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Later this year, a block in the South Main Historic District will be the site of a $13-15 million construction and historic preservation project as a 1904 three-story warehouse is transformed into a hub for artistic talent and activity.
The United Warehouse at 138 St. Paul Avenue is being reimagined by Artspace USA as a 100,000 square foot “arts facility with 45 – 55 artist live/work units united with related community/gallery space and an indoor arts garden.” It’s the latest addition to the vibrancy of South Main District, following up on the Jeff Nesin Graduate School of the Memphis College of the Arts.
“It’s a really good fit and the site is perfectly located,” said Greg Handberg, senior vice-president of properties for ArtSpace. “It’s in the South Main District whose redevelopment is so exciting. A lot is happening. It’s a partnership between city (government), foundation, and private sector to make an investment in another cultural asset in the neighborhood. The Hyde Foundation is a financial partner with the city and they have been active supporter and champions for the project. The local support is so important when we request help from State of Tennessee and national foundations.”
The project is the outgrowth of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to City of Memphis to evaluate, study, and plan for affordable, sustainable living and working space for artists, according to Wendy Holmes, vice-president of Consulting and Resource Development at Artspace, a 33-year-old Minneapolis organization that owns and operates 30 projects in 19 cities.
Twenty-four of the 30 projects are live-work projects with a total of 1,008 residential units. Many of the live/work projects also include non-residential space such as studios, offices for arts organizations, rehearsal and performance venues, and space for arts-friendly businesses.
The warehouse in Memphis is a classic project for Artspace, according to Mr. Handberg. “In most cases, our buildings are three to four stories with a coffee shop and businesses on the ground floor,” he said. “This is a huge win for the City of Memphis and it is high on our list of priorities. The big difference with us compared to a standard real estate firm is that we don’t come in trying to achieve our objectives. Rather, we are achieving what the community tells us it wants.”
Ms. Holmes said that the project with have efficiency units, as well as two and three-bedroom units. Sometimes, people forget that artists have families, she added. Because a major part of the project is being paid from low-income tax credits, applicants must be 60 percent or less than the average median income.
“It’s first-come, first-serve,” said Mr. Handberg. “They have to have enough income to pay the rent, but they can’t earn too much because of the tax credits,” he said. “There is an interview process to prove they have a commitment to art that will involve other artists” who aren’t planning on living in the building.
“If you ask 10 artists, eight would say they prefer to work in a historic neighborhood context,” said Mr. Handberg. “We hear the argument a lot about why not buy foreclosed homes for $40,000 unit instead of spending $180,000 a unit. It’s not just about the housing. It’s about the preservation of a historic building and the impact on the urban core.” He added that the success of similar buildings is in the opportunity for artists to be in close proximity and the opportunity for “collaboration in a wide range of disciplines in a way that contributes to professional advancement.”
Hyde Foundation Program Director Gretchen McLennon said the story of the project is about Memphis attracting more attention at a national level. “In 2010, the Foundation was contacted by the National Endowment for the Arts as its new chairman, Rocco Landesman, was embarking on his Art Works tour of the nation. He was looking for communities where arts and economic development were happening in tandem and Memphis was on the radar.”
She said that Mr. Landesman took a particular interest in the South Main District and “immediately recognized what so many of us who were champions of the neighborhood already knew: the district is a vital area with important cultural and historic assets (National Civil Rights Museum), education anchor (College of Art Graduate School), a growing retail and business community, arts-related nonprofit organizations housed in the zone (Memphis Music Foundation and Blues Foundation), and even arts-related programming (River Arts Fest ).”
In response to the Hyde Foundation’s interest in creating more vibrancy, Mr. Landesman suggested that “affordable housing for artists would help complete the ‘new’ South Main” and recommended that the Foundation talk to Artspace to “realize a vision of a reenergized South Main Arts District.” “The bones are there,” she said. “We are just partnering to help accelerate a transition that has been at play in the South Main area for over a decade. We knew we had to play a role in this exciting endeavor.”