The Innovators: Zone 3
In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.
Zone 3 is a collaboration between local developer Graffito SP and Harvard University's Allston Initiatives, a team tasked with local development and placemaking opportunities. The group has been around since 2015, but it acted quickly last spring to bring new business avenues to its local partners facing economic uncertainty.
The team turned empty storefronts on Harvard-owned property into window shopping showcases for local retailers. A Zone 3-run restaurant incubator became a launchpad for eateries including a pizza shop, a rising chef's café and a Jamaican food truck. Western Avenue hosted and broadcast events free of charge in lieu of potential rent-paying users.
The Zone 3 program was launched to spur economic activity along the quiet Western Avenue corridor in Allston, but when the coronavirus pandemic struck last spring, its powerful backer used it to try helping unique retail, restaurant and event space opportunities for local businesses to flourish.
Beneficiaries of Zone 3's efforts spent little capital and received stipends and free rent, made possible by Harvard's deep pockets and expansive Western Avenue real estate portfolio, Graffito SP Director of Neighborhood Strategy Gustavo Quiroga said.
“That constant shifting and flexing and pivoting has been probably the most important thing that we have done,” Quiroga told Bisnow. “It's allowed us and, to the Harvard team's credit, the freedom that we've had, as managers of this program to be flexible.”
Zone 3 isn't winding down, pledging this week to reopen a popular beer garden this summer. The team has sought to liven up the Western Avenue corridor made up of former industrial sites, small retailers and portions of Harvard's expansive campus.
The Western Avenue corridor is in the midst of a transformation, with Harvard slowly moving into its new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on the street. The university has also partnered with Tishman Speyer in planning up to 950K SF of housing and commercial space that could break ground as soon as next year.
Zone 3 will strive to continue enriching the neighborhood full of artists and students, Allston Initiatives Managing Director Marika Reuling and Harvard Project Manager Ben Weissbourd said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bisnow: Zone 3 sits along the Western Avenue corridor that’s beginning to awaken with real estate development. Why had there been a historical lack of development activity?
Allston Initiatives Managing Director Marika Reuling: Allston-Brighton, and particularly this area that we kind of consider the campus and extended area in Allston, is a really unique area. It has been home over the last several centuries to a number of different uses, including an area for cattle drives and former industrial sites that have included a Pepsi bottling plant, railroads and trucking facilities.
Western Avenue is this very important thoroughfare that kind of is the nexus of where the neighborhood meets the campus community. And for us, it's always been a place where we wanted to strengthen the local economic development and character. We wanted to support the robust artist community that already exists in Allston, and we wanted to try to pilot new kinds of activation strategies.
Harvard Project Manager Ben Weissbourd: As Greater Boston has changed and developed and become more of a hub for science and technology in the past 15 years, we've seen the areas adjacent to this neighborhood, whether it's Watertown or Kendall Square or Central Square, grow, there's been a natural evolution from outside parties to look at the map and see what is left, and identify this area as a geographically important cluster among these other clusters in this region, and that has made it an area of interest.
Graffito SP Director of Neighborhood Strategy Gustavo Quiroga: This is the neighborhood that we always knew from the beginning was filled with creative artists, musicians, performers, actors, makers, food entrepreneurs, writers, and yet at that same time, there were so few places and spaces for the community to come together and gather in.
One of our goals was to create some physical space for those people to have an opportunity to come together to experiment, to play, to engage, to explore exciting ideas and new things. And that was one of the original driving motivations for taking over physical space at 267 Western Ave., what was at the time an empty former retail space and a dry cleaner that needed a bunch of work to kind of finish just cleaning it up.
Harvard invested the money and finished that remediation and the cleanup of that building, turned it into this great blank canvas for creativity and experimentation, and has always been about creating a space that the neighborhood deserved to have at its disposal in many ways.
Bisnow: Who lives along Western Avenue, and who does Zone 3 serve?
Reuling: We're focused on urban planning, placemaking and development, and in Allston, that's really about city building. These are not kind of small infill projects. These are things like brand-new school buildings, a new Science and Engineering Complex as an example, or new housing development that supports significant numbers of new units of housing for the neighborhood.
And what we've tried to achieve with Zone 3 was to ensure that this remained an authentic place that as we considered the built environment, how can we contribute to a more equitable or inclusive and cohesive district that would bring together the various constituencies that you're talking about.
Bisnow: Zone 3 pivoted to virtual events within weeks of the shutdown last spring. What was that experience like? How did Zone 3 respond to Western Avenue businesses?
Quiroga: It was a scary moment. We're managing this space and we took on the weight of what every small-business retail owner was thinking. 'Oh my gosh, should we stay open or do we close?' And what does it mean for those who already have scheduled programs? And they're relying on ticket sales and all these things.
I can't remember if it was a Tuesday or Wednesday night that we had our punk rock aerobics class scheduled for in-person, and I think we decided to let it go. I knew we weren't ever going to do anything in person for you know for the foreseeable future until we were clear of this and how long it was going to be obviously nobody knew.
