Working with landlords

The first round of projects was the hardest in terms of getting landlords on board because it was a new idea, but as word got around and with the help of community partners, landlords became much more receptive.

“Any access that we’ve had to the spaces, I think, has been with the help of our community partners,” says Robynn Takayama.

“The project was a new idea and property owners were not enthusiastic at first. But working with local community development organisations like the Chinatown Community Development Center or the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, whose staff has deep relationships with the property owners and the merchants, really helped open doors for us.”

One property owner who saw the value of the program was Andy Young who provided three exhibition spaces - two big windows on one side of the building and a wall for a mural on the back alley - in a former restaurant where representatives had met while drawing up the United Nations Charter in 1945.

“He had a lot of pride in the space and he wants it to continue as a restaurant and to employ people in the local community,” says Robynn. “He was happy to have the space activated while construction was underway. Those were the kind of property owners that we were really excited to work with.”

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement is used with a 30-day eviction period.

Unlike in Australia, where small, private landlords have been the hardest to convince to allow their properties to be used rent-free for empty spaces initiatives, the ‘mom and pop owners’ in San Francisco have been the most amenable to the idea.

“Initially we thought we would provide an incentive such as publishing contact details for leasing the space on our website to help the property owner generate a lease. But it turns out that with a lot of the spaces, the owners actually don’t want them to be leased,” says Robynn. “They’re waiting for the economy to turn around and they’re waiting for the space to become more valuable."

Niana Liu's storefront at 630 Kearny Street, ChinatownThe Arts Commission also took steps to address landlords’ concerns around insurance and damage to the stores. General liability insurance is provided through non-profit organisations working with the Commission, and a fund was set up to quickly repair any graffiti, vandalism or damage during the installation.

“One of the installations included some televisions in a window and then the glass was smashed and it was hard to know if the culprit trashed the window because of the installation or if it would have happened anyway” says Robynn. 

“That happened in two sites on Market Street so we set up some money in an easily accessible fund so that if there were any vandalism we could pay for it quickly.  That we were able to assure property owners that if anything happens we would take care of it; that opened some doors.

“We also clean up the space and leave it nicer than we found it and we offer to pay electricity, but no-one’s ever taken us up on that.”

And in the case of Niana Liu, an artist who used a space in Chinatown as a mock Chinese restaurant, she became a liaison when the property got sold by introducing the new property owner to the people in the neighbourhood.

Image Caption: Niana Liu's storefront at 630 Kearny Street, Chinatown.