THE BLOG

Made in the Lower East (miLES) -- A Community Incubator

05/28/2013 11:23 am ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

Founded by Eric Ho, miLES (made in the Lower East Side) seeks a better way to utilize underused storefronts and " turn them into vibrant community hubs for working, learning, connecting, and starting up new projects." miLES reports that the Lower East Side of Manhattan has over 200 vacant storefronts and lots, totalling approximately 250,000 square feet with an estimated rental value exceeding $20 million a year. Working with the tenants, miLES has launched a three-month trial (April - June 2013) for its first co-work and pop-up space locate on 75 east 4th Street.

It seems the timing could not be better. In March 2013 the Center for an Urban Future released a fascinating brief, "New York's New Business Boom." The Center analyzed 20 years of data (1991 - 2011) from the New York State Department of State showing the annual number of new business incorporations. In 2011 there were more than 65,500 incorporations filed in New York City -- an increase of 86 percent compared to 1991 incorporations. Nearly 35 percent (22,756) were incorporated in Manhattan and had the most start-ups per capita with 143 start-ups per 10,000 residents. It's certainly encouraging for the city and disconcerting for small businesses in Manhattan who struggle with access to affordable real estate.

Being an island, street level space in Manhattan is finite. So if you cannot increase the available footage, can you use it in a more efficient capacity? miLES approached it from three angles: 1) who needs space 2) can the space be flexible (multi use) enough to increase the churn (clients/subscribers) and 3) how can we make it affordable but sustainable. For retail space you either have to repurpose/rezone the space (e.g. a parking lot becomes a building with street level shops) or you create more units (e.g. making one 800 square foot store, two 400 square foot stores).

In its first months the pop-up shop offering has been an unequivocal success. The weekend shops have been booked for the full three-month trial. They are now building up the co-work space offering which is meant to provide accessible business office infrastructure for entrepreneur artisans to work and create. The pop-up shop then provides the opportunity to showcase, share and sell their products.

A community incubator

The miLES model was described to me as AIRBNB meets pop-up. But after having enquired (and booked) about pop-up opportunities and seeing the model at work, it's a much more expansive than that. miLES seems much more like an incubator -- for the community. They offer affordable flexible space that is cleverly thought-out for the needs of a small business. The furniture is modular and moveable, the space is approximately 250 square feet, enough to be intimate but not too big that your selection of products looks underwhelming. They have also curated their events and pop-ups to strengthen the area's established businesses, community groups and residents.

In addition, the miLES team incorporates expertise and backgrounds in architecture, sociology, design, change management, media and education. What's unusual about the miLES is that the services are part of the package, it's not just a rental transaction. At your discretion, like a concierge they offer their expertise or point you to the appropriate resources.

Looking forward

The current space is alignment of community oriented partners; miLES and FAB. The Fourth Art Block (FAB) is a non-profit founded in 2001 by cultural and community groups to establish and advance the East 4th Street Cultural District, between 2nd Avenue and Bowery. The irony is of the space is that it was a successful cafe run by FAB. It was so successful that three other cafes opened in the vicinity, shuttering the FAB cafe a year later. Thus one takeaway and an impetus for the three-month trail is divining the formula of the maximizing location within the context of community needs while creating a defendable value-add business model.

Finding underutilized space that is owned and oriented toward enhancing the existing community might prove difficult. Also, as other spaces are made use of and the dimensions of the spaces differ, this will affect the user base. Will larger spaces mean "bigger" small businesses or will co-shared pop-ups be the next iteration? It will be interesting to keep tabs on how they develop and hopefully they meet with continued success and growth. If you live, work or own a business in the LES and don't want the next Starbucks to appear around the corner then you should be rooting for these guys.