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December 21, 2009

From the Westchester Business Journal

by Mary Sue Iarocci

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Downtown Peekskill has been long-established as an artist’s community.

Now, the man who got the ball rolling on that is doing it again in New Rochelle.

“We set out this year to identify 10,000 square feet of vacant upper-floor space and work with property owners to develop it for artist studios and art-related businesses and establish a downtown niche,” said Ralph DiBart, executive director of the New Rochelle Business Improvement District (BID). “I started a similar program in Peekskill in about 1990, ironically during another big recession. The city established the artist district, worked with building owners and matched them with potential artists. Based upon strength of leases the artists began to develop live/work lofts above the stores.”

Peekskill’s continued success almost two decades later gave DiBart the idea to try it again.

“New Rochelle was a different type of market because it is a much more dynamic residential market, and the arrival of the two Avalon buildings brought residential interest,” DiBart said, referring to the two downtown rental apartment buildings, Avalon on the Sound on Huguenot Street and Avalon on the Sound East on Memorial Highway, completed within the last decade.

“The similarities are filling vacant upper floor space and coming up with creative housing ideas in the marketplace and mixing in, where possible, artists and establishing a market for artists; that is an attraction for downtowns.”
The first big success came two years ago for Talner Jewelry owner Al Tarantino, who converted a long-vacant second floor above his Main Street store into two live-work lofts. Pelham Yoga Studio moved in this year and changed its name to Westchester Yoga.

More recently, the BID helped building owners Joel Gandels and Len Shendell bring their building at 81 Centre Ave. from less than 50 percent occupancy to 100 percent occupancy through the artist program.

“The building has 6,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and the upper two floors contain 12,000 square feet of office space,” Shendell said. “It’s probably the prettiest building in the city.”

Although Shendell and his partner renovated the building, there wasn’t much interest from potential tenants – until DiBart suggested they market the space to artists.

“There are a tremendous amount of people in the arts that were working out of their houses and they wanted a nice, clean, well-lit place to work that wasn’t going to take their jugulars financially,” Shendell said.

DiBart said he worked with the state to secure funding for the renovations.

“We put $30,000 into what was easily a $100,000 renovation project,” DiBart said. “The agreement was renting to artists as a first choice, and we reviewed what we felt was reasonable market. Now the building has six stores, two of which are national tenants (Avon and Subway) and about 15 artists renting space on the upper floors.”

The upper floors are rented to artists, craftsmen and a ballet studio, Shendell said.

In addition, DiBart is focused on bringing people to the city using art as an attraction.

“We opened a BID art gallery downtown at 542 Main St.,” DiBart said. “The property owner donated use of vacant space to us for six months, so we went in and created an art gallery with monthly art shows. That gallery is coming to an end this month, but we are working with other property owners for interim use of vacant space.”

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