Community Buy-Outs & Community Infrastructure as part of Sustainable Community Building

I came across this article which wondered about the possibility of a purchase of a 10% stake in Whistler Blackcomb Holdings by the community at the time of its initial public share offering in October 2010.   It opens up a discussion around community ownership and stewardship of businesses and assets, possibly even community buy-outs for businesses smaller than the $450 million market capitalisation of Whistler Blackcomb, and community infrastructure.

It’s not the first time I have thought about community buy-outs, but it is the first time I’ve thought about it for a ski resort and certainly the first time I’ve read about it for a business of that size.

I think it would have been interesting for the community to share in the economic and social wealth created through tourism, sport, and leisure, beyond simply employment opportunities at and use value of the resort.  However a 10% interest in a mature business would have been challenging to say the least.  Issues around the values and objectives of the community, which would hopefully include social and environmental factors, potentially in conflict with profit-seeking motives of other public shareholders could have been rife (although quickliy dealt with given the marginal 10% ownership).  Decisions amongst community owners themselves could have been contentious without the right structures and methods for dealing with collaboration and democratic governance.

But on a smaller scale, with the right attention paid to how collective community ownership and stewardship can be managed and executed, could be very interesting for enterprises and sustainable community development.  The issue of finance to support a community buy-out arises, but addressed by working with a values-based like minded credit union, financial institution, or social investor.

For mature assets such as Whistler Blackcomb and to ensure that communities are not burdened with an unreasonable task of driving revenue growth and brutally enforcing cost efficiency measures, buy-out targets that do take the form of community infrastructure might be better acquired with the help of a community infrastructure fund that is not driven by growth and high financial returns.

The community buy-out model is an interesting idea to entertain, for a revenue-generating asset or business.  Once proved out, perhaps it could be a model that could be rolled out for other community infrastructure assets such as libraries and community centres, alongside an income generation strategy.

Trading Off Homes for Heritage

I wrote the following on 1 May 2011 as a comment to an article on OpenFile about a property developer whose plans involved evicting tenants as a trade off to preserving a heritage home of historic character in the East Vancouver neighbourhood called Grandview-Woodland (near Commercial Drive).

Rising housing density will feature in an attractive city, with a rising population and limitations on urban sprawl… Older homes likely don’t serve people’s needs or desires these days (due to layout, insulation, energy efficiency, different family dynamics), but their preservation/ conservation is important – it tracks a city’s history, tells a story about how we lived in previous times. However community conservation is a different story and one that is often missed when we speak about real estate development. Development and heritage revitalisation that only pays attention to the number of units and the financial cost and rewards fails to recognise what makes a neighbourhood attractive (and one of the reasons why density might be rising there). If community values are not kept in mind, neighbourhoods run the risk of trading community cohesion, shared values, relationships and connections for money – this can happen by current property owners selling their homes for the “profit” and moving elsewhere or local councils accepting tradeoffs and property taxes. These are immediate term gains with long term consequences.

I believe “community-oriented neighbourhood” means knowing who your neighbours are, connecting with them, sharing values, sharing resources – if you’re in a bind, you know you can count on your neighbours (which is far more important and valuable than any money in the world.) Many communities have lost this sense in the pursuit of personal gain and wealth, but really – what’s the point of having a big house, big car, and big TV if you are a stranger in your own neighbourhood?

Here, I believe, are some of the solutions – take rising property values out of the equation. Property and real estate are no longer (some could argue not ever) a commodity – you cannot sell it and replace it with something identical. You can’t take it with you. So market supply and demand forces on real estate do not work the same way as they might for other portable, replaceable, tradeable goods like a car or computer for example. If your property value rises and you want to cash-out – you must move to another neighbourhood with different features. If you want to stay in the same neighbourhood, all your profit goes back into the new house. This requires a major behavioural shift…

Co-op structures and principles are a good start and I am keen to see co-op housing brought in the mainstream and not seen just as an affordable option – but that living co-operatively with your neighbourhoods is a regular thing (I am working on developing these concepts further). So where does the capital come from to acquire properties? Community equity (community share issues) or working with a like-minded partner who has patient capital. But the key piece of the puzzle is not the money nor the legal structure – it is around values, behaviours, and a change in perception of how land economics works.

Florent: Queen of the Meat Market

I was kindly invited as a guest of a CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment [1-see below]) staff member to attend a lunchtime screening yesterday of independent film “Florent: Queen of the Meat Market”.  It documents the story of a neighbourhood restaurant in downtown New York City, it’s charismatic activist owner Florent Morellet, and its customers, staff, and supporters that formed its the community of open, creative, and inquisitive people.

