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We Look At Seattle Artists’ Lofts, See How That Might Work In Dallas
by Jerome Weeks 27 Mar 2014

Flora Lofts should break ground in the Arts District this summer. So let’s look into this whole affordable artists’ housing deal. Hmmm. Sounds like a trip to Seattle is called for.

CTA TBD

artspace extThe bottom three floors were original, built in 1912. They house galleries, a community room and a coffee shop. Artspace added the top three for residential units.

A recent study showed a great demand in the Dallas area for affordable housing for artists. This summer, Flora Lofts will break ground in the Arts District; it’ll be Dallas’ first such artist housing project – but probably not its last. So while in Seattle recently, KERA’s Jerome Weeks visited one of that city’s successful artists’ housing projects to see what they’re like. And tonight at the DMA, Art & Seek’s State of the Arts series tackles artists’ housing when it discusses Urban Planning.

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Seattle’s Pioneer Square has grand, old, solid, brick buildings – some of the oldest in downtown Seattle, the kind Dallas developers bulldozed long ago for lovely parking lots and freeway ramps. The Square is a historic district, but not the polished-brass and stately manor kind: The area has homeless shelters and storefront missions. In other words, it’s not typical tourist-y Seattle. It’s clear across downtown from Pike Street Market and up the steep hill from the harborfront.

All of which is why, decades ago, artists drifted in here: cheap rents. But in the ‘90s, Seattle’s dot-com wealthy began pricing out the artists. The neighborhood’s real estate prospects have blown hot and cold, A sure sign of variable times: Seattle’s famous indie bookstore, Elliott Bay, was here for 37 years, and in 2010, it moved north to Capitol Hill.

That’s why Artspace was invited in by the Pioneer Square Community Association — to help keep artists in the neighborhood mix. Ten years ago, the non-profit developer renovated the Tashiro Kaplan Artists Lofts, 130,000 square feet, 50 affordable live-work spaces, 15 galleries, one coffee shop.

Doug Van manages the building and lives here. Typical of the residents, he’s a working photographer whose apartment doubles as his studio. “We’re full,” he says of the TK Lofts. “We’re at full capacity. Our waiting list is probably out, I’d say, three-to-four years.”

The TK Lofts are the kind of affordable housing project Artspace helped pioneer. The Minneapolis-based non-profit puts together grants from local, private and public sources with federal affordable housing tax credits to build low-incoming live-work spaces. In Seattle, with $16.5 million, Artspace bought two rundown buildings (including a Japanese market) from the 1910s, combined them and added several floors of residential units — creating the TK Lofts. Having the lower floors reserved for more public, commercial ventures is typical of an Artspace layout. It connects the artists’ apartment block with the neighborhood, opens it up to visitors.

artspace seattle 1Van (left) takes me to his apartment, a one-bedroom space, a thousand square feet. “This rents for 950 a month,” he says  “And the two-bedrooms go for about 1100.”

“And in downtown Seattle,” I ask, “that’s expensive?”

“Oh, this is way below market value.”

It’s a pre-war building: walls are massively thick, floors rock-solid. But the apartments have plenty of sunlight, and the space is open enough and flexible. Van, for instance, has room for a tall, metallic curtain dividing his apartment, the living space from the work space.

The leader in this field, Artspace successfully owns and runs 35 such projects around the country – including one in Houston, one in Galveston and three in Seattle. Most often, Artspace rehabs derelict buildings. But it’s also put up new ones — like the building it’s currently working on in El Paso.

In Dallas, that’s the approach being followed by Flora Lofts — which is not an Artspace deal, but was inspired by them. The independent project is creating a 47-unit, six-story apartment block in the Arts District – with the ground floor, as in Artspace projects, devoted to retail outlets. Flora Lofts is a joint venture between architect Graham Greene and La Reunion, a non-profit that’s worked to develop artists residences in Dallas.

Catherine Cuellar is executive director of the Arts District and one of the founders of La Reunion. Artspace, she says, was “the model for Flora Lofts.” La Reunion was initially focused on creating artist residencies, set-ups where they could live-work temporarily, as part of an educational or artistic effort. But once UTD’s CentralTrak residency got going, La Reunion shifted to affordable homes for artists. Cuellar makes a simple analogy: The Artspace/Flora Loft plan provides live-work spaces for artists, much like the Sammons Center for the Arts provides office space for arts organizations.

To get the federal tax subsidy, such projects are limited to low-income individuals and families (they must earn sixty percent or less of an area’s median income). But in some cases, the federal government also permits restricting the housing to certain professions. Migrant farmworkers, for instance, often need apartments in outlying farm areas where there’s not much available housing stock. Artists fit the same profile: They’re often low-income but also often vital for an area’s well-being.

Kelley Lindquist is the founder and president of Artspace. “We feel affordable housing for everyone is super-important,” he says. “But we provide a specific niche of affordable housing. And we find that when creative people or artists are together, when there’s a sort of critical mass, that the artists start to share their different resources and share their ideas, and the community as a whole gets something much larger than the sum of its parts.”

loft spaceTypical one-bedroom apartment at TK Lofts

The survey Artspace conducted in Dallas showed a crying need for affordable artists housing. And Lindquist says Artspace may well start a development here in the future (after the El Paso project is finished). But all such developments often have aims beyond just providing low-cost housing. They can re-shape a city. In Seattle, the TK Lofts were built to keep artists downtown. In Dallas, Flora Lofts hopes to bring artists downtown. Whether that’ll actually make the Arts District a real neighborhood is a different question. One prediction: It’ll be a real neighborhood only when Flora Lofts aren’t unique, when the development is not just a public show: See, we actually want artists around in our showplace district. They’re … artsy and decorative.

As you might imagine, in Seattle, the apartments are very much in-demand. There’s that four-year waiting list. But Doug Van points to another effect such projects can have – this time on the artists and their families, regardless of what happens to the area around them.

“It allows artists to save money and progressively move themselves forward,” he says. “We’ve had quite a few people who moved in, saved up enough money to move out and buy a house. And that is a great thing.” That’s their other purpose: They’re a financial stepping-stone for artists to establish themselves and then move out to something bigger.

Applications for Flora Lofts have not started being accepted. But the project is seeking to open next year with a mix of different artists, the first artists to actually live and work in the Arts District.

  • Tonight at 7:30: The Art & Seek series, State of the Arts, tackles urban planning. Host Jeff Whittington talks with: Brent A. Brown (founding director, bcWorkshop; City of Dallas CityDesign Studio), Catherine Cuellar (executive director, Dallas Arts District) and Robert Meckfessel (architect, DSGN Associates; President, LaReunion TX).
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