colorado

Using Artists to Gentrify Neighborhoods

“Gentrification works like this in America’s cities: Artists can’t afford good neighborhoods, so they move into bad ones. But their very presence makes those dubious areas a lot more desirable to everyone else.

Soon enough, property values rise and artists are forced out of the settlements they helped create. It’s happened in areas from New York’s SoHo to Denver’s RiNo.

But what if you could interrupt the process, harness the cache of the creative class and use it as an economic tool? If government could deploy artists into areas it wants to spark or use their aura to pump up places in transition?”

That’s the idea behind efforts to create affordable artist housing that are catching on quickly across Colorado.

On the surface, it seems like a socially engineered perk, a generous payback for painters and poets, musicians and movie makers who contribute much to society and get paid little for their labor. And in some ways, it is. Artists who moved into the state’s first affordable loft project in Loveland this summer already are finding it easier to create when they don’t have to worry about leaking roofs or rodents under their beds.

But it’s just as much about exploiting them for the greater good, and the cause is drawing support from government agencies, developers, banks and philanthropic foundations.

Currently, the state of Colorado is pushing for nine affordable complexes for artists in a variety of rural communities, starting in Trinidad. The city of Lakewood is backing one in its fledgling 40 West Arts District, whose aim is to create a downtown feel on a forsaken stretch of Colfax Avenue. Denver is embarking on an ambitious plan for a 90-unit building in River North.

The partner in all of the endeavors is Artspace, a nonprofit development corporation based in Minneapolis that has created 38 affordable projects across the country with a dozen more on the books. The company comes in at the request of municipalities, assesses needs, and assembles financing for projects, which it then owns and operates.

The process isn’t cheap. The seven Colorado projects could cost as much as $6 million each, although Artspace money often is raised through corporate giving or loans from banks, which benefit from the tax credits they get for backing affordable housing.

Still, the startup can be costly. Lakewood and Loveland each put up $600,000 to cover pre-design costs. Neither the state nor city of Denver knows what its responsibilities will be because the hope is to recruit corporate and foundation partners.

For example, Denver’s project has research support from two city departments, Arts & Venues and the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, which is guiding development in emerging neighborhoods, as well as JP Morgan Chase, a mega-bank interested in encouraging investment opportunities, and the Denver Foundation, committed to healthy communities.

Going forward, the city hopes to attract sponsorship from businesses that have displaced artists, such as the warehouse-intensive marijuana industry, and developers who want to improve land values surrounding the projects.

“The developers in the RiNo area are interested in preserving that creative vibe because that’s what is attracting some of their market rate tenants to the area,” said Wendy Holmes, who oversees strategic partnerships for Artspace.

The state has its own group of backers: the Economic Development Office, the Department of Local Affairs, Boettcher Foundation and History Colorado.

The hope is that some rural projects will have the added advantage of preserving historic structures in need of attention. That makes Trinidad, with its excess of significant, and underused, buildings, a good candidate for the pilot program, according to Margaret Hunt, director of Colorado Creative Industries.

The Trinidad project will help the state establish a competitive process. Communities will have to demonstrate need and have “some skin in the game” in startup cash, Hunt said.

But there is potential reward. Property values already have increased near the Loveland project.

“Even just announcing the project in Trinidad, we’ve had investors calling and asking where it is going to be,” Hunt said.

Cooperative living

Artspace Loveland is a design-forward building, a mix of industrial chic and eco-friendly amenities, painted in shades of gold and yellow inspired by the sunny Colorado skies. Its 30 units filled quickly in June, drawing tenants such as filmmakerCaryn Sanchez, who is working on her fourth project, a documentary about local musicians.

“Whenever I started a film, the first thing I had to do was give up the place where I live,” she said. That meant moving in with her parents or friends and putting her money toward work.

Her new one-bedroom live/work loft, with its 10-foot ceilings and large windows, is roomy enough for tasks from editing footage to holding production meetings.

It’s affordable, too. Rents are based on income, with studios as low as $323 a month and three-bedrooms at $823. To be eligible, an individual must make 60 percent or less of the area’s average income. For a single person, that’s a range of $16,350 to $43,600 annually; for a family of four, $24,250 to $62,250.

But tenants need to contribute in other ways, promising to take part in building governance. That can mean serving on committees that set rules, put on exhibitions or select tenants.

The Loveland building is artist-friendly, top to bottom, with concrete floors that can take a beating, wide hallways that fit large works and double as exhibition space, and a community room that can host sculpture shows or film festivals. The highly visible ground-floor space connects the tenants to each other and their neighborhood

“Art is a solo thing, but you need that human element around to make it work,” Sanchez said.

The project isn’t finished. The residential building is next to Loveland Feed & Grain, a massive, hundred-year-old structure that played an important part in the city’s agricultural history. It’s slated to become studio space and low-rent offices for creative startups.

Artspace often incorporates other community needs into projects. It has connected live/work spaces to child care facilities, and one project in North Carolina has a health clinic for area residents.

What is an artist?

Artspace defines “artist” broadly and, for better or worse, doesn’t make critical judgments when evaluating tenants.

“This isn’t about the quality of their art; it’s about their commitment to it,” said Felicia Harmon, who helped with Loveland.

Tenants have to show a “portfolio,” perhaps of songs they’ve composed or clothing, buildings or websites they’ve designed.

The criteria are tailored locally. In New Mexico, American Indian healing artists were counted.

Could that mean craft brewers or chefs in Denver’s growing culinary scene? Possibly, said Holmes, although tenants have to be fully engaged in the work; folks who knit on the side or plant lovely gardens won’t make the cut.

“We can’t be curatorial and say, ‘We want one metal worker over here and one singer over there,’ ” Holmes said.

Plus, they have to income-qualify. Because projects are funded with affordable-housing credits, the federal government has strict rules about inclusion. That leads Artspace projects to organically draw a mix of residents, including many young families.

There’s no shortage of applicants. The Loveland space has a waiting list, and surveys show need that outweighs the other developments in progress.

Denver’s year-long survey identified more than 1,000 low-income creative workers who need affordable space, according to Lisa Gedgaudas, who has been steering efforts at Arts & Venues.

Plus, there are benefits to being associated with the Artspace brand. The buildings are known for flexibility and not raising rents when economics favor landlords.

Maybe more than that, they’re known for creating places where artists, through peer pressure or collaboration, or perhaps, tangible community respect, do better work.

“When they say they’re in an Artspace building, then the collectors take them seriously and start coming around,” Holmes said. “Something happens from living in this community.”

Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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