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May 8, 2009

From the New York Times.com

Artist studio
Steve Brock in his 637-square-foot leased studio in New Rochelle.

By JULI S. CHARKES
Published: March 12, 2009

THERE were references to wall color and a suggestion or two on how the floors might be finished before he would move in. But Louis Netter, 34, the would-be tenant on the top floor of a building downtown, appeared less concerned with the surface details provided by the landlord than the fact that the work space he was looking to rent for $550 a month came with ample sunlight and heat.

“The light is great here,” Mr. Netter, a graphic artist and illustrator, said, turning toward a wall of windows overlooking Centre Avenue. “And there’s no damp, so that’s better for my drawings.”

Finding affordable studio space has been daunting for Mr. Netter: His art is currently spread out in two studios, including a dilapidated garage that does not include the climate control needed to preserve his satirical etchings.

But in a time of economic tumult, Mr. Netter and other artists are finding an unlikely partner in their pursuit of affordable studio space. The New Rochelle Business Improvement District is persuading downtown property owners to transform vacant space previously intended for commercial rentals into studio space for artists with monthly rents ranging from $350 to $900, depending on square footage.

The idea is to create a marketing niche that will benefit property owners whose real estate has languished in a tepid market, said Ralph DiBart, executive director of the New Rochelle Business Improvement District.

The district is helping businesses see that they can keep the investment to update their spaces “at a modest level and therefore affordable to artists and arts businesses,” Mr. DiBart said.

City officials also stressed the advantage of cultivating an artistic community that will bring foot traffic into downtown businesses and become part of the New Rochelle artistic heritage, which includes Norman Rockwell and the Saturday Evening Post illustrator John Falter, among others.

“New Rochelle has a rich and distinguished history of the arts,” Mayor Noam Bramson said. “This initiative builds on and enhances that identity and integrates the arts more fully into our community.”

Mr. DiBart said he had identified about 25,000 square feet of unused upper-floor space in downtown buildings suitable for conversion. About 6,000 square feet of that space has been rented to artists, including Mr. Netter.

The Business Improvement District has allocated portions of a state grant from the Office of Community Renewal’s New York Main Street program to jump-start the initiative, Mr. DiBart said. Matching grants of up to $30,000 will be provided per building, up to a total of $90,000, and will help defray renovation costs.

But the bulk of the initial investment falls on those property owners willing to take a chance on renting out to artists. Len Shendell, chairman of Cornell Pace, which owns the building where Mr. Netter will rent, said he had invested about $200,000 to renovate the interior. The renovations include a new roof and round-the-clock security cameras for the building, which is covered outside with terra cotta Art Deco designs from the 1930s.

Mr. Shendell described the move to accommodate artists as a savvy one given that the space has sat empty since he bought it two years ago for $2 million.

Typically, that space would have rented for $18 to $24 per square foot, Mr. Shendell said. Under the agreement brokered with the Business Improvement District, artists are not charged per square foot, but are provided with a rent of $350 to $900, depending on size and exposure to light. For one lease that has been signed, that works out to just under $17 per square foot.

Furthermore, Mr. Shendell said the investment in transforming the space was still less than what it would have cost to accommodate more traditional commercial vendors.

If the New Rochelle move seems like a gamble, there is precedent to show its potential. Mr. DiBart initiated a similar endeavor in Peekskill in the early 1990s, when he was a consultant to the city’s development office, overseeing the conversion of artists’ studios and work/living spaces for artists. The intention was to expand the city’s commercial and tax base while helping to create an artistic community.

Dwight Douglas, who was the director of planning and development for Peekskill at the time, said the effort to provide artists space helped spur downtown development, which had stalled in the ’90s because of a downturn in the economy.

“It was a major success story for the city,” he said. “We built an artist community that is very important to the city, put together a mix of needed facilities that all support each other and make it an inviting place to come to.”

Under Mr. DiBart’s initiative, Peekskill now has 80 work and living spaces for artists and another 50 studios.

Mr. DiBart said he was optimistic that the success of Peekskill could be recreated in New Rochelle, particularly given New Rochelle’s denser population and proximity to New York City. “We have a greater pool to draw from,” he said, referring to artists who would seek studio space.

One such artist is Steve Brock, 45, a digital and multimedia artist who signed a lease on a 637-square-foot, sun-strewn studio in Mr. Shendell’s building for $900 a month. It is one of 14 spaces Mr. Shendell and his company are transforming from vacant space in time for an April move-in date.

Mr. Brock has been using the basement of his home in New Rochelle as a studio but said he looked forward to the advantages of a more formal setting.

News_Artists2Web.jpg
FOR SUNLIGHT Louis Netter, in the studio he will be renting, and
Ralph DiBart, of the Business Improvement District.

“This is a way we can be together,” he said, referring to the professional camaraderie he looks forward to cultivating with other artists in the building.

“For creativity, you need to get out,” he said. “There are a lot of creative people working out here in the strangest places.”

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