Crowdsourcing ideas for empty spaces

Hoodstarter co-founders Jason Goux, Justin Ley and David Berglund (l to r) want the community to brainstorm ideas for an empty building at 38th & Chicago. Credit: Michelle Bruch

There’s a small paper sign in a storefront window sandwiched between digs and Grand Café at 38th & Grand. The sign reads: “We’d Love a Coffee Shop in this space!!”

Some residents living around empty neighborhood storefronts are becoming vocal about the types of new shops they’d like to see.

Residents in the Kenny neighborhood are directly approaching bike shops and asking them to consider opening near 54th & Lyndale. A Windom resident started a petition for Blue Plate to open a restaurant at the former Walgreens at 54th & Lyndale. And a new startup called Hoodstarter is soliciting community ideas for vacant retail spaces.

The founders of Hoodstarter said people are accustomed to exerting influence online, whether through a Yelp restaurant critique or Amazon product review — so why not the storefront down the street?

“More people want to have a say — they just haven’t had the tools,” said Hoodstarter co-founder David Berglund.

Neighborhood wish lists

Windom resident Troy Eaves saw an opportunity at the former Walgreens at 5415 Lyndale Ave. S. He started a Facebook group asking Blue Plate, the company behind The Lowry and The Freehouse, to open a restaurant there — he even posted a mockup logo of “The Windom Ale House.” (Blue Plate staff say they’re flattered, but not interested at the moment.)

The page netted 62 members.

“People messaged me saying, ‘Thank you, this is a great idea,'” Eaves said.

Eaves would also love to see a taproom there, and he’s thinking about reaching out to the owner of Indeed.

“I’d prefer something local for sure,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like places are vacant very long. … I imagine someone else will scoop it up.”

54th & Lyndale is also the area of focus for a group of cycling enthusiasts in Kenny.

“There is not a bike shop in our neck of the woods, and we think there is a market for it,” said resident Thatcher Imboden.

Residents have approached a couple of bike shops (no luck yet) and plan to keep trying.

Matt Perry, president of the Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association, said that when Borton Volvo left Lyndale, he heard from many people who wanted a restaurant to move into the area.

“I’ve gotten a number of emails and phone calls from people asking what they can do to make that happen,” he said.

He said NEHBA can share census data, community survey data and private purchase data to groups working to draw retailers to the neighborhood.

David Thompson owns the building at the southwest corner of 38th & Grand, and he works next door at Integral Psychotherapy and lives a block away. He’s heard from a couple dozen people who said they’d love a coffee shop on the corner, so he advertised the space and posted the aforementioned sign in the window. The strategy may have worked: Of the seven tenants who expressed interest, four of them fall into the coffee shop category, he said. One leading candidate is the Grand Café next door, which has a new chef, Andrew Kraft, and a new menu with more shared plates.

Web platforms highlighting vacant spaces have cropped up around the world, with maps of empty properties in cities like New York and Dublin. The website “[im]possible living” solicits ideas to reactivate abandoned buildings in Italian cities.

In New Orleans, artist Candy Chang posted vinyl stickers on vacant buildings around town labeled “I wish this was” …  with space for passersby to fill in the blank. Responses ranged from “a butcher shop” and “real soul food” to “repaired” and “a place without theft.”

Locally, the upcoming sixth season of Artists in Storefronts enlists pop-up galleries to open in vacant or underused spaces, highlighting storefront possibilities.

Putting empty spaces to a vote

The Twin Cities has a new website designed to crowdsource ideas for vacant storefronts called, formed by a group of guys who met at UnitedHealth Group. Through the site, users can highlight empty spaces, suggest the sort of businesses that should move in, and vote on favorite ideas.The site can also work like a Kickstarter to help raise money for entrepreneurs.

“It’s a chance for the community to put its money where its mouth is,” Ley said.

One popular building on the site is a former furniture liquidation store at 38th & Chicago that has been vacant for years. Its expansive basement was originally used as a city parking garage, according to Hoodstarter. The building drew more than 200 votes for ideas like an indoor dog park, a cat café, a NeoSoul diner, or community art center. One voter posted that the store should stay empty, with a plea to “quit gentrifying Chicago Avenue.” Ley’s initial instinct was to delete the post, but found that it didn’t gain any votes and generated a backlash of debate on the page.

Mike Stebnitz owns a building across the street home to Blue Ox Coffee Company. He said the building’s size is part of the reason it’s stayed empty.

“In a sense it’s too small for … big box retailers, and too big for most independent upstarter people to bite into,” he said.

Stebnitz said he likes the Hoodstarter ideas, and he’s exploring options for the building and considering an acquisition.

The Hoodstarter founders said brokers can be incentivized to fill an empty spot as quickly as possible, and national tenants with deep pockets are an attractive option — they’re stable tenants that can remain for many years and increase a building’s value. For residents who would prefer independent shops, their interests can seem at odds with brokers’.

“I want to help them realize their interests really are aligned,” Ley said.

Crowdsourced ideas with votes of support can give entrepreneurs confidence in entering a market, he said.  He said the public simply needs an outlet to make their voices heard.

“We wanted to give the community a mechanism to make that happen,” he said.

On The Market

Furniture liquidation store

3725 Chicago Ave. S.

Neighborhood ideas: Indoor dog park, cat café, NeoSoul diner, community art center, co-working space, indoor bouldering gym and café, bulk food grocery, indoor toddler play area, skate park

Former Walgreens building

5415 Lyndale Ave. S.

Neighborhood ideas: Restaurant, taproom, bike shop

Space  between digs and Grand Café

3800 Grand Ave. S.

Neighborhood ideas: Coffee shop, Grand Café to-go