We weren't quite in the ubiquitous Zoom era that we are even in those early days, but we were doing punk rock aerobics the next week. I think we took a week off and then came back the next week and did it on Facebook, and it was a huge success. I mean there were like 150 people participating when in-person [we] would have only been able to put like 20 to 25 people in person, and people that, especially in those early times, we were in a position to take advantage of the huge demand to engage, way before any Zoom fatigue set in.
Last year we polled our community, we did surveys, find out what people actually want to do and there's a big interest in gaining a skill, everyone is doing their sourdough baking or learning to knit, and so we said, 'OK, let's do this skill-build series where we can work with various local partners from the neighborhood, mostly to teach people skills. Let's work with the local bike nonprofit Commonwheels to teach people bike maintenance as everyone's getting on their bike.'
We did how to patch your denim jacket with the vintage shop Vivant Vintage, all sorts of really cool things that gave local businesses, local partners an opportunity to showcase what they were doing, provided them a bit of a stipend to support them, drive some business to them, all those kinds of things.
Reuling: We were really able to get a bit more creative with our shopping experiences, too. We wanted to make sure we were continuing to support the local artist community and so we launched first an online shop, where people could buy cards or gifts, and that eventually morphed into something that we called Window Shopping, which utilized otherwise vacant windows in the neighborhood on Harvard properties and elsewhere, to help really stylize and launch some of the artisan wares.
People could walk by on their morning or evening walks as they were trying to get away from the computer and zoom in on a QR code and purchase items and continue to support local artisans, as well.
Bisnow: So Zone 3 had also provided financial support in the form of stipends.
Quiroga: It varies greatly across each program and each partner. If it’s a program where you're selling food, and there's a ticket associated with it, we may not be providing a stipend in the past because they had a revenue stream. And what we're doing is providing a space.
I can think of one or two times in which we actually have charged a space fee and that was very specifically high demand, or high-intensity activity where there was a lot of wear and tear on space, but we really, we don't charge a space fee. We're not a rental space company. We don't do private events like for parties or graduation parties, or even Harvard grad students who want to do an event for their team, that's not what we're there for. We are public-facing programs that provide an opportunity for public gatherings.
Many times we will provide a stipend to help cover program costs, depending on what they may be, and there's no standard model for it. Over the summer, we did provide a small stipend to folks because they're putting their time in. They surely derived benefit from that as well, because they're getting their name out and spreading the word but we're asking for their time, and it's similar to how we approach our public art projects.
Weissbourd: A good example is Jamaica Mi Hungry.
Quiroga: It is a former restaurant space right up at Barry's Corner. And over the past few years we've been able to bring four businesses in. It started off with a startup pizza place called Rabottini’s Pizza, which was just a wild cult success and the owner moved on. We worked with a chef out of Cambridge, Will Gilson, to do a pop-up experiment of Cafe Beatrice, which he ended up rolling into a full operation over at Cambridge Crossing.
Last spring we started a conversation with Ernie Campbell, who is the chef/owner of Jamaica Mi Hungry, which has a food truck, and he also has a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain. We were all working together to find a new operator for that incubator space to eat when Jamaica Mi Hungry — Ernie — was a perfect fit. We wanted to give him the runway to make this work in a neighborhood where they're having really good success with restaurants that had been there very recently, but given the pandemic given the restrictions, given all of the context, it was a lot harder.
So we gave him a long runway of free rent, and said, “Just get in there, just go do your thing.” They had to go through a permitting process to open up the interior space, they had a food truck so they put the food truck in the parking lot and used it as a giant billboard.
We did lunch, people kept on coming in, he just stayed there and stayed through dinner service, and that was it, he's made lunch and dinner ever since. Eventually, he was able to open up to serve out of the kitchen inside, which is a great opportunity because there's additional kitchen capacity space for him to support his catering business.
Reuling: And he won 2020 Best of Boston Food Truck.
Quiroga: It ramped up into him paying rent, and a very subsidized rent at that, but, but paying something so everyone feels like, “Hey, he's got skin in the game, we're building a real lease relationship here,” which is important for a small-business owner. It shows potential investors, it shows banks who want to finance or give him a loan that you’re paying your rent on something, developing his credit, all those things which are important for any business owner. It was still subsidized and allowed him to get through the winter when there was just not as much foot traffic.
Harvard said, “Let's extend some free rent a little bit more over this period to make sure you are here in the spring, when people do get back out to the street. It's in everyone's best interest for you to survive this winter.” It's been great and he's still there. That's a great example of trying to find ways to be as supportive as possible to the small-business community, through the resources we have but also the resources of space right and Harvard being just a really great landlord.
Bisnow: Zone 3 promotes art installations in vacant storefronts and murals across the neighborhood's vacant buildings. How important is art in Western Avenue’s economic activation?
Reuling: This is honestly one of the most important things to us, because public art is both such an ingrained part of the neighborhood and also something that Harvard wants to celebrate as well.
People really appreciated the fact that public art continued to be vital during this time that they could see, you know, new murals or new activities or new art and print concepts going out so that when you were taking a walk. It was true that regardless of what was happening in the world, Allston was still changing. You could still feel it, you could still see it and that was important to people.