Repurposing empty high street assets

An imaginative approach to empty high-street locations could inspire property owners looking to make a positive contribution to their community

Author: Jon Hope

25 March 2019

Soaring business rates, rising regulatory costs and weakening consumer demand are presenting some particularly challenging trading conditions for UK retailers at present. An Evening Standard survey revealed that high-street shops closed at a rate of 14 a day in the first half of 2018, when we saw the collapse of some major retail brands.

This leaves commercial landlords in an unusual position. Faced with a plethora of empty properties to fill, many may find themselves having to think creatively about new ways to use their space. While Barclays is not normally seen as a landlord, it has recently converted some of its properties – or worked with partners to take up new ones – in a way that has injected some life back into the high street and wider community.

This was achieved with the roll-out of a network of Eagle Labs; Barclays spaces designed to help entrepreneurs and ambitious businesses work together, innovate and grow. Through its experience of creating and running Eagle Labs, Barclays found that one space need not necessarily house one tenant. Rather, hosting multiple businesses at once and creating a hub that is open to the wider community could be the key to spurring exponential growth in the areas where it operates.

The concept of the labs was born in 2015 from a desire to cultivate a community of like-minded entrepreneurs and provide them with access to a collaborative environment, peer networks and opportunities to maximise growth. By helping Eagle Lab 'residents' develop their initial concepts into wealth-generating businesses, the bank could play a part in creating local jobs and stimulating economic growth.

In addition to supporting businesses and connecting them to a powerful network, Eagle Labs also provide digital empowerment. Residents are granted access to and training on technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, 3D printing and the internet of things to prepare them for the immediate future.

"One space need not necessarily house one tenant but can host multiple businesses at once, creating a hub that is open to the wider community"

Some of the labs also offer 'maker spaces', which include 3D printers and laser cutters, giving businesses the tools they need to engage in rapid prototyping and reducing the time and cost to get their ideas to market. There are now 19 sites across the UK, collectively supporting more than 400 businesses and more than 1,300 workers.

The Eagle Labs came about as a result of some creative thinking; Barclays wanted to repurpose some of its spaces and reinvigorate high streets and the wider community, engaging with local businesses and residents. While it builds each lab in a way that best suits the start-ups and community, it tries to incorporate three ingredients for success into each.

For Eagle Labs to create long-term value for communities bydeveloping local businesses and creating new jobs, it needs to offer start-ups the room to scale. Entrepreneur Lucy Hitchcock took advantage of this when she moved her social media business, Sassy Digital, to Bournemouth Eagle Lab last year. Thanks to the co-working area, she was able to hire more employees and expand her enterprise.

Community collaboration

The lab has also provided a more professional environment for Hitchcock and her team to meet clients and run social media classes for other residents. This showcases the second ingredient: the ability of labs to connect like-minded people who can learn from each other and drive their businesses forward.

The bank's third imperative is to ensure that residents are not the only ones who benefit from the incubators. The labs have a ripple effect on local businesses, which can take advantage of the events and workshops that are run there. Residents and visitors to such collaborative working spaces help to support other businesses in the surrounding area: they may order local food for meetings, grab a drink together at a nearby bar or organise a company social in the neighbourhood.

In addition, each lab is designed so that the outside community – regardless of their gender, age or background – is able to connect to the expertise within. This helps bust the myth that emerging technologies and business start-ups are only for a select few. The labs do this by educating as many people as possible about new developments in our rapidly changing world; many of the labs, for instance, offer coding classes for young people, allowing budding entrepreneurs and future local businesses to develop.

Through its practical workshops, seminars and networking events, Barclays has also leveraged a much-discussed method of revitalising the local community: creating an experience and giving people other reasons to visit. For example, when an Eagle Lab opened in Manchester in 2018, it included a coffee shop accessible to members of the public, encouraging them to come and relax or work remotely in a buzzy, collaborative environment.

When considering how to make the most of the unused spaces in different communities, there is a need for flexibility. The face of the high street is changing, and landlords are being driven to think creatively, and adopt a longer-term view when it comes to filling their properties.

Barclays' experience in designing and running the Eagle Lab network has shown an alternative way to use a physical space. By opening doors to more than one traditional tenant, connecting like-minded people and being as inclusive as possible, it has been able to create a lively, unique hub for businesses and the community to come together.

eaglelabs@barclays.com

Case study: Brighton

A Barclays branch conversion into an Eagle Lab with a co-working area office and maker space in Brighton saw footfall shoot up from 500 to 10000 visitors a year.

The lab on Preston Road was previously occupied by squatters but has been transformed into a thriving hub for local businesses with notable benefits for the local community such as the following.

  • Helping local businesses: given the increased footfall to the building the Eagle Lab has encouraged visitors to make use of other local businesses on the high street. Residents often hire space in a café over the road for catered events.
  • Offering expertise: local shops have been able to create artwork and signs using the internal workshop. A jewellery designer learned how to hallmark his creations while a local businesswoman was able to design and print sustainable tailored shoes on the 3D printer offered in the Eagle Labs dedicated maker space.
  • Supporting local events and charities: lab residents ran a cyclathon for homeless people even creating the medals in the maker space.

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