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December 14, 2009

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New creative parks kick off major downtown renovation project

EVERYWHERE there is evidence of how the World Expo Shanghai next year is fast-forwarding development in Shanghai. With its theme of "Better City, Better Life," it also lends itself to the government's push to take the city to the next level - as a center for creative and service industries.

Jumen Road, a formerly inconspicuous stretch of residential and run-down small businesses, is the latest area to be totally redefined. Its position leading straight from the heart of downtown Luwan District to the Expo site on the Puxi banks of the Huangpu River makes the drastic change possible.

Termed "Innovation Yard," the street renovation project aims to become an incubator for modern service industries in the area and was kick-started recently by the completion of two creative parks.

Identified as 436 and 550, the parks are by the creators of Bridge 8, one of the first creative parks in Shanghai, and follow its example. They are even named Bridge 8 Phase II and III.

"With rapid growth, the value of the area has grown beyond its original use," says Daker Tsoi, executive director of Lifestyle Center, the developers behind the project.

"But it is still a heavily residential area which can't be completely changed. So we are aiming not for a central business district (CBD) but a SOHO - a cultural commercial zone of creative service industries, plus surrounding businesses such as boutique gift shops, independent galleries, cafes and restaurants," he says.

With a proliferation of creative parks in Shanghai in recent years - there are now officially over 300 - the developers are banking on its location and the opportunity of the upcoming World Expo Shanghai to compete in a crowded market.

Government investment and determination to tidy up the street can already be seen. Overhead electricity cables common in downtown Shanghai have been moved underground on Jumen Road.

Having always worked to anticipate social trends, developers also see the Expo in this formerly quiet part of Shanghai as the force to rapidly push its development.

"Traditionally attracting traffic to a new part of town is the most difficult challenge in a project of this sort. Ordinarily it would take 10 years. But this time we think the Expo will speed all of that as so many events will take place nearby, and tourists will pass through," says Tsoi.

Creative types

In the creative parks, 3,000 square meters have been marked out for the offices of Expo pavilions. They have already attracted the Moscow Pavilion, the Macau Pavilion and some other company pavilions. They're hoping to entice creative industries related to the pavilions to stay after the Expo.

Design-wise, they have stuck to a successful formula - attracting creative types in advertising and design with low-key renovations of old factory spaces.

Stretching across 13,000 square meters, 436 was formerly a factory making office equipment, and 550 at 14,000 square meters was formerly an electric battery factory. They now feature exhibition space for arts and events, wooden-decked coffee plazas, greenery and offices in a quiet compound.

According to Kenji Mantani, chief designer of the project, the challenge was how to translate the spirit within the creative parks to the whole street.

"The essence of Bridge 8 is to link creative people and ideas. We started small with one office in one building and started linking other offices across eight buildings. This is the spirit we want to keep and expand on with Jumen Road," says Mantani.

"Here we are not only linking offices and buildings in the creative parks but linking the whole street, which then links to the creative community throughout Shanghai," says Mantani.

However, with three schools in the area and filled with residents not particularly artsy or affluent, linking new developments with old inhabitants is difficult.

Even in the early opening stages, professional events, such as the American Institute of Architecture Awards and the Korean culture festival, are being hosted there. But they represent an influx of people not naturally belonging to the area, an inevitable consequence of planned development.

It is part of why government is moving carefully with regard to future developments, taking each step as an experiment to see what would work.

Designers and government are aiming for a new kind of cultural zone which fits into the idiosyncrasies of everyday Shanghai life - a harmonious balance of schools, residents and creative parks.

"In this kind of area, inspiration for the creative industries comes from ordinary life outside. Very packaged and glossy areas such as the Bund are not actually good for creative industries," adds Tsoi.

The two renovated factories are two of many disused factories in the 0.5-square-kilometer site, which developers also hope to get their hands on for similar cultural and artsy projects.

One three-story building has already been earmarked for a boutique shopping plaza with a park for 150 cars on top.

If designers get their way, they eventually will also see small, street-facing businesses (currently an untidy mix of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, electrical and convenience stores) switched to cafes and restaurants in a bid to create a Southern European-like street culture.

For now, as with other parts of Shanghai, facades are being cleaned up, and buildings given a lick of paint - mostly low key browns and grays, according to Mantani.


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