WP_001026

Somewhere deep in New Mexico, a desert full of hollows forms the Very Large Array telescope. Acres of discrete dishes. Insignificant alone. Game changing together. Working as one, the dishes can do something exponentially massive: map out the emptiness. Make sense of it.

It’s joined up thinking like this that edges us closer to the important questions – like, where the hell is all that dark matter? And what are we supposed to do about it?

Meanwhile, back in Liverpool we’re surrounded by the stuff. Imagine what we’d find if we embarked on a little joined up thinking of our own.

A few months ago, I started to wonder about empty spaces in the city, and of whether SevenStreets could hold an event in one of them. Within half an hour, a nice chap at the council suggested a few sites – probably about half a million square foot of them. Off the top of his head.

Nested within our city, hidden behind listed buildings, pedimented windows and stone mullions, just inches away from the lunchtime sandwich rush, there is a

Complete

Empty

City

“How many empty buildings are there, do you think?” we asked, our curiosity piqued.

No one seemed to know. Why would they? The council knows of its own empty spaces, individual developers and owners of theirs.

No-one has ever surveyed the complete shrinking city. We need to get Werner Hertzog and a laser scanner to map out the caverns and hollows, and make a complete 3D map of Liverpool’s empty belly.

In the meantime, forget about the Albert Hall. No-one knows how many holes it takes to fill up those grand, ghostly banking halls, fruit exchanges and typists’ pools.

While we wait, here’s an incomplete list of empty spaces: buildings either wholly empty or with upwards of 4,000 square feet lying fallow, waiting for the day when new seeds will be sewn. Some have plans. Most don’t. It’s a long list. You might want to break it up into bite-sized chunks.

Mersey House, Beetham Plaza

Tinlings Building, Victoria Street

Watson Building, Renshaw Street

Century Buildings, Brunswick

Churchill House, Tithebarn Street

1 North John Street

India Buildings, Water Street

West Africa House, The Strand

Queen Building, Dale Street

Colonial Chambers, Temple Square

Horton House, Exchange Flags

Oriel Chambers, Water Street

The Russell Building, School Lane

Granite Building, Stanley Street

Graeme House, James Street

Cunard Building, Waterfront

Littlewoods Building, Edge Lane

Albany (White Star), James Street

Royal Insurance (work is progressing), Dale Street

The Lyceum, Bold Street

Union House, Victoria Street

Produce and Fruit Exchange, Victoria Street

Eldon Grove, Vauxhall Road

Wellington Rooms (Irish Centre)

Tobacco warehouse, Stanley Dock

The Bank of England Building on Castle Street

Most of the north side of Lime Street

47 Castle Street

Temple Court

Fenwick Street building

Port of Liverpool Building, Waterfront

Victoria House, James Street

Compton House, Church Street

Bling Bling Building, Hanover Street

Scandinavian Hotel, Duke Street

And warehouses aplenty in the Baltic, and the docks.

At a conservative estimate, that’s over 8,000,000 square foot of space (the Littlewoods Building alone covers 600,000 sq feet), and the Tobacco warehouse 1,500,000.

Liverpool: The Aero City.

And they wanted to close MelloMello? Are they out of their minds?

We don’t know exactly what this city needs. But we know one thing: it sure as hell doesn’t need another empty space.

Imagine for a moment what we could do with all that space if we looked behind the glossy images of our UNESCO Mercantile city. If we thought into the box instead of just salivated over its beautiful skin.

Trouble is, before you address a problem, you have to size it out. Capture it and proclaim it. Admit there really is a problem.

But figures like this aren’t, perhaps, what you want to hear when your Mayor believes that the city’s (only?) lifeline is an offer, from Peel, to build an entirely new city, just up the road and wait for Blue Chips to come and colonise. So much for our claim to be a city of green technologies. Where’s the big idea when it comes to recycling our existing stock of offices?

Now, of course, no-one is saying the grand corinthian pillars of the Cunard’s interior (currently holding up part of this year’s excellent Biennial) will suit a call centre (in fact, the space has been proposed as home for the new Migration Museum, but you get the point). But just because they’re not going to be used for IT support doesn’t mean they can’t have a purpose now. While we wait for the capitalist train to be put back on its tracks, here’s what should happen:

We need to rethink how we use our empty buildings. Get them to engage with each other. These buildings slip into the backdrop of our city. They become the great unseen.

