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And the Streets were Paved with Pop-Ups…

The City of Chicago's new start-up license gives entrepreneurs a low-barrier opportunity to make use of the city's vacant storefronts. Can we expect to see this model pop-up in other cities too?

By

Date

August 14, 2018

The neighborhood I live in is seen as one of the more “colourful” parts of the city. It’s a neighborhood with a lot to see, but not a lot to do. Apart from grocery shopping and the occasional trip to get Thai food, I don’t contribute much to my neighborhood’s economy. For a commercial area that spans nearly 30-blocks, I could probably condense all of the places I visit onto just one.

Since I moved here five years ago I’ve seen a lot of change occur on the commercial strip. Many storefronts now sit empty or are filled with generic restaurants, convenience stores, dispensaries and cash exchange businesses. Not exactly what I’d consider an enticing streetscape.

It’s a shame too, the neighborhood is filled with young and interesting people and many of them run their own small businesses alongside more secure sources of income. Vancouver’s an expensive place to live and isn’t particularly supportive of creative endeavors unless matched with capital funds. Money is a huge issue for entrepreneurs interested in starting culinary, retail, or commercial projects and has forced many people in Vancouver to come up with creative solutions that cut storefronts out altogether.

One of the biggest barriers to opening up a commercial or retail space is the lengthy and expensive permitting process. This backhanded issue makes it even more challenging for entrepreneurs as would-be landlords are worried about having to cover costs and repeat the wearisome process should a business go under. In Vancouver, this is why many new storefronts are either franchises or dispensaries as these operations are safer candidates for long-term leases.

In New York City, empty storefronts account for as much as 20% of retail space on streets like Broadway in SoHo. Some people argue that vacant retail sites should be used to solve other complex issues, such as a lack of affordable housing. This isn’t always a viable option though and there’s not much incentive for building owners to embrace this idea. So what is the solution then? Many cities have turned to pop-up spaces as one possible answer. Property owners should could consider pop-ups as a smart solution that “sells your space for you”, according to Downtown Colorado, a statewide-supporter of the initiative.

While pop-up spaces provide opportunities for potential business owners to test the waters, many municipalities still require businesses and building owners to go through the traditional permitting process. This can be a huge barrier for people interested in trying out a pop-up space that may only last for a few hours. The City of Chicago is well aware of how political processes deter potential businesses and has recently proposed a new licensing structure with the hopes of encouraging entrepreneurs to test the waters with their ideas without the worry of long-term leases. The start-up license is the first of its kind in the nation and provides innovative entrepreneurs with a low-barrier opportunity to run a pop-up space. While the previous pop-up license required business owners to obtain a full two-year license, the new license will offer options ranging from just five days to one year. The licenses are also not tied to a specific location so the holder can operate pop-ups in different locations around the City. By removing the need for on-site inspections, the municipality hopes to streamline the permitting process as well. While this business model is a not even a month old, it will be interesting to see how this changes the city’s streetscape. Only time will tell if we can expect to see this model pop-up in other cities too…

 

Photo by Glen on Unsplash