As many old-line retailers continue to struggle, cities across the country are trying to figure out what to do with the empty storefronts they often leave behind.
Large swaths of New York City’s commercial spaces are fallow, with some estimates putting the vacancy rate as high as 20 percent .
On the other side of the country, a 2018 study found that more than 10 percent of commercial property in one San Francisco neighborhood was empty. That was roughly twice the rate from three years prior.
Here in Massachusetts, Boston City Councilor Matthew O’Malley has taken to referring to protracted vacancies in upscale areas as “high-end blight.” He and others blame it on landlords holding out for lucrative tenants to fill spaces once occupied by retailers.
Across the river, Cambridge is trying to combat dead space with something that has proven popular elsewhere: transforming empty storefronts into ad-hoc art galleries.
Last week, the city announced the winners of a competition for local artists to have their work displayed at vacant retail properties. Each of the five winners will receive $1,000 and their works — ranging from traditional photography to paintings of landscapes and natural scenes — will be made available for property owners to place in windows or use as construction screens for the next two years.
The five artists — Judith Motzkin, Karl Baden, Deidre Tao, Shane Taremi, and Malia Edney — represent a broad cross-section of the Cambridge art scene.
Tao said she’s been producing art professionally for about 25 years and has had her art displayed in galleries in the past.
Lesley University student Edney hasn’t even been alive that long. “It’s nice to know as a a freshman I can put my art out there,” she said. “I’m so excited.”
The competition was designed not only as a way to promote artists, but also to curb some of the negative effects associated with empty storefronts.
“It’s really about making sure there is a continuity, a continuous storefront experience,” said Lisa Hemmerle, Cambridge’s economic development director. “You don’t want to have that broken up by vacancies, because that’s not a good pedestrian experience.”
Hemmerle said the competition was the product of discussions between city agencies and members of the community, including business proprietors.
It was also inspired by the findings of a study commissioned by the city and published last summer meant to identify the cause of vacancies as well as possible remedies, she said.
The study gave Cambridge retail a mostly clean bill of health. It pegged the vacancy rate for commercial properties at 4 percent, well below the national average of 10 percent. A city database indicates approximately 40 storefronts are empty.
But many of those properties are in prominent locations or have been vacant for a long time. The study recommended solutions based on approaches taken by other communities in similar situations, including Arlington.
Ali Carter, Arlington’s economic development coordinator, said there were 17 vacant storefronts in the town’s downtown in 2015. She said the vacancies endangered nearby businesses because commercial districts depend on each other to draw traffic.
Larger businesses act as anchors, drawing in customers who are likely to spill over into nearby establishments, she said. (Think of when you’ve gone to a movie and decided to grab a bite to eat nearby.)
Carter said vacancies have the opposite effect: People tend to avoid areas dotted with closed stores.
“It’s definitely visually unappealing, but where it really hurts the business district is when there’s a concentration” of vacancies, she said.
Arlington passed a bylaw in 2016 that requires owners of vacant retail spaces to list them on a registry and pay a fee. The fee is waived if the property owner agrees to display art.
“The idea was that it would beautify what would otherwise be sort of an eyesore in the neighborhood,” Carter said, “and maybe even attract positive attention to the space.”
The art has proven so popular, she said, that business owners have partnered with the town to put art in active retail spaces, as well.
Arlington isn’t the only municipality to create a vacancy registry. Lowell and New Bedford have both opted to do so, and the idea has popped up elsewhere in the country. Boston’s City Council has discussed adopting a vacancy fee.
Likewise, using empty retail space to display art has gained popularity in Chicago, New Haven, New York, and other places. And the concept seems to be gaining traction in Massachusetts.
Spaceus, a Cambridge startup launched in 2018 by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students Stephanie Lee and Ellen Shakespear, works with property owners to turn unused shops into galleries and shared studio spaces for artists.
“People are stoked that these spaces are no longer empty,” Lee said.
Spaceus regularly shifts its location. It has operated in Fanueil Hall and the Roslindale Substation. At the moment, it’s at 11 First St. in Cambridge. The space is owned by Linear Retail Properties, one of five Cambridge property owners that so far have agreed to display winning pieces from the competition.
Max Grinnell, a Massachusetts College of Art and Design lecturer who studies cities, said urban areas such as Boston and Cambridge can benefit from increasing the amount of space for artists to display their art.
“It’s exciting to see Cambridge take the lead,” he said. “It offers something kind of pleasing to the eye, and it also says someone cares about this place.”