Artist Laurie Breen works on her abstract, still-life paintings in a Prince George’s County studio, 20 minutes by car from her home in downtown Silver Spring.
“I can’t find anything closer,” said Breen, 43, whose mixed-media paintings have exhibited in galleries across the region for more than 15 years.
The rising fortunes of Silver Spring’s arts and entertainment district — home to AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, The Fillmore and other attractions — are squeezing out the creative class with high rents and a dearth of usable space.
To ease that pressure, Montgomery County is partnering with Artspace, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization, to convert the city’s former Third District police station into a kind of urban artists colony.
Where officers once turned out for roll call, and criminal suspects were interrogated, 30 work studios would accommodate painters, sculptors and dancers.
The three-story building on Sligo Avenue, completed in 1962 and shuttered two years ago, would be renovated and then surrounded by new housing that would be marketed to artists: 68 affordable apartments and 11 mixed-income townhouses.
“What’s an arts district without artists?” asked Karen Roper, an activist in the Fenton Village neighborhood, near the site, who has championed the project.
It is the latest effort by this affluent Maryland suburb to meet demand for low- and moderate-income housing by repurposing county-owned property.
The government leased land next to the new Silver Spring library to the Montgomery Housing Partnership, which teamed with the Donohoe Companies, a builder and developer, to create The Bonifant, an income-restricted high-rise building for senior citizens.
And as available private acreage dwindles, Montgomery is launching public-private ventures for affordable rental units on portions of what is now surface parking at two county facilities: the Sidney Kramer Upcounty Regional Services Center in Germantown and the East County Regional Services Center off Briggs Chaney Road. Both projects are subject to approval by the Montgomery County Planning Board.
The county, which will lease the 2.3-acre site of the old Silver Spring police station to Artspace, gave its final approval to the $23 million project last month. If financing falls into place, construction could begin by spring, those involved with the project say.
Artspace’s definition of “artist” covers just about any creative pursuit. The studios and apartments could be occupied by hairdressers, tattoo artists, chefs or canoe makers. Anyone pursuing “culturally significant practices” will be able to apply for workspace, housing, or both. The only real limits, according to the group’s website, are “artistic processes that are extremely noisy, require incompatible zoning or hazardous materials.”
“There is a huge need in the region for studio space,” said Heidi Zimmer, senior vice president at Artspace.
Her organization has opened similar “live/work” projects across the country and locally: the Brookland Artspace Lofts in the District and at the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts in the Gateway Arts District, where Breen works.
But is artists’ housing a legitimate priority in a county where shelter is costly and thousands of working poor — including families displaced by this month’s deadly gas explosion in a Silver Spring apartment complex — struggle to find living space within their means?
“If we were doing just this and nothing else, I would say no,” said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).
He cited low-income projects such as the 149-unit Bonifant, and said other plans for affordable housing are in the pipeline.
“If you want the diversity of Silver Spring to continue, then having art space is something that’s helpful,” said Rob Goldman, executive director of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, which is a consultant to Artspace.
The old police station became available when a new station was built in White Oak, just up Route 29. Residents of Fenton Village grew concerned that the downtown site would become a high-rise apartment or dense townhome development, either of which, they said, could overwhelm the neighborhood of ethnic restaurants, small businesses and 1930s craftsman-style bungalows.
Roper, a veteran of the local theater scene and a member of the East Silver Spring Citizens’ Association board, pitched the idea of artist studios.
Leggett was receptive, but said residents would have to accept housing with the deal. The county asked for proposals and ultimately awarded the project to Artspace.
The police station conversion is expected to be financed with a combination of state and federal tax credits, private investment and philanthropy, Zimmer said. The Bozzuto Group, a local builder and real estate developer, will oversee the construction.
Apartment rents will be set according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development eligibility guidelines for tenants earning between 30 and 60 percent of area median income, currently $108,600 for a family of four.
Anyone in this income range can apply, but artists will have priority, Zimmer said. Most of the townhomes will be sold at market rates, with several set aside as “workforce housing” for public-sector employees or others in households earning less than 120 percent of the area median.
Zimmer said a committee of local artists, with no interest in studios or living space, will interview prospective tenants. Although critical appraisal is not part of the criteria, applicants will have to show that their art is more than a hobby.
“They’ll have to come in and show us a body of work,” Zimmer said. “If you’re a singer, do you have a CD? If you’re a musician have you been playing gigs? You have to show us your passion and commitment to it.”
Joe Fitzgerald, a Fenton Village resident who paints pastels and oils of Italy and West Ireland, said he doesn’t need studio space but loves the idea of having artists as neighbors.
“It always benefits artists when they see other artists work,” he said.
For Breen, the studios at Artspace will be a chance to work closer to home.
“I love where I live,” she said. “It’s a great county.”