SevenStreets suggests the city needs to appoint a Minister of Empty Spaces. That the city holds a Festival of Empty Spaces. That, for a couple of weeks, doors are flung open, and interested groups, individuals, societies, communities, schools, b-boy crews, knitting circles and guerilla fashion houses are shown around our sleeping city. And the best proposals are given the keys. Allowed to incubate. Infest us. Show us what we’re made of. Yeah yeah, there’s small print. There’s always small print. But that’s what we pay the public servants on Dale Street to sort out. Imagine if just 5% of this space was the catalyst for something incredible?

These buildings have good bones. They may, one day, make good offices, hotels, apartments (yes, homes: they’ve stood for 150 years. What’s the betting those empty, speculative, gangster-built shanty towns will last half as long?), and shops. But, right now, nothing is moving. And the recession ain’t going anywhere fast.

So let’s find a use for them. For us.

In Italy, they’re doing something about it. Impossible Living is an online inventory of empty spaces. Andrea Sesta, the driving force behind the site, explains:

“I want the site to help people with those ideas find sites that might fit their plans. We thought we could build a global container of these kinds of projects and help link resources with ideas, creating a community of people concerned about this problem and willing to do something about it,” says Sesta.

He’s hoping, too, that Impossible Living (not exclusively concerned with Italy, but mostly) will become a clearinghouse for resources and advice on transforming abandoned places.

“They are really difficult projects. They require a lot of expertise,” he says.

It’s happening elsewhere. In Berlin, decaying facades hide massive open spaces, full of artists’ workshops, studios and performance spaces. In Croatia, the summer is filled with temporary bars, clubs and event spaces. In Toronto, pensioners are learning to love the internet. In Paris, of course, entire soundstages are being erected for DIY feature films.

Here, Camp and Furnace has, spectacularly, shown what’s possible – with minimum budget and maximum passion.

But there’s more to life than parties. Which is why these spaces should be used for social enterprise too. Empty offices could turn into training camps: heck, we could even run a ‘how to write’ course (any takers?). We’d grab our students, take them to a gig at the Kaz, and bring them back to our sleepy hollow, and not let them leave until they’d found a new way to describe introverted Americana without using the words backwoods or Bon Iver.

Currently, the owners of these buildings pay full rates (unless they’re listed). Surely there’s sense in taking a gamble? Today’s free-use Saturday could be tomorrow’s Camp and Furnace, or multi-million generating bio tech company (the company that protected the Olympic park was set up in an empty corner of a plastic bag factory in Huyton. So it’s not all about the Vogue balls. Real, solid businesses grow from empty spaces too.)

London’s collective, This Big City has a ‘high-street hijack’ scheme, which takes empty buildings, and uses them to teach long-term unemployed new skills, without draining the already-stretched public purse too much.

When you think of our historic buildings, you realise they grew out of the town’s needs. Our grand buildings can do the same. They can resurrect us. Given half a chance and a little bit of vision.

We are a shriking city. The latest census results show that we’re being overtaken (especially in that crucial 25-45 age group) by every other core city. Meanwhile, Manchester fills its empty spaces with local food markets, and, in the only new empty space initiative we can think of, our council pushes through a ‘wet zone’ for alcoholics in the heart of the city’s night time economy, while a lone new puritan prowling the streets with a decibel reader leads the way in introducing Draconian new laws to prevent new uses for old buildings.

Removing the need for planning permission to temporarily change the use of empty buildings is key. As is removing the nay-sayers who’ll chirp health and safety. Most importantly, we need to do what we’ve always done best. Think differently. Take a leap of faith. Believe that the route out of here lies within us.

This christmas, Kate Stewart, the driving force behind the excellent Made Here shop in the Met Quarter is opening a selection of empty shops in the first ‘Pop Up for Christmas’ festival, showcasing the city’s makers and artists’ work.

It’s a great idea, and exactly the sort of thinking we need. But if we’re to really make a difference, we have to realise: pop ups aren’t just for Christmas. They’re for life.

  • Andy Minnis

    Great article. It’s something that’s always been on my mind, for a while I’ve thought it would be great to use empty shop fronts and buildings as temporary gallery spaces, to bring buildings to live and then long-term hopefully attract a more permanent solution. Even as pop-up venues to put on gigs. The removal of licensing for less than 200 capacity may even begin to aid this… there’s an incredible amount of potential out there.

  • http://twitter.com/TheWilk thewilk

    Brilliant article. I imagine things will only get worse once LJMU move into the Copperas Building, too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lubi.lu.52 Lubi Lu

    Excellent and of course mirroring the separate yet equally wasteful problem of empty good, solid built- to- last- but- empty housing in the city…

  • Ellis

    Shotgun the Littlewoods building. My favourite building in Liverpool without a doubt.

