise the base rate across all commercial properties within the zone

  3. Create tax rebates based on occupied percentage of the building (there could be a grace period for "in between tenants" or for buildings undergoing renovation)

Because we could have fine control over the zones, we could tailor the rebates so that current occupied buildings see their taxes go down, and the fully vacant ones go way up...

I don't know. It's not ideal but it could work. At any rate we have to do SOMEthing.

We also need to deal with the bylaws that add further restrictions and basically disallow renovations. For example, Treble Hall - there is basically no way for them to put residential there because there is not enough physical space inside or outside of the building to put the right number and size of stairways. This in a building that you can see from the firehall.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 21:42:19 in reply to Comment 73521

This comment makes me glad I stopped by and spent money there today - new chain's running great, by the way.

As for the vacant building tax rebate, the first time I heard someone angrily rant about this it was (then Ward 2 Councillor) Andrea Horwath, if that gives you any idea how long this problem has been acknowledged.

Why are we spending so much money on downtown's worst landlords?

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By Brian McHattie (anonymous) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 19:11:02 in reply to Comment 73521

Bike Hounds is an excellent business and we are thrilled to have this business downtown, especially given the risks the business owner took in order to make this happen - as detailed above.
Regarding the vacant building tax credit: this tax credit is mandated by provincial law & the city has now choice but to implement it. We have on a number of occasions made motions to ask the province to remove this regressive tax instrument. I will get the details and share on RTH so others can also share their concern about this with the province.
Regarding the Renew Newcastle model - this is very interesting and I wonder about its use with ground-floor retail locations in the Gore building at King & John and Spallaci building near Deninger's on King where retail space has been empty since constructed in the last 3-5 years.
Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 14:48:06 in reply to Comment 73521

I blogged on this subject about a year ago.

After governing for eight years, it seems pretty clear that the McGuinty Liberals aren't going to do anything about the offending section of the municipal act. But perhaps a grassroots campaign could convince Andrea Horwath to raise this issue in our minority legislature.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:36:44 in reply to Comment 73521

Sean: The solution you are seeking was implemented very effectively in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - (see links below). Something which Hamilton needs to study and implement at our stage of re-growth in the lower city.

"...Incidentally, “giant cities often do contract and densify around their old centers and waterfronts” as in Vancouver or New Westminster; or as in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - but they do so for entirely different reasons..." ~ On Doing Cities

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2012-01-31 12:39:27

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By RB (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:46:58 in reply to Comment 73521

Great idea re: tax system... why would we reward owners who oppose renting out their empty buildings and punish those who look to fill them!?

I'd like to read/investigate more on this tax policy.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:38:55 in reply to Comment 73521

And by the way, can you imagine how we felt when we got a letter addressed to us (as the new taxpayers) that spelled out the fact that the 2010 taxpayer was getting a rebate cheque? So they were being rewarded for putting a tarp in the front window, shutting off the power and letting the pipes freeze!

Our reward for cleaning up their mess? Not only paying a full tax bill - but a tax INCREASE from 2010 to 2011 of over $600!

What a town.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:38:36 in reply to Comment 73522

We can blame alot on this town, but this one is a provincial matter.

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By RB (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:38:59 in reply to Comment 73522

Hamilton! Yay!

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2012 at 16:16:42

We already have Jeremy Freiburger doing similar projects in Hamilton - starting from the Barton area... many years ago. We also had Bill Powell who back in the '80's/90's attempted to revitalize the Barton Village into a similar arts district.

If a video is made of all these local efforts it would be quite a self-image booster.

We do not have a shortage of people, ideas or application of such simple and good ideas for revitalizing our many struggling streets, but these effort are constantly undermined by what is now distinctly recognizable as the large and heavenly footprint of the poverty industry on our lower city.

Barton has been the beneficiary of many organizations that have used public funding to import poverty into the neighbourhoods to set up shops which then go on to provide religious backed rehab services.

Are all the 'clients' of these organization - all residents of the lower city?

No arts & crafts led revitalization can withstand the organized onslaught of such an industry. Every effort made so far on Barton has been wasted or diluted as artist led rejuvenation have been rapidly overshadowed by so called pseudo-religious organizations who claim to be bringing relief to the huddled masses.

Just in the last three months, at least three very large store fronts on Barton have been taken over - between Victoria and Wentworth, by so called church groups who are now offering all kinds of rehab services which brings more dependency rich people into this area.

Mission Services not to be undone, has prepared mega-plans for a long-term centre of close to 45,000 sq feet to turn the the slowly revitalizing Wentworth North axis into a place which will bring in more dependency rich people to live in nearby area - all under the guise of a "learning centre"!

We were candidly told by an established local individual that drug rehab was badly needed in this area. Upon being questioned in front of witnesses, as to where these people will be coming from - he uttered: "from all over, and even Ancaster" - which made us laugh! To which he clarified: "now, you don't expect these people to be seen going into such a service centre in Ancaster, do you?"

In this unchecked scenario can art or artist driven initiatives really revitalize Barton street or other parts of the afflicted lower city?

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By RB (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 11:44:09 in reply to Comment 73505

The HPI is alive & well here in town. Mahesh is right in the fact that an independent, organically-grown artistic/creative community is, and will continually be, squashed by the HPI at every corner. James N. seems to be doing ok... for now.

They have the money, resources & PR to guilt any and all to support their cause.

I hope I'm wrong, and made out to be a fool for this outlook, because I really, really want this city to thrive; it just seems like a real uphill battle against the HPI.

Comment edited by RB on 2012-01-31 11:44:30

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By greenfingers (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 16:34:07

Wow, great to see it's already happening in the Hammer. Doesn't mean it can't be helped and expanded. Aiming at empty storefronts, along with lofts and artists' spaces gets the movement visible and shows off the positives of a more active and thus more desirable street or streets. Way to go Jeremy and friends/supporters and way to go Ryan for making that contact with the city and way to go those who will now support this initiative into the future. Raise the Hammer!

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By RB (registered) | Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:26:45 in reply to Comment 73506

And how nice is it to see that is PRIVATE DOLLARS!

Way to go!

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By adrian (registered) | Posted January 30, 2012 at 20:04:00

Sounds fascinating, but did you mean to title this 'Renew Newcastle'?

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By Imperial (anonymous) | Posted February 02, 2012 at 19:12:56

Love the reverse tax idea Sean, that bloody vacancy incentive has driven me up the wall for years.

My biggest opposition to the new castle model is that it is USING culture - not creating it or harnessing it. In the new castle model creative, engaging and often financially marginalized artistic tenants are encouraged to put their 'creativity' to use to revitalize a space. Knowing that the term of their stay is a maximum of 30 days or whatever means the owner of the building is gaining all the benefit.

They have vacant space and are too cheap/stupid to renovate or market it effectively. Instead they give to an artists dirt cheap for a month so it has some life.

30 days later the artist is back to having no stable space to practice their art, engage the public, and the building owner has attracted a new tenant. Yeah for the private sector - booo for the artist.

The only place I see this being potentially beneficial for the arts/broader community for targeted and time sensitive community arts projects - creating a short-term space for free music classes in a low income neighbourhood, injecting a photo exhibit about a social issue into a neighbourhood,launching a bunch of spaces for a "30 days festival" of some sort.

So me to support this kind of idea there needs to be greater investment and opportunity for the artist in the process. Otherwise they should be paid to occupy the space and bring creativity to a private sector developers space.

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