Founded in 1985 in the meat-packing district of New York, when it was still very much a working market and industrial neighbourhood, Florent was keen to open his restaurant doors to anyone and everyone – it was to be a welcoming place of featuring good food, lively atmosphere, and a sense of place.  People would feel accepted (where in other places they might be turned away) – you could bring your kids, your granny, and your tranny here.  Florent grew it slowly and it became a hub for wholesome French bistro food as much as it was a hub for community activism.  Florent encourage people to use their imagination, make statements, vote, and campaign for important causes (he organised trips to Washington, DC in support of abortion and gay rights).

Fast forward 23 years to 2008 and the meat-packing district is trendy, now highly populated by residents as well as hotel guests, the glitterati, and tourist.  Florent’s landlord wants to increase the rent which would in turn cause Florent to double prices at the restaurant.  This film documents the positive attitude of community inclusion, tough decisions, emotion, and it is a poignant reminder to do what is important to you and your values and to have fun along the way.

The film I had the pleasure of watching is a personal copy of one of the CABE staff who studied urban planning with Florent Morellet and is a personal friend of his.  I hope the film will feature in more independent film festivals and events so that more people can hear this fascinating story.  Florent still has a holding page for the restaurant website, which also includes a gallery of interesting graphic design from the restaurant’s promotional material.

Here’s a trailer for the film, to give you a taste…

[1] Unfortunately, CABE is one of the quasi non-governmental agencies being cut by the government following the spending review towards the end of 2010. Programs and opportunities for sharing knowledge and learning like this screening will become less and less available.

How to Protect Empty Property

Squatters in empty property are not the problem. The problem is not putting empty properties to better use. Properties lie empty and are not being used effectively.

The opening paragraph of a guide produced by Property Week and Aviva, which advises on how property owners can protect themselves against squatters, suggests that “squatters can use unlet shops to sell knock-off gifts in the run-up to Christmas” and “even home in London’s Mayfair are not exempt, although the squatters there call themselves ‘artists’.

I question whether squatters are using empty shops to sell knock gifts, question why empty homes in Mayfair should be assumed to be “exempt” from squatting, and believe some squatters are validly artists.

There is no evidence given in the guide which supports the idea that squatters use unlet shops to sell fake products. I also wonder why anyone would go through the trouble and inconvenience of using an empty shop to do so. I wonder what reason there is that empty homes in Mayfair should be exempt from squatting. I do not understand why size or perceived “market value” should make any difference that an empty property is underused. And what evidence is there that the squatters of empty homes in Mayfair are not artists?

Two prominent collectives that have squatted high profile Central London buildings include the Temporary School of Thought and the Oubliette Arthouse.

The Temporary School of Thought occupied 39A Clarges Mews in January 2009. It provided “a weeklong Free School event in a pretty unusual location, put together by a group of artists and activists.” “The programme [ranged] from welding to bookbinding to the history of Situationism.”(1)  Dougald Hine, founder of Space Makers Agency and collaborator with the School of Everything did a talk about Ivan Illich and “De-schooling Society” and Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, simple, open source shelter that has been applied by emergency relief NGOs, gave a lecture on infrastructure (2). PSFK, an innovation and ideas agency, reported the Temporary School to be “dedicated to the admirable ideals of mutual learning and skill sharing rather than making money.”(3)

Londonist had this to say about the Temporary School:
“What do you do with five floors of long-abandoned Mayfair luxury, complete with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and a warren of servants’ quarters? Tidy the place up, for starters. Then launch your own school. In its first week of ephemeral existence, the Temporary School of Thought has run on a packed timetable of open events, covering subjects from cooking and dance to Polish history and traditional French book binding.”
Londonist went on to add, “over the course of the evening, students became teachers, and enough visitors signed on to lead workshops in their fields of expertise to carry the school forward for weeks to come.”(4)  Some great photos from Amanda Farah are here.

There is also the Oubliette Arthouse, which describes itself as “an itinerant autonomous arts group based in London, showcasing bold new work by squatting long-term empty properties.” The group develops “high quality events that showcase emerging artists and provide a platform for new work, have hosted visual, three-dimensional, performance and music based works as well as charity fund raising events.” Founded in April 2009, in a disused English language school in Waterloo, the group has occupied prominent buildings in Mayfair, W1, and SE1 in London. They are presently resident in a 1888-built former Welsh Presbyterian Church in Soho, which is better known for being a super-club called Limelight and most recently a Walkabout Pub. The building itself has been through significant change as demand for activities taking place inside it declined with changing times. Oubliette’s residency draws attention to the underuse of such large, historic buildings and rather than create problems or damage the property, they manage it and animate with new activities and experiences available to the public to enjoy.

