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Case Study: The Urbano Project

By Etty Padmodipoetro

The party was a big success; everyone was in a festive mood. It was the middle of December and everyone was in the spirit of the holiday season. Art works of the teens and their artist-instructors were on full display. It felt like a party in a loft in Soho, but we were actually at the Brewery in Jamaica Plain, a small neighborhood of Boston. It was the first open house for the Urbano Project, an event that seemed unthinkable not too long ago.

"Winter Brew," the first open house party at Urbano Project, two months after the space was completed. Photo by Joel Vaek © The Urbano Project

It started with an innocuous phone call; “We need to relocate, can you help find us a new space?” Our office, like many offices in the city these days, was slow. The request seemed simple enough - a couple of meetings with the city- there are so many vacant spaces downtown; with the help of the city surely many property-owners would be able to offer a space to the Urbano Project.

The Urbano Project, developed in 2009 in partnership with the UrbanArts Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, empowers Boston’s urban teens, communities, and professional artists to envision contemporary art as a means for communication and social impact. Urbano’s programs offer teens opportunities to explore diverse artistic media with mentorship from professional artists. The goal ultimately is to reach and inspire a new generation of artists who would not otherwise have the opportunity to study contemporary art, media, and performance.

The Urbano Project had very specific requirements for a new space:

    • It had to be up and running in three months to coincide with the start of a new school year.

    • It had to be easily accessible by public transportation

    • It had to be a home (i.e., a five-to-ten-year lease)

    • Shoestring budget

The gallery space at Urbano Project- Student works are exhibited on a rotational basis. Photo by Joel Vaek © The Urbano Project

The challenges

It soon became obvious that we had to do more than find a space; we had to figure out how to deliver a space ready for occupancy. And finding a space was not an easy task even though many spaces downtown were vacant. There were free spaces offered, under the condition that Urbano would have to leave as soon as the owner could find a tenant willing to pay market rate, and still the rate was completely out of reach for the Urbano Project.

The Brewery in Jamaica Plain, an up-and-coming venue owned and managed by JPNDC, a non-profit organization, came up as a possible winner. They were willing to rent an inexpensive space, but the adage that you get what you pay for seemed to be true: the space had no windows, paint was peeling, and the rooms were dark and dingy. Previous tenants were a landscape contractor who kept dogs caged in the space, and a warehouse for a secondhand clothing store. The space had never been used as a conventional office. However, it had a lot of potential: it was the right size; it had a good layout and possessed great architectural details. It could actually work! The lease was quickly signed and we got down to work with only four weeks left before the scheduled grand opening.

In addressing the potential liability of the peeling paint, we did not compromise. We prepped the space thoroughly and professionally. The space had to be flexible for many uses, so we kept construction on the space to a minimum. We used licensed professionals as needed.

Resourcefulness was born out of necessity: due to a lack of budget and a tight schedule we settled very quickly on rough-loft aesthetics. It had to be done fast, so most of the design was done on-site. Everything was built as soon as it was sketched, and everybody on staff had input on the design. The experience was like participating in a built-out charrette. Another non-profit, Boston ReStore, which specializes in recycling and matching building materials and furniture, furnished the space. Using second hand and recycled materials we improvised as we went along. Other professionals joined in the efforts: electricians, carpenters, and an artist-builder specializing in metal, Rowie Pitmann, who custom-made many of the pieces. His work in particular made the whole design hold together. Against all odds, the project was finished on time.

Lessons learned

    • It should be assumed that the project will take much more time that the original estimate.

    • Pro-bono projects are real projects, and should be treated as such.

    • A shoestring budget is almost always a given- otherwise the organizations would be paying clients.

    • Choose projects wisely: they should be interesting and inspiring.

Would I do it again? Yes. The project required me to be nimble; it gave me the opportunity to keep my design skills sharp. Working with no budget (everyone was maxing out on personal credit cards) and an aggressive schedule, everything had to be decided on a gut level. It was an exhilarating experience. As a matter of fact, when our office is at full throttle again (as I am sure it will be) we will continue to set aside time for pro-bono projects. It is good business.

About the author: Etty Padmodipoetro is vice president of Rosales + Partners, a Transportation Design Firm based in Boston. She was a recent Loeb Fellow at Harvard GSD.


The Urbano Project -

Boston ReStore -


Before the renovation: This became studio space where classes are held. Photo by the author © The Urbano Project

After the renovation: The studio space where classes are held. Photo by Joel Vaek © The Urbano Project


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