Escolta might be the perfect location for your startup

Cover Samantha Gonzales

Words by

Digital Reporter

Much has been written about the lost glory of Escolta Street in Binondo, Manila. Once the country’s entertainment and business capital, the historic district slowly became a thing of the past, its heritage structures already crusted with dirt, grime, and the passing of time.

But unlike most of the old structures that have been abandoned in the area, an 89‑year‑old building facing the Pasig River remains still, getting a fresh breathing and slowly becoming a hub for young artists and budding entrepreneurs.

This is the First United Building, formerly known as Perez Samanillo Building, designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro (son of Filipino painter and revolutionist Juan Luna) and built in 1928.

The red and white structure with geometric patterns such as boomerang‑like chevrons and spiral arches was once dubbed as Asia’s fashion hotspot, housing Berg’s Department Store, the go-to shop for the most lavish citizens of Manila during the American period. Movie production houses such as those of Nora Aunor and late comedian Dolphy were also located in the building.

Amid a call to revive the once‑thriving commercial district, new and artistic spaces had been established in the building since 2015, including Hub: Make Lab, a business incubator space, coffee shop The Den, and quaint bar Fred’s Revolucion.

The latest addition to these is a co‑working space called First Coworking Community.

Introduced in May, the about 75‑square‑meter room located at the fifth floor of the building is among the ongoing efforts to re‑introduce Escolta as an ideal location to grow a business.

Video Samantha Gonzales

“We want people to try working here. The general idea is if you like working at First Co‑working Community, maybe you would want to rent an actual space or look at other buildings and try to look for other spaces,” Arts Serrano, the 28‑year‑old architect who designed the space, told SparkUp in an interview. “It’s a step towards bringing more people in this district.”

According to Mr. Serrano, whose firm One Zero Design Collective, has also moved in the building, the co‑working space is the brainchild of Robert and Lorraine Sylianteng, a couple who hails from the family that currently owns the building, whom he met in an art festival held in a co‑working space a couple of years ago.

“I was seated behind them (Mr. and Mrs. Lianteng) and they asked me what’s the venue called, how it works, and why people go there. I explained to them that it is a co‑working space and that it’s a thing among the younger generation since we don’t have much money and we can only pay for a day worth of rental,” he recounted. “We met two years after and they asked me to turn a portion of the building into a co‑working space.”

In attracting young artists and entrepreneurs, he said First does not only provide a “communal” space, but also a picturesque view of the historic district, hence its design retaining the original room’s floor‑to‑ceiling windows to highlight the outside view showcasing today’s Escolta.

“This space, being on the fringe, shows a lot of characters and history, so we want to highlight those in our design. We also don’t want to create anything distracting in terms of the architecture or the interior,” he said. “Everything that we do here is a bit experimental given that the market isn’t really here and the space isn’t that accessible to most people.”

It can accommodate 36 people with seats provided and up to a hundred guests during a forum. Renting the space, which starts at ₱350 per day, includes access to the internet, printer, and even drinking water and coffee.

“The space is a bit playful in terms of providing the actual working space, it’s not all tables and chairs. We provided spaces where people can sit on the floor or maybe work in a more causal and relaxed way,” he said, adding that the tables are arranged “so as not to box people out in one station and enable them to collaborate with other creative.”

Though the space has already created a buzz especially among young millennials on social media, Mr. Serrano said First Coworking Community remains “a work in progress.”

Video Samantha Gonzales

“We’re faced with some challenges in terms of the current structure of the building given that it’s a 1920 structure. There are still some other things that we’re still working on, but for now we want to create a space that is at least functional,” he said.

While the co‑working space’s initial patronage comes from mostly artists and creative entrepreneurs, Mr. Serrano said First is open to all kinds of startups, including tech‑related ones.

“Initially given the current food traffic here and a lot of artists, graphic designers, creative, we wanted to tap that market since we have Make Lab downstairs. But we don’t really limit our market,” he said. “We’re very open. Actually one of the things that we’re discussing is how we can integrate the idea to the community around us, not just to creatives, but also to tech‑based startups and other young entrepreneurs.”

For Mr. Serrano, First’s “perfect location” is its main advantage from its counterparts in Makati, Taguig, and other known business districts in the metro.

“I think what sets us apart is the location because you don’t really see this authenticity anywhere else and it’s the quality that everyone, not just startups, but also the more experienced entrepreneurs, needs to strive for—the authenticity that would inspire them to create more inspired works.”

While Escolta can’t regain its glory as the country’s center of business and entertainment (at least not in the near future, but who knows), he said it still has a big potential to become a cultural and entrepreneurial district.

“It’s a great catch locating here because we’re breathing new life to something that has been here for almost a century and it transcends beyond our own personal agenda,” he said.

“There had been a lot of talks about turning everything here in Escolta into call centers, into boutique hotels, but nothing really worked. What’s happening here in the First United Building, starting from the grass root and once space at a time, the vision is activated. It’s a collection of spaces that creates a sustainable environment which is a great model in re‑using old buildings.”