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How To Open An Alternative Business In The City Center, And Stay Alive

The entrance to Oosterstraat 13a in Groningen, the Netherland, looks like many other buildings that that street. It is narrow, “To Rent” signs adorn the door, and a steep staircase can be seen in the background. None of these hints can prepare you for what you are going to find inside: a labyrinth of astonishing spaces, including a pseudo-porn movie booth, forming one of the funkiest spots in Groningen – De Gym.

My first visit to De Gym was a nice surprise in Groningen’s nightlife, and not only because it stands out among the many generic bars in the city center, featuring pop music and tipsy students. It was mostly because it does what is almost impossible in many other cities: an underground scene in the city center.

 The entrance to

I contacted Karina Bakx from JOP, the designer, and co-owner of De Gym. JOP is responsible for many businesses in Groningen, that seems just way too experimental to be located in the city center. Alternative shops tend to be opened at the outskirts of city centers, where the rent is cheap. But the businesses that JOP helps to open are popping up in the heart of the city. Karina was kind enough to invite me to her office, located in the same building as De Gym, so it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the regeneration of vacant spaces and effects they have on to their surrounding areas.

So how can young entrepreneurs open creative businesses in the heart of the city center? In a nutshell, they don’t really pay rent. And it’s completely legal. Karina, who graduated a few years ago from Groningen’s Art Academy, was frustrated by the lack of places that would agree to exhibit and sell works of unknown young artists. She started looking for vacant buildings and shops in the city center, contacted their owners, and made an offer they could very easily refuse: let me use your premises for free. “It takes time to pursue them to do it”, she explains, “Because it’s against their nature. It’s like asking a greengrocer to give you vegetables for free”.

However, Karina does offer the owner something, besides paying the energy bills, taking care of the maintenance and the ability to evict her within two weeks. The idea is to make ‘real’ businesses see the potential in those empty properties. Empty stores tend to be less attractive for prospective businesses, and so just by opening a new and cool place, run by creative entrepreneurs, instead of an empty store, JOP is increasing the chance of owners to rent their premises out. Some of the creative businesses, on the other hand, have become so successful that they could actually afford a full-price rent.

 Oosterstraat 52. Another JOP

And it’s getting easier to convince retail owners to give JOP their premises. Karina explains that more than 30 stores have already been rented out after they had been renovated and run for some time by creative entrepreneurs. Now, it’s clear that it works and that letting their empty stores for almost nothing might help them in the long run.

You might ask yourself if this method can also work in a bigger, more commercially successful city. Groningen does have some empty stores in the city center, and in case they would have been rented out, JOP wouldn’t be able to get them. This is actually happening right now in Groningen’s city center, where  less and less stores stand empty. Then, Karina says, they will have to go a bit further out, but always try to stay close to the center.

I love this entire concept. It’s really a win-win: young creative entrepreneurs get a chance to make it in the city center, and retail owners embellish their properties. But, and it’s a big one, this project also fosters gentrification. The prices of stores renovated by JOP do rise, and small businesses will less likely to be opened there. I don’t think, however, that we should blame JOP for this. If not for this idea, creative businesses wouldn’t be able to be there in the first place.

(Pictures by Lior Steinberg)



Lior Steinberg

Co-founder & Urban Planner

Lior Steinberg is an urban planner. He helps cities to look beyond functionality and to plan urban spaces that make people smile. Follow him on Twitter and Linkedin.

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