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May 3, 2010

By Hannan Adely •

Illustrator Louis Netter of Yonkers works
in his studio at 81 Centre Ave. in New
Rochelle.(Ricky Flores/The Journal News)

The huge windows, the bright space and the warmth sold Lara Ivanovic on the second-floor studio at 81 Centre Ave. So she packed up her tools and set up shop in the downtown building.

"I feel lucky to have found it," said Ivanovic, an oil painter. "I'd never go into the city to get a studio. It would be way too expensive."

Ivanovic is one of 14 artists who rent studio space at 81 Centre, the first building to join the year-old New Rochelle BID Art Spaces Program. Through the program, the Business Improvement District gives financial and marketing help to property owners to renovate vacant commercial space and turn it into affordable artist studios.

The hope is to build a community of artists that adds vibrancy to the downtown while improving local real estate, BID director Ralph DiBart said.

"We are using the arts as an attraction to downtown to bring in more people who will then shop and dine downtown," DiBart said.

At 81 Centre, multimedia artists, painters, a jewelry maker and a ballet studio are among the tenants. Rents range from $350 to $900 a month and the rooms are artist-friendly.

When property owners Len Shendell and Joel Gendels renovated the mostly vacant space, they took out drop ceilings to add height, put in new tile or wood flooring, added a mural to the lobby, and added slop sinks to the bathrooms so artists could wash their tools.

They also put in a new roof, plasterboard, paint, security cameras and an intercom system. The owners invested about $200,000, of which $60,000 came from the BID. The BID got two grants totaling $400,000 from the state Office of Community Renewal's Main Street Program to support facade improvements and the Artist Spaces Program.

Shendell was skeptical at first because he thought businesses would be more stable and longer-term tenants than artists.

Now, all the studios are filled and demand is high.

"As a landlord, I couldn't be happier," Shendell said.

The owner of 82 Centre Ave. has also taken advantage of the program and recently opened two artist studios there. The owner of another building, at 587 Main St., has plans to convert second-floor space into six or seven studios.

The notion of art as a vehicle to improve business is not a new one for DiBart. He was a leader in transforming Peekskill's depressed industrial area into an arts community in the early 1990s. Today, there are 80 live-work lofts in the city that helped create a buzz around arts in Peekskill and grow a thriving artists community.

Artists at 81 Centre, though, said they still do not feel part of a united arts community. That is important to artists like Judie Benzer, who left a 25-year career as an architect to make jewelry.

"I wanted to have a studio that wasn't isolated and I wanted to be with other artists and be where the energy is," Benzer said.

Ivanovic said it was tough to bond with other tenants because of the different schedules of artists — many who have other day jobs — and the lack of central meeting space. She also said people do not seem to know about an arts community in downtown New Rochelle.

To boost downtown arts and draw people to the area, the BID has a moving gallery set up in empty, borrowed storefront space. Shows at one location over six months last year attracted hundreds, DiBart said.

The BID has also held an open studio night at 81 Centre for the public to visit local artists.

New Rochelle has advantages when it comes to luring artists. It is close to New York City and has a rich history of supporting and producing artists.

What draws artists most to a community, though, is other artists, DiBart said.

"We had a great start at 81 Centre and we hope to continue and build a greater artist community," he said.

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