District lofts project to combine housing and artists' space

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; B01

A one-story warehouse in Northeast Washington where artists have come for more than 20 years to hone their craft is being transformed into an arts campus where they will not only be able to create, but also live.

The project, among the first of its kind in the District, will break ground next month. Brookland Artspace Lofts is projected to be completed by next year.

"Affordable housing is one of the most pressing needs that we have as artists," said Carla Perlo, founder and director of Dance Place, a dance school and arts center a few blocks from the Brookland Metro station.

The project will involve razing Brookland Studios, the warehouse where artists rent work space, and constructing a four-story building with 41 housing units and underground parking.

Perlo said artists often are financially stretched by paying two rents: one for housing and another for work space. As rental prices have increased in the District (more than in most cities across the country), many artists have fled to the suburbs, Perlo said.

"For many people, the options are to move or to work outside the field," she said.

Perlo, who has watched artists move to Mount Rainier, where a burgeoning arts community has sprung up in an aging suburb, said she hopes the project will go a long way to help artists who are struggling to make ends meet.

It is one of the reasons why her facility has partnered with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit group Artspace Projects on the $13 million housing project.

Stephen Clapp, a dancer who has lived in Mount Rainier for about five years, said he hopes the project brings the "same sense of vitality to the Brookland community" that an affordable-housing artists' building, also built by Artspace, brought to Mount Rainier. "The hope is that drawing artists in will enliven and reinvigorate the community," he said.

Although Mount Rainier has drawn more than a hundred artists to the community, the Gateway Arts District, of which the city is a part, has been slow to transform the Route 1 corridor into the funky, eclectic area many had hoped for.

Heidi Kurtze, director of property development for Artspace Projects, said the nonprofit organization has been working with the District on the project since 2006 to do exactly that.

"The Fenty administration truly believes that the arts is an engine for economic growth," Kurtze said.

The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development is providing $10.4 million in stimulus funding and $1 million in 9 percent low-income housing tax credits on the 57,000-square-foot project.

Work-live spaces "can help revitalize neighborhoods, attract new businesses, generate jobs and revenue and enhance the overall quality of life for District residents," said Leila Finucane Edmunds, the department's director, through a spokesperson.

The new four-story building will have loft-style units, wide hallways and hospital-size elevators so artists can manage their work and materials. The housing is the first phase of the development, but there is no set time frame for completing the rest, which will consist of an outdoor plaza, a performance area and significant renovations to Dance Place's theater. Dance Place, which rents 3,000 square feet at Brookland Studios, will get a new studio in the Brookland Artspace Lofts building. The plaza and performance area will be built between the housing and Dance Place's building.

Kurtze said Artspace and Dance Place will launch a campaign to help with funding for the second phase.

Tina Silverman, a painter and writer who lives in Silver Spring, said she is excited about the prospect of living in the District in affordable housing that suits her lifestyle.

But not everyone is thrilled about the project.

John R. Davis, a singer and guitarist in a local rock band called Title Tracks, rented work space in Brookland Studios. His band was evicted this month.

"It's disappointing, and a huge hassle to move," he said.

Plus, Davis said, he is not certain that Brookland Artspace Lofts will be right for all artists.

"They are thinking about the quiet arts," he said. "They told us we could be put on a list to rent space, but with about 40 people living here, I don't think they are going to be too excited about a band playing down the hall."

Silverman, meanwhile, is on the list to receive an application.

To qualify, a household must make 60 percent of the area median income. The units will be below market and prices will be established at the time of lease.

Silverman, who had been living abroad, said her travels showed her how artists are valued more in Europe.

"There is more affordable housing for [artists]," she said. "Americans are in the early stages of developing that."

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