Unlikely partnership eases artists' housing needs

Time and again in cities across this country, artists' communities have been the victims of urban redevelopment. The oft-repeated scene involves old warehouse districts that have been abandoned by the commercial interests they once served. Local artists, attracted by the large spaces and low rent, set up studios in the vacated warehouses, and often, for economic reasons, set up housekeeping there as well. The resulting substandard living conditions are usually considered illegal housing, but are often ignored by city officials. That is, for a while.

The presence of an artists' community in combination with deteriorating buildings tends to attract investors and developers to the area. Subsequent redevelopment, welcomed by the city, results in building condemnations and the eviction of many artists. Increased rents displace many more.

The redevelopment of St. Paul's historic Lowertown district appeared to be yet another example of this scenario.

During the last 10 years Lowertown has been home for more than 150 artists. Also during that period, this 180-acre riverfront district has experienced nearly $200 million in redevelopment, with nearly $200 million more in development committed or planned. Artists have found themselves being slowly squeezed out of the housing/studio market.

But in what Mayor George Latimer describes as an ``unlikely partnership,'' the city, a private development corporation, community artists, and various service and financial agencies have come up with a positive -- albeit partial -- solution to the district's artists' studio/housing needs.

Lowertown Lofts, a 30-unit studio/housing cooperative completed during the summer, is the product of a complex project that took more than two years of brainstorming, organizing, planning, negotiating, and renegotiating. But as those involved with the project repeatedly emphasized, it was the commitment of all members of this private/public partnership which kept the project going.

The project began in early 1983, when the St. Paul Art Collective, a nonprofit organization composed primarily of artists living and working in Lowertown, began a search for safe, affordable studios and housing. About the same time the city's awareness of the artists' dilemma was heightened by a commissioned study and survey of Lowertown art spaces and needs.

Artspace Projects Inc. -- an art service organization funded by private individuals, foundations, and corporations such as Dayton-Hudson, General Mills, Honeywell, and 3M -- was retained as a consultant by the Art Collective to help develop a studio/housing project.

There were several false starts. Attempts to locate a suitable building and the necessary financing were repeatedly thwarted. Then in September 1983 a private development corporation in the process of purchasing an old shoe factory was approached and persuaded to join the effort.

The corporation, Asset Development Services Inc., was the developer and owner of the recently renovated St. Paul Union Depot in Lowertown. The shoe factory, of interest to the artists, was across the street from the depot.

The company knew that part of Lowertown's economic appeal was its arts image and was persuaded that artist studio/housing would be an appropriate use for the building. Joining the artists' project would be good business as well as good public relations in an area where the company hoped to do more development. Asset's president, Brian Nelson, hit a responsive chord in the community when he said that Lowertown developers ``were a part of the problem [for the artists], and we've wanted to be part of the s olution.''

Financing for the $1.7 million Lowertown Loft project came from what the city called a ``creative mix of public and private sources.'' The final package included a tax-exempt revenue bond; grants from Dayton-Hudson and Bush Foundation; and loans from a neighborhood development program, a city rehab program, and the Lowertown Development Corporation (a private nonprofit promoter of Lowertown development funded by the McKnight Foundation).

The project was developed and is owned by Lowertown Lofts Limited Partnership, which leases the studio/housing units to a limited-equity cooperative owned by the artist-tenants. The coop- erative has the option to purchase the property at the end of 10 years.

Income level, in fact, is one of the criteria used in the selection of current and future co-op members. Other criteria considered are artistic commitments as measured by sales of works, exhibition or studio history; commitment to Lowertown measured by history of living and/or working in the area, membership in Lowertown arts organizations and involvement with the Lofts project; need for space; and financial need.

There were 120 original applications for co-op membership. Because of some artists sharing units, 40 artists ultimately became co-op residents. Resident artists include photogaphers, painters, sculptors, dancers, writers, poets, architects, and interior designers.

Design features appropriate to artists' needs include large, flexible space, high ceilings, generous sunlight brought in through large windows and skylights, uncarpeted floors, and double-door entryways to all units. The building also features a freight elevator, a loading dock, and a central court which may be used for exhibitions and which brings in more light to the individual units.

The artists' units vary in size from 500 to 1,300 square feet. Rents range from $185 to $580 per month.

``The Lofts stabilize us in Lowertown,'' says artist Nancy Gipple. ``We're no longer vulnerable to landlords' whims. We are our own landlord.''

The simple amenities of the units -- hot water, central heating, kitchens, and personal bathrooms -- generate the most enthusiasm among residents. Many of the artists relate how they heated their former studios with electric space heaters and cooked in toaster ovens in buildings with unsafe wiring. Since those studios did not have bath facilities, it was common for the artists to have memberships at the YMCA so they could take showers.

Despite the enthusiasm of those involved and the extensive local press the project has generated, the Lofts project has not solved all of the artists' studio/housing needs in Lowertown, nor has the project been without problems itself. During the time of the project's development, two other Lowertown buildings that together housed nearly 75 studio/housing units were condemned because of owner refusals to make fire and safety-related improvements. As planning dragged on, many of the artists originally ho ping to locate in the Lofts were forced to move elsewhere.

City officials point to the renovation of artists' units in the building next to the Lofts and hope that the two projects will serve as an impetus for other innovative developments in the areas.

``We're hoping that with Lowertown Lofts to serve as a model, the investment community will see the good sense of investing in the arts through the development of artists housing,'' says James Bellus, director of the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development.

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