The corner of South Flores and West Commerce Streets is usually just that – a corner, a place for pedestrian and vehicle traffic alike to wait for a light to change.
Despite its seemingly choice location across the street from City Hall, the historic, two-story building at 201 W. Commerce St., formerly a Kress dime-store and (until its closing in early 2011) Melrose apparel store, sits vacant.
During a free open house last night, the empty space was transformed into the first Center City Open House, to accomodate and entertain more than 300 curious people with free food, beer, music, art exhibition, dance performances and even a fashion show.
But it wasn’t all beers and ballet. The event brought together developers, realtors, architects, planners, neighbors and passersby to re-imagine the empty space.
Much like the X Marks the Art program, which invites local artists to use vacant store fronts as canvases, the open house is part of the broader goal of downtown revitalization via activated space.
After all, it’s hard to look “revitalized” with a bunch of empty store fronts and vacant lots staring developers and locals in the face – and we do have quite a few downtown.
“I’m always surprised that places like this still exist so close to downtown,” said local art consultant and curator Chris Davila, admiring the building’s historic bones. As she stood in the enormous, open second floor, her words and laughter echoed between support beams and hanging light fixtures. “Why isn’t it being used? I hope this space continues to hosts events like this.”
There’s at least one vote for an art gallery to occupy the space.
“A lot of the developers saw the space and said, ‘This is totally housing,’ ” said Lori Houston, director of the Center City Development Office (CCDO). “Others saw creative office space … overall it’s been a huge success.”
The CCDO, along with the Office of Historic Preservation(OHP), hosted the event which ran completely out of the complimentary Freetail Brewing Co. beer and much of the munchies provided by Ming’s Things within the first hour.
Lines at the information tables from CCDO, OHP, and the Department for Culture and Creative Development, staffed with members from the respective departments, were not as popular as refreshments. Still, a steady stream of interested stakeholders visited the tables to find out more about incentive programs for downtown development.
Staff were on hand with brochures to inform prospective tenants of programs like the Inner City Revitalization and Infill Program (ICRIP), which provides administrative fee waivers for certain projects, tax exemptions for rehabilitation of historic buildings, and the Center City Housing Incentive Program (CCHIP), incentives for multi-family housing projects in certain areas within the center city. The former Melrose building is eligible for all of these incentives.
Convenience store chain 7-Eleven has already signed a lease with building owners B-Y Properties and will open a small location at the southwest corner of the building by the end of this year, offering its recently introduced “healthy, fresh” line of food and a limit on single beer sales, Houston said.
Local civil engineer Hernan Jaramillo attended the event on his way to PechaKucha Night at the nearby Casa Rosa, formerly the Museo Alameda.
“The artists and people (from the) city are so accessible,” Jaramillo said, speaking to the strength of the open house format. He came to support the work of artists Rex Hausmann and David Almaguer of Hausmann Millworks – who displayed their work inside and out of the building – and also to learn more about center city revitalization efforts.
“This area is going to get gentrified,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford or don’t want to (develop) here right now … but those incentives (CCHIP and ICRIP) can help small businesses.”
Anyone curious about the old Kress/Melrose building – or those with a suggestion for where the next open house should be – are encouraged to contact the CCDO for more information. These events may start to be held more often, showcasing the potential of a vacant downtown, historical building every few months, Houston said.