Although he collects rent checks from thousands of tenants in his 31,000 square feet of Manhattan office space, Cheni Yerushalmi would never call himself a landlord.
"Most landlords out there, they don’t care," he said. "They just care about getting paid. I believe if you give [tenants] enough tools, not only will they grow, but they’ll stay loyal. They’ll grow with you. They’ll refer people to you. I think it creates a better business relationship."
Mr. Yerushalmi’s business, Sunshine Suites, is one of several freelance office companies across the city. And, as commercial real estate struggles to attract occupants, these communal spaces are growing, offering tenants flexible rental terms, networking opportunities, old-fashioned office perks and, well, emotional support.
"For us, we think we’re supporting whatever comes next," said Miguel McKelvey, general manager of Green Desk, a freelance office building in Dumbo. "So if big corporations aren’t able to sustain whatever they’re doing in the past – if the model shifts to a more freelance, flexible, fluid workforce – this is the kind of space they’re going to need."
Green Desk opened its first of six floors in June, renting out single desks for $425 per month. Converted from a Dumbo factory at a cost of $3 million (plus another $1.2 to $1.5 million investment), the loft-like space is bright, partitioned with glass dividers, and capped with exposed beams scrubbed to reveal the original wood. There’s also free organic coffee.
"You should be able to just come in, bring your notebook, and that’s it," Mr. McKelvey said.
It’s as easy to arrive at Green Desk – and other freelance office buildings – as it is to leave. Since tenants do not sign leases, they are free to depart or downsize their offices at will. Mr. McKelvey has one client who is a trader: "For him, it’s very literal. He’ll say, ‘Next month I may have to take a cheaper office, and next month a bigger office.’ And I don’t know if it’s necessarily fear, but it’s uncertainty. And the flexibility that we have supports that uncertainty."
Shared spaces are clearly cheaper than leasing a typical office, but even those who work from home have been drawn to communal cubicle-dwelling. Randall Green, 22, who works for an Internet start-up based at Sunshine Suites, said "there was something cerebrally trippy about [working at home]. Just having a bed in your office was probably counter to the project."
No one will confuse Sunshine Suites with a bedroom – or an office, for that matter. Taking dance clubs (and possibly visions of a dystopian future) as his inspiration, Mr. Yerushalmi designed an entry space of black glass; arched hallways wallpapered with golden-y, shellacked wood chips; and Lego-like black cubicles that can shift into at least 38 different configurations. Sunshine also has a sushi bar and a Vermont vacation home (with a trampoline!), available for $50 per person per night.
But one of the most oft-cited benefits of such a setup is the chance to collaborate with other tenants. Journalists who work at Room 58, a writer’s space in Gowanus, where a desk is $375 per quarter, share contacts, pitches and the odd job.
"I know the whole idea of collaboration is probably what everybody talks about," said Andy Collins, a jeweler and member of 3rd Ward, an artist facility in East Williamsburg. "I don’t think that people realize how much of that goes on during the day, because there’s so many people that come and go, and so many other people that you meet."
At Sunshine, Mr. Yerushalmi created a Facebook-like social networking site for the community; he also offers a "Think Tank" desk configuration that places like-minded entrepreneurs within the same enclosure. Every two weeks, renters are free to move to a new part of the office.
"It’s all about creating that infrastructure to feed off each other," Mr. Yerushalmi said. "It takes one client, one account to pay for your rent an entire year at Sunshine. So, if it’s a question of sucking it up or taking a risk or whatever you want to call it, I’d rather take my odds being around people than being at home."
Mr. Yerushalmi plans to open new spaces in the near future. Possible locations include Penn Station, London or Israel, depending on where he gets the best deal. Green Desk is also growing: a two-story building on Kent Avenue and North Sixth Street in Williamsburg is set to open in six months. And in January, 3rd Ward will remake a portion of its media lab into a new coworking space.
For some, $400 or $500 per month in extra rent may appear less like a bargain and more like an extravagance in these troubled times. But tenants maintain that it represents a savings in increased productivity, and an investment in their own sanity.
Although Ms. Collins has noticed a definite slowdown in her jewelry sales compared to last year, she plans to renew her membership at 3rd Ward, which is $300 per month. "I just wanted to be able to make more noise and use the metal shop," she said.
Employees at 3rd Ward – strewn with discarded chandeliers and old televisions, buzzing with electric guitar strains and the hiss of industrial-sized spray paint guns – agreed that it is a kind of oasis from the recession, a place to seek out comfort and encouragement.
"Every writer has come here because they need it," said Erin Courtney, cofounder of the Brooklyn Writer’s Space and a partner in Room 58. "It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. If they lose all their freelance jobs, it won’t be a necessity, it’ll be a luxury. But as long as they have work that needs to be done, it’s a necessity."
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