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Hamptons Village Requires Empty Storefronts to Display Art


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A village in the Hamptons has found a way to tackle the empty storefronts blighting its streets: transforming them into mini art galleries.

Southampton, the glitzy vacation destination on the eastern end of New York’s Long Island, now requires landlords of storefronts that have been vacant at least a month to join with local artists to liven up these typically dreary eyesores with art installations.

Local artists supply the work at no cost, but the new law approved by village trustees in July provides them a chance to showcase their talents—and potentially profit from the arrangement by selling their art to window shoppers.

“I think it’s an amazing way to activate and reclaim space—especially in towns where there’s an offseason,” said artist Alice Hope, whose illuminated “Priceless” installation of chromed coat hangers, strung can tabs and shopping tags became the first piece to be featured through the program in July, brightening the front of a former women’s clothing store.

Towns and cities around the U.S. have struggled to deal with commercial vacancies, which have accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic as many consumers shifted to shopping online, away from bricks-and-mortar retailers. Last year San Francisco approved a law that taxes landlords who have had vacant ground-floor commercial space for more than six months. The law is similar to one that Washington, D.C., imposed in 2011. San Francisco’s won’t be implemented until 2022 because of the pandemic. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also called for a vacancy tax on property owners during his State of the City address last year.

Southampton’s law has some caveats: The artwork can’t make political statements or potentially offend children. Window displays must be approved by the village administrator unless landlords partner with either the Southampton Arts Center or Southampton Artists Association. A section of windows can also be set aside to include “For Rent” signs.

Landlords who don’t obey the law face fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, but officials said no fines have yet to be issued because the village is providing a grace period that is expected to end next month.

The idea is the brainchild of Southampton Mayor Jesse Warren, who made resolving the village’s longtime problem of empty storefronts during the colder months a part of his 2019 campaign, when the then-36-year-old became the youngest person ever elected to the post.

Mr. Warren, a Democrat who also owns and operates the retail store Tenet in Southampton, said the village currently lacks sewage infrastructure needed to attract more restaurants, theaters and other big attractions, so he pitched his “Storefront Art Project” as a temporary way to breathe life into commercial corridors.

Mr. Warren also said the initiative is in response to some Southampton landlords refusing to rent their space because they have unrealistic rent expectations or because they believe they could financially benefit from keeping stores closed.

So far the community’s response, including that of landlords, has been predominantly positive, he said. He said he also believes the rules could work in other municipalities—even one as large as New York City.

“We have a lot of residents with homes in New York City, and we’ve had a lot of them say, ‘I wish we can do this there,’ ” he said.

Southampton is typically flooded with heavy foot traffic during the summer season, but empty storefronts have long plagued the village during the winter, even before the Covid-19 crisis.

As of this past week, 16—or 23.5%—of the 68 storefronts along Jobs Lane were vacant, while seven—or 10.6%—of Main Street’s storefronts were empty, according to a count by the mayor’s office. Both strips are about a quarter-mile long and are Southampton’s biggest shopping areas.

Besides Ms. Hope’s work, a second installation by artist Kerry Sharkey-Miller went up two weeks ago at a former J.Crew retail store. The illuminated photo-based installation, called “Wild Things,” uses animals, botanicals and other features of nature as its subjects.

A third installation, called “Quality Bakery,” will soon be made public. It uses cupcakes and cakes made from porcelain as a “series of domestic monuments to life’s enchantments and perils,” according to its artist Monica Banks.

Other installations are in the works and expected to be revealed soon, said Amy Kirwin, artistic director of Southampton Arts Center.

The new law isn’t without precedent on Long Island. In 2012, the village of East Hampton passed a law requiring empty storefronts to display graphics, posters or other kinds of art work.

New York City also has a history of artists teaming up with property owners to enliven vacant store windows, but through voluntary programs.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she would support the city investing money in a larger system connecting artists with owners of vacant storefronts. In August, Ms. Brewer, a Democrat, and her staff counted 335 street-level empty storefronts along a 13-mile stretch of Manhattan’s Broadway, from the Financial District to Inwood. That is a 78% increase from a similar survey they oversaw in 2017, which found 188 vacancies.

Councilman Mark Gjonaj, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the committee on small business, said he likes the concept of Southampton’s law and wants to propose legislation to create a similar New York City program connecting landlords and with art groups and community organizations.

However, he said he believes the program shouldn’t be mandatory.

“While I support the objective, most New York City commercial properties are held by mom-and-pop owners, and I do not support any effort that would place additional and unnecessary fines onto any small business during the pandemic,” he said.

(Courtesy of WSJ)

Maybe Montreal should do the same for St Denis and other streets around the city.

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