Giving Artists Space to Create

Artist and teacher Dana Ellyn said an affordable mortgage at Mather Studios on G Street NW means she no longer worries about selling her work.
Artist and teacher Dana Ellyn said an affordable mortgage at Mather Studios on G Street NW means she no longer worries about selling her work. "So I don't paint for sales . . . . It frees me up to not worry what people will think." (Photos By Mary Lou Foy For The Washington Post)

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By Eileen Rivers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

A battered two-story warehouse in Northeast will soon undergo a conversion that could have come from the imagination of one of the artists who will live there.

Small windows will be replaced with larger ones to give painters plenty of natural light. Offices occupied by a furniture restorer, an engraver and a maintenance company will make way for airy loft-style condos to be filled with easels, studios and rehearsal space.

The outside will look different, too: A parking lot will sit where there is now mostly debris. A third story will be added to the warehouse's main structure.

Though the property is far from what architect Alexis Smith of Manna, the nonprofit development company that is handling the building's conversion, wants it to be by 2009, about two dozen painters, sculptors and performers applied last month to be among the 41 chosen by the Cultural Development Corporation to buy one of the future industrial work-live units.

It's one of a number of projects in the area aimed at making homeownership a reality for low-income artists. By converting rundown property into condominium units, Manna and the Cultural Development Corporation, a District nonprofit group, are pulling artists into a market that several years ago many could not have afforded.

Anne Corbett, executive director of the Cultural Development Corporation, said it is imperative that Washington be a viable home for working artists. "I think that's important for anybody in the civic realm. It doesn't happen as organically as in places where the real estate market isn't so tight."

Manna bought the Douglass Street property a year ago for $1.5 million. Those condos will sell for $150,000 to $250,000, even though their market value is projected to be about $400,000, Corbett said.

To keep the prices that low, the Cultural Development Corporation keeps development costs lower than its commercial counterparts do by maximizing the existing structure and using government and private subsidies.

To meet the District's work-live regulations, the units must be used primarily for artistic production. Living in them is considered "ancillary," Corbett said.

The condominiums will range from about 700 to 1,100 square feet. The layout for each will be simple -- a bathroom, a kitchen and an open space to be designed and used at the artist's discretion. Some of the units will also have a bedroom.

Applicants must be first-time home buyers and must demonstrate financial need and a commitment to artistic practice. Applicants are also to be chosen based on their artistic accomplishments. The Cultural Development Corporation received 25 applications Aug. 9, and the group plans to open the application process again in the spring.

The Douglass Street project is not the group's first attempt to bring affordable housing to working artists. In 2003, the group worked with PN Hoffman, a for-profit development firm, to create Mather Studios, which includes 12 live-work units, which are designed primarily as residences. The building, on G Street NW, also includes 38 units that were sold at market value.


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