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How to Turn an Empty Space into a Pop-Up Community Hub

Imagine meandering through 14,000 square feet of a vacant building. It’s an eerie feeling. Each floorboard creaks as you survey for clues of what was here before and imagine what could be next.

Those 14,000 square feet would become [ freespace ], a temporary space in San Francisco's Mid-Market neighborhood that aims to foster creativity, community and civic innovation. Below, based on lessons learned with [freespace], are five steps to turn a vacant building into a thriving temporary community space.

1. Connect with the property owner

The first step of activating vacant buildings is the hardest. It can be a daunting task to find property owners who are eager to activate their idle or vacant buildings. There are a growing number of platforms that help you do this: SquareFoot, Storefront, miLES, and Popuphood, to name a few. If none of these platforms are a good fit for your ideas, use your personal networks to find property owners. Email your friends. Post on Facebook. Ask everyone you know. It will take time and patience, but existing relationships will get you to the right connections you need to find a property owner who is willing to work with you to activate their property.

2. Bring on a group of awesome collaborators

Now that the hard part is over, the rest is fun! Find some other folks who want to revitalize the neighborhood that you’re in. Learn who else is doing good work in the neighborhood. Talk to local nonprofits, merchant associations, and businesses. Bring some awesome friends on board. Within reason, the more people you have on board, the more networks, ideas, and awesomeness will be brought to the space. Oh, and find a smart lawyer friend.

3. Set up operating systems

Any large group of people needs a little structure to ensure that the lights get turned on and the plants get watered. It is useful to have smaller committees of folks that focus on certain aspects of the space. For example, you might want to create one team that focuses on web and social media presence. Find a collaborator who is excited to help with this aspect of the space, and let that person recruit others. Smaller committees within the larger team will allow everyone to best utilize their passion and skills.

3. Let everyone know you’re there

Find muralists, sign makers, and others who can contribute their skills to beautifying the outside of the building so passerby will be drawn in. Create a website with basic information about the space. Now that you have the people and organizations behind you, utilize their networks to spread the word. As you draw people into the space, they will go home and tell their friends. Word of mouth is the best tool you have.

4. Invite the community to program the space

Collaboration between you and friends, partners, and local organizations has gotten you this far. Now it is time to collaborate with the community that you’re in. As you reach out to the community, invite them to bring their dreams and passions to the space. The space can provide someone the opportunity to teach a yoga class for the first time or create their first mural. Empowering people will benefit not only your space, but the surrounding community as well.

5. Create projects that will live outside of the space

Now you have created an amazing creative, collaborative space with murals, workshops, concerts. But what happens once the property owner finds a long-term tenant? Creating scalable, sustainable projects that can live outside of the temporary space will help you prove the impact that this model can achieve. Identify the challenges and needs of your community, and start working on a project that will improve your neighborhood. If you don’t finish the project in time, don’t worry. You can continue it when you find your next vacant building to activate.

(Bonus tip)

6. Have fun!

It’s going to be hard not to.

Support [freespace] on Indiegogo.

Top warehouse image via Shutterstock; other images courtesy of [ freespace ].

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