At the recent ULI Europe Real Estate Forum, attendees heard from three speakers who are using innovative techniques to transform the management of their assets. The techniques described vary significantly, but all help create lively, dynamic spaces that help create a sense of community.
The first speaker was Juanita Hardy, senior visiting fellow for creative placemaking at ULI, who started her career at computing giant IBM but moved into the arts in the 1980s. The combined experience, she said, had given her a “passion for both business and the arts, and placemaking allows me to do both.”
Hardy talked about the role that art and culture have to play in creating successful places. “Art and culture [are] a key component of a healthy, thriving place,” she said. “But it can also be a catalyst for change and address concerns about a place. The bottom line is that people stay longer when you bring in art and culture.”
To illustrate her case, Hardy pointed to the success of the SteelStacks art and culture complex in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The complex is housed in a former steel factory, which had closed in the 1980s leading to a huge loss of jobs in the community. “It sat idle for a long time—people were grieving,” said Hardy. “It’s now an arts and culture venue and attracts 800,000 people each year and generates £48 million [$62 million] for the city.”
Moreover, Hardy said that the complex works for both the local community and the building’s owner. “It’s addressing social concerns; it’s healing the community,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of research into the benefits and everyone wins, including the developer, who benefits from low turnover of tenants and so on.”
Fiach Mac Conghail’s background includes high-profile jobs such as managing the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theater, as well as running an arts center in Temple Bar, Dublin. In 2016, however, he was appointed CEO of the Digital Hub, a government-backed initiative to support the development of a thriving community of digital companies in Dublin.
The Digital Hub already has 2.7 hectares (6.6 ac) of land in a former industrial area of the Irish capital, including nine buildings that are home to around 80 companies, 61 percent of which are Irish. However, the organization has plans to do much more over the next eight years, working in partnership with the private sector. The idea is that the Digital Hub will ultimately be financially self-sufficient.
Projects delivered to date include the redevelopment of the Grain Store, a former store for grain used in whiskey production by Roe’s Distillery. The building now provides offices for startups and growing tech businesses, but it is also used as a community and arts space. According to Conghail, the Digital Hub started reaching out to the local community, which suffers from high levels of deprivation, in the project’s early days.
“We have artists in residence and we brought them in early. They can help us understand the local community, so it was important that we brought them in early and certainly before we started master planning,” he said. “We continue to work with local people and artists.”
The Digital Hub also provides space for community activities such as the D8 Surfers Club, which provides people over the age of 65 with classes on how to use the internet, and English classes. “There is an increasing need for workers in Ireland, so we’re working with immigrants to help them improve their English,” said Conghail. “It’s helping create employment. We’re finding ways of bringing the community together.”
Frank Uffen, partnership director and a partner at the Student Hotel, also spoke passionately about the need to bring people together. As the name implies, the Student Hotel started out with the aim of high-quality accommodation for students from around the world in several European cities, thereby creating global communities. “After all, where you study is where you meet your friends and partner,” said Uffen.
However, he added that the company soon realized that it could go further. As a result, the business model evolved and more recent projects started opening up buildings beyond the student community. Instead, buildings play host to students, travelers, and young professionals, including student accommodation, co-living apartments, and coworking space and cafés, among other elements.
Uffen said that by curating the right mixt of elements, it was possible to create thriving communities. “It’s good to build something beyond the physical space,” he said. “I get a huge kick when the students arrive and with the ground-floor uses we can curate events and so on. The value is in having everything together—the buildings are much more than the sum of their parts.”
Uffen claimed that the model is helping bring investment and growth to cities that are often overlooked by many investors. “With the help of investment from APG, we’ve proven that this isn’t just viable in capital cities,” he said. “Places with universities are drivers of growth and regeneration.”