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Giving Artists Space to Create
Groups Public and Private Sponsor Affordable Places to Live, Work

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.

Four years ago, Dana Ellyn, a D.C. painter and teacher, moved into Mather Studios. The opportunity came at just the right time for Ellyn, who had just left her job at a D.C. law firm to work full time as an artist.

The low mortgage and the studio's downtown location gave Ellyn the perfect chance to concentrate on painting and on the expansion of her weekly classes -- which she holds in her home.

"Since it's an affordable unit and since my payments are low, and since my painting sales have gotten better, with that my confidence has grown," said Ellyn, 36. "It's a mortgage that's attainable. . . . [I know] it's going to be paid off and I can just paint. So I don't paint for sales . . . . It frees me up to not worry what people will think."

The biggest downside of the Douglass Street project is its location. While Mather Studios is in the heart of downtown, the Douglass Street project is in Northeast, near New York Avenue.

According to Corbett, that has not deterred artists from trying for the work-live spaces. "The bottom line for artists is about affordability and functionality." It's often difficult to make those two factors work, Corbett said, so "generally artists are willing to compromise on location." Her organization, she said, keeps an eye out for publicly owned property. "That's the real difficulty in D.C. Unlike Baltimore, we just don't have any kind of inventory of low-rent industrial space for artists."

Maryland is also seeking to attract artists through its Arts and Entertainment District program, which gives tax breaks to developers and to artists for work created and sold within the arts district. Designated Arts and Entertainment Districts must either already have affordable housing units or a plan to develop affordable housing. So far, the state has established 15 such districts, in such places as Hyattsville, Bethesda, Frederick, Hagerstown, Silver Spring and Wheaton.

The Maryland model is based on one used successfully in Providence, R.I., said Elizabeth Carven, deputy director of the Maryland State Arts Council and head of the Arts and Entertainment Districts program. "Maryland was the first and only state to operate this statewide. Occasionally when you do have an extremely successful Arts and Entertainment District by the fact that the area has been revitalized, the properties themselves are much more expensive."

That rise in property values can make it difficult for low-income Maryland artists to move into the area.

Stephen T. Hanks moved into the Arts and Entertainment District in Silver Spring 18 months ago. The former IBM employee lives in Eastern Village, a converted office building that is home to several artists.

Hanks spends hours painting in his studio, which is in the same building as his condominium. There is also a gallery in the building where Hanks showcases and sells his work.

Although his condo was not subsidized, Hanks, who teaches art at Gonzaga College High School in the District, said he probably could not have bought a home that included studio and gallery space at such an affordable price anywhere else.

"One motive was the convenience of the commute," Hanks said of his move. "The second motive was the tax break. The third was that Silver Spring was a happening place, so getting in on the ground of the development and getting a place to live was a part of that."

Virginia is also turning its attention to affordable housing for artists. Virginia's Lorton Arts Foundation is spearheading the development of 40 affordable work-live units at the former Lorton Correctional Complex in southern Fairfax County. The living spaces are part of a planned arts complex that is to include galleries, studios and a performing-arts center.

Though the work-live spaces there are rental units, they still have the potential to meet the need for housing, said Sherran Denkler, director of development and marketing for the Lorton Arts Foundation. "We hope that this fills the demand for the so-called starving artist," she said.

Such space seems to be rare in Virginia. In Arlington, the Department of Economic Development considered creating artist housing modeled after a San Francisco program but scrapped the idea. "One of the things about Arlington," said Jim Byers, marketing director for the Arlington Cultural Affairs Division, "there aren't a whole lot of old factories [to convert], one of those resources that many other cities have access to, to even begin such programs."

Peggy Baggett, executive director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, agreed, adding that starting such a program in more rural sections of the state has not been a priority because those real estate markets are less competitive.

"I'm not saying it's not important," Baggett said. "But when you get into other places in Virginia, there already is low-income housing. It's not a huge priority like it is in New York or San Francisco or Washington, D.C., where the housing markets are overheated."

The ultimate goal, said Corbett of the Cultural Development Corporation, is to "have a reasonable inventory of available, affordable space" for artists. "Everybody realizes the value that artists play in the economy and quality of life in the city."

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