Meanwhile use: here to stay

Mark Stevens
The last 5 years or so have witnessed significant growth in the provision of “meanwhile use” space in our town centres as building owners and developers take the opportunity to find alternative, temporary uses for their empty buildings.

Meanwhile use can be defined as the short-term utilisation of temporarily empty buildings such as retail units or offices until they can be brought back into commercial use. It is also making use of empty spaces in advance of development instead of hiding spaces away behind hoardings.

Our high streets can quickly become blighted as shops and commercial premises close down and our town centres consequently lose footfall and vibrancy. It has recently been observed that there are over 20,000 empty commercial buildings in London alone. In a similar way, redundant buildings or vacant development sites can remain unoccupied or unused for considerable periods of time awaiting permanent re-development, again blighting neighbourhoods and local communities. A temporary use can often bridge between the old and the new by maintaining an active presence that engages with the local community and provides opportunity for employment. It can also be used to showcase or prototype future development proposals and promote local input.

Meanwhile uses are generally for the benefit of the local community. This does not just mean replacing retail with retail but with a diverse range of uses including workplace start-ups, incubator space, cafes, community space, events and sporting facilities. This diversity brings with it a whole range of occupiers such as local enterprises, entrepreneurs, artists and artisans. These ingredients, together with the rather unusual spaces that are utilised, create hubs of innovation and activity.

The success of these hubs has been embraced by some of the UK’s best-known regeneration specialists such as Argent at Kings Cross, U+I at Preston Barracks, Brighton, Mayfield in Manchester’s Piccadilly and The Deptford Project where the facilities are branded as “Worthwhile” representing the benefits brought to the local community.

As well as making best use of vacant building stock, meanwhile hubs can be purpose built using pop up’s or, like the concept created by Boxpark, utilising shipping containers, or even a railway carriage as at The Deptford Project.

Of course, the meanwhile trend requires a change in the traditional way that landlords transact with occupiers, and vice versa. A more flexible, collaborative approach is often required from both parties but there are benefits too. For the landlord, an income stream can be secured from an otherwise redundant facility – and if there is no income there are the savings gained for empty property business rates, security and safety liabilities. For the occupier, often a new business with little access to capital, there is the benefit of reduced rents and service charges in locations that would otherwise be unaffordable.

The government has also been supportive over this period having changed planning legislation and relaxed the controls on change of use class together with publishing standard leases for the occupation of redundant town centre properties.

It is clear that these temporary usages have proven to have been a great success and where originally planned for a life of two to five years they may be retained for much longer periods and perhaps as semi-permanent facilities. As the high street continues to face the challenge from on-line retailers, the vacancy rate is likely to continue at its current pace and so the development of meanwhile use is likely to grow and be around for some good time.

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