  • thenorthernist

    Wonderful piece. It’s staggering to think about how much empty space there really is across the city. I hope it doesn’t meet the same fate as some of Detroit’s grand old buildings.

  • Sean

    Equal parts brilliant and depressing. Fact is these buildings will never be used as commercial offices again, so we do need to think of another use for them and fast, before we lose them.

  • http://twitter.com/sparksflea Catherine Sparks

    True and not just a Liverpool issue. Aside form large spaces all the smaller empty shops in cities /towns across europe are being wasted while at the same time people with ideas and potential are out of work and can’t afford to take them on. If rents/rates etc could be lowered and the unemployed became employed surely this would boost economies. Seems short sighted that so many people (and in many places the youth of countries) are being written off. As always don’t seem to be learning much, it was only a couple of decades ago the same was happening and many people never recovered.

  • James

    While I think that the article does slightly over-state the problem generally (as a lot of the vacant office space in the city is office space that is actually ‘ready to hire’ space from office providers that is simply in between tenants, and the type of space that will – even in economically active times – go through frequent spells of not having current tenants), I think there is certainly an issue to do with making use of older buildings.

    I don’t think it’s the case that these will never again be offices, as a lot of them still are, but while there is a tendency to think of short term ‘make use of’ purposes for these such as pop up shops and pop up galleries, I would like to see steps taken to actually get these open for companies as they were meant to be.

    I think the big barriers to people using these buildings for business are a) cost of rents and b) cost of business rates. If it weren’t for these things then I think we would see a lot more people start up in business, and a lot more space occupied. Just as councils can CPO residential buildings that are left empty, I would like to see them be able to do this for commercial buildings too, turning them over to non-profits who are able to be given exemption from rates in return for providing low cost business rents. A certain proportion could be earmarked for (truly) local businesses, with the rest being given over to attracting other companies to open up here.

  • John Walker

    Very well observed. Office space expanded by over 50% in the regenerative boom years, yet stats out there indicate 50% if not higher vacancy rates for the city. Emptiness brings into question the building of further apartment blocks / offices – if stats for residential occupancy in the city centre are to be believed at around 40% (excluding leisure rentals), why allow Peel to build more empty apartments and offices (the latter being rate free for many years under Government ‘Enterprise Zone’ status leaving the Council with no income for it?). More does not equate to cheaper, manifesting itself as greater attractiveness and jobs. Up to 2010, the former NWDA provided £2000 / new employee for developments generating (I think) over 200 new jobs – this financial incentive of the boom years has well and truly gone, and didn’t deliver jobs to the city centre, more so peripheral business parks. Sure, warehousing of Amazonian proportions aided by Superport capacity may bring jobs to the edge of the city, but in a global recession taking many more years to ride out, what’s going to fill our already void office core for the next decade?

  • Joanne

    Wow. That’s amazing. I never realised that the Bank of England building was empty. That’s my favourite building in the city, and if no one wants that the world has gone insane. Nice feature as usual SevenStreets. You should have the keys to the city. As you say, everytihing these days is pop up. Nothing permanent. Sign o the times. 🙁

  • JT

    Someone forward this to Eric Pickles!

  • Crab C Nesbitt

    Absolute bravo to Sevenstreets. This site’s importance seems to grow by the week. This is exactly the kind of campaigning, engaging and interesting piece that keeps me coming back for more.

  • Dianne

    Absolutely speechless. I know it’s not a problem confined to Liverpool but I bet we’ve suffered more than most, as we’ve lost far more in the way of serviced-office rental market. You’ve only got to look up as you walk down the city centre streets to see all that empty space. Bloody well done Seven Streets for bringing it to a wider attention.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steveparrydj Steve Parry

    A brilliant read, and crazy that situation that we have in our own city. Some of your suggestions for uses are brilliant too.

  • david longstaffe

    Great reading and its a massive subject that filters out to the streets of terraced houses too…

  • LG

    Great article. modernism gone mad!!!! In terms of the mayor wanting to rebuild a “new city”, what a ridiculous idea! These buildings represent Liverpools culture and heritage!

  • Ken

    “Now, of course, no-one is saying the grand corinthian pillars of the Cunard’s interior… will suit a call centre”. Ironic, because there is a huge callcentre on the first floor.

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  • christine

    I am in constant contact with LCC to acquire an empty building for a community/sports centre for all ages and several other groups and upto now they all tell me they have none free for me to use. We have experience of running sport group but we want to help all ages and the disabled to make our city a better place…….give something back and change lives!!

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