There are many more empty buildings being put to use by creative groups, artists, thinkers, and squatters. The two I mention in this article drew attention due to the high-profile nature and Central London locations of the buildings they squatted.

In the guide, Simon Martell, business manager for Aviva’s property owner’s insurance team says “we’re faced with situations where the property owners don’t have the finance or the ability to put money into developing, renovating, or speculative lets. They won’t commit money if they think they are more likely to get better investment returns elsewhere.” Herein lies a problem. Property owners cannot develop the empty properties for the use they would like to see for the buildings. However, squatters, creative groups, social enterprises, and community organisations are not short of ideas for empty properties. So why the disconnect? Why not let a property be used by people who have a demand, need, or desire to do so? Just because the use is not the use intended by the owner, doesn’t mean it is not a valid use. In many cases, the outcomes and return are something other than a financial return to the owner – a social return to the occupiers, the wider community they reach and the general public. Why should this be a problem for property owners?

I would like to see an enlightened property industry think again about paying significant sums for security systems and instead be aware that creative, cultural, social enterprise, and community uses are an alternative for discovering a new life for a disused property and for protecting and managing properties to prevent their deterioration. Although this is unlikely to yield a financial return to an owner immediately, it may translate into new, longer-term, more sustainable solutions.

I welcome reactions and responses to the guide published by Property Week and Aviva, providing advice to property owners on how to protect empty property.

What 2011 Starts With

Happy New Year!  I had the chance to reflect over a couple of weeks around Christmas and New Years and am hoping that 2011 is a lot more focused and organised than the project-filled, experimental, seat-of-the-pants approach that characterised 2010.  A few projects which started in the last quarter of 2010 mark the rather busy and eventful start to 2011.  In between hunting down a more consistent source of income (which will probably be in the guise of full-time employment), here’s what’s in store:

Canning Town Meanwhile – in my capacity as a Space Makers associate and financial strategist, I’m working with an amazing team of architects, space hackers, designers, and creative folks to submit a proposal around the interim development of a site across from Canning Town station (Royal Docks Meanwhile Use – Property Week).  Before Christmas this was happening at the site:

Council housing was being cleared, to prepare the site for future development.  I went back to the site just last week (in the rain – so no photos!) and it’s levelled now.  Housing around the site still remain and could be there for another 4-5 years.

Access to Communities – I’ve been discussing and strategising around user-led development of residential property.  It’s gone under the name of co-housing or co-operative housing and incorporates other ideas of user-led design and charrettes.  I sat down with my collaborator yesterday and we designed the business model together.  It’s looking more like community building than property building.  More on this as it develops further.

Empty Properties for Employment – I set up Building Works before Christmas, with the intention of redeveloping disused and derelict homes, working with social firms which provided training and outreach for people experiencing long-term unemployment.  I had parked this for a while, whilst I tried to figure out the best way to find suitable empty properties to redevelop and a way of contacting private owners (working with the squatting community to identify properties and council’s private sector forums were two possibilities).  In my research I found out that if properties are really run down and uninhabitable, they fall off the council’s register as an empty home.  They fall off the council tax register and are picked up by some other part of the council.  Also, it seems as though some councils engage with private sector landlords in their borough and some don’t.  The search continues!

The Truth About Property

I came across this article this week in the Independent about the tricks of the estate agent trade:  things that estate agents say or do to help sell a property.  This tied in quite nicely with the imagery around a new block of apartments rising up at the top of my street.

Here is the pretty image in the house builder’s marketing materials.  Notice the abundance of trees and in particular the bit of grassy green space at the bottom left hand corner.  The image positions this shiny new development on a day with the clearest of blue skies.

The development isn’t yet complete of course, but here is what it looks like at the moment.  The pleasant neighbourhood is instead a setting where cars exit the A12 motorway and is very built up and unkept rather than open and leafy.

Here is a close up of that grassy green patch depicted in the glossy brochure.  There is a wonderfully big tree which someone has *decorated* with what looks like plastic sheeting, but with the concrete border and fencing, it isn’t exactly the neighbourhood parkette one might imagine.  This is one of the nicer photos I took – in the others, the *park* is obscured by cars whizzing past as they come off the motorway exit ramp.  Nice.

Elks to Harmony to Home

A beautiful, almost exotic renovation of a former businessmen’s club in Alabama into a grand home on New York Times today. Read the article about how David Harlbut converted the 20,000 square foot Harmony Club into a residence, preserving the architectural features and personality of its past incarnation.  The waterfront building was founded in 1909 as a businessmen’s club, then became the Elks Club in the 1930s.

via @iambrianjones

Image by Robert Rausch for The New York Times