By Beth Evanson
The Starling Project is a new volunteer-run organization comprised of University of Minnesota design and urban planning graduate students. Gaining real-life experience outside of the classroom and making a positive impact in their community, the students are driven by the opportunity to stimulate community and economic vitality on University Avenue in St. Paul. Many storefronts on the Avenue are vacant, due in part to Central Corridor Light Rail construction. Increased vacancy rates create a downward spiral as the remaining businesses draw fewer customers. This has a negative impact on the surrounding community. Turning that cycle around, matching building owners of vacant spaces with people who are looking for “nesting” spaces – short-term opportunities to try out new businesses, galleries, or other types of workspace – Starling members are enthusiastically interested in the success of Central Corridor LRT and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The Starling program model has developed over the past sixth months in an applied and somewhat organic way, adapting as community needs arise and suggest changes, yet always remains in close communication with the community organizations in the neighborhoods in which they are working. Generating and seeking input from advisory partnerships neighborhood councils, community development corporations, and a number of other business, arts and neighborhood organizations, the team members are always looking for untapped opportunities.
The Project coordinated its first storefront rental in February on University near Raymond Avenue, finding a home for a mobile video projection class in which to project its students’ work. The event , open to the public, was a success, bringing in artists, families, and other community members for a night of fun, interactive video art displays. The work of the students also brought visible signs of life to the exterior of the building; video was projected onto the storefront, creating interest for passersby and lighting up the storefront’s windows, which have remained dark while the space has been vacant for nearly a year.
Starling’s project model, though continually evolving as it grows, utilizes two primary methods of work. One method focuses on making individual matches between property owners and prospective tenants, for short or longer term leases. The other method grows out of collaborations with community-based organizations (including district councils and CDCs), in order to identify ways that vacant space can support goals they and their constituents have for their stretch of University Avenue. These two methods are both valuable and consequently interdependent. Opening the door for individual matches broadens the pool of prospective tenants and uses. Communication and collaboration with community-based organizations ensures that these uses are vetted with the neighborhood, builds relationships between these neighborhood organizations and property owners, and supports the planning and visioning work already being done by these organizations.
If you’re interested in renting a space or want to get involved yourself, or if you have ideas to share with Starling, check out their website at www.starlingproject.com. The website continues to evolve and grow along with the team’s efforts; soon it will provide listings for the available storefront spaces. In the meantime, contact the team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.