Secrets Revealed For Artists’ Housing

She helped bring artists’ lofts to Westville. He’s hoping to do the same in Fair Haven. They shared ideas about how to make that happen during an annual meeting of the Creative Arts Workshop.

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Meryl Drabkin (to the left in photo) and Carol Dhawan, both longtime members of the board of the Creative Artists Workshop (CAW), were two of some 45 people who attended CAW’s congenial 45th annual meeting on Audubon Street on Monday night. But even loyal board members —” Dhawan’s been attending meetings for 18 years and Drabkin for 40! —” like to have an interesting speaker to look forward to after the committee reports, and they were not disappointed.

After a wry and entertaining presentation by CAW’s board chair Henry Lord (“In preparation for tonight’s meeting I did something I have never done before. I actually read our entire course catalog, from first page to last, every class description, including artists’ bios, and, boy, was I impressed”), he and executive director Susan Smith pronounced New Haven’s venerable arts organization healthy. Although facing the usual financial challenges, CAW, Smith said, was thriving, having mounted some 12 shows in its galleries and participated in dozens of collaborations with other arts organizations in the city.

Smith was particularly proud of CAW’s new brochure, which she called generic, “meaning that we wrote it in such a way and printed enough copies so that it will last ten thousand years.”

But the draw of the evening was Westville artists’ housing activist and developer, Thea Buxbaum, who was the featured speaker. The founder of Westville’s Village Art Walk, the Renaissance Alliance, and the developer, along with the non-profit agency Mutual Housing, of the soon-to-be-completed Arts Loft West at Whalley Avenue and Fountain Street, Buxbaum is a busy woman. Which is why her toddler son, Geffen Waterman, accompanied his mom to CAW.

When Geffen’s dad, sculptor Gar Waterman, whisked Geffen home, Buxbaum sat down in front of her audience. She offered the artists and art lovers in her audience a tutorial, both sage and humorous, on the do’s-and-don’ts of developing affordable artist housing and studio space in New Haven. Here are some highlights:

First, she said, “Ask what your assets are in the community. Like in Westville and New Haven, our assets are multiple family buildings. Not all artists need warehouses or huge loft spaces with 18-foot ceilings. It may look good, but who’s going to pay the bill when the poor artist has to heat the place? Needs are different. There are as many ways to do this as there are artists.”

Next, “Always involve your community and bring them to the table to build trust. You need that when there will be delays, because there always will be.” Buxbaum then cited the three and a half years it took for the city to close on her group of three properties, Arts Loft West, which was the single greatest delay. Also critical is to bring the right non-profit partner to the table. Buxbaum’s partner is Mutual Housing. “They have to understand artists, their values, their appreciation of quality materials among many other things.

“The wrong question to ask,” she went on, “is for the city or your non-profit partners to ask: How can we use these artists? Rather the question is, How do artists and the community they will be part of benefit from the structures we put up? It’s well known,” she said, “for example, that crime goes down when artists move in, because they often are at home during the day and act as a deterrent. If I were dictator of artists housing,” she said, “I’d go to various neighborhoods and designate these buildings and these buildings as artists housing and run with it from there. Do what’s appropriate and what will work.”

A further key point, she said, was to mix the development with artists at various stages of their careers, that is, at various income levels. This was based on Buxbaum and her husband Gar Waterman’s experience on the block they pioneered in Westville. “We had artists well advanced in their careers, and these could help the younger ones, even share clients. I mean when you’re just starting out, your only client is your mother.”

One of the most interested audience members was a fellow developer, Eric O’Brien, who with his company, Urbane Development, is developing the old Frank’s Hardware store on Grand Avenue into loft housing. “Our problem,” he said later, “is just the issue Thea just mentioned. With the cost of oil-based construction products going sky-high because of the war in Iraq and other factors, how can we keep the costs down so artists can afford our places? I mean rich artists might be able to, but there’s the distinct possibility that no artists will. We’re trudging ahead and hope to have people in there in the spring.”

A key difference between the O’Brien and Buxbaum projects is that Urbane Development is doing its work entirely with private funds. And, second, they are building condominiums. Buxbaum said that her numbers told her that ownership just won’t work as a development model. All of Arts Loft West’s units, even the two 2500-foot spectacular spaces facing West Rock, will be rental.

“If we can pull this off,” O’Brien said, “ours will be the first artist-ownership project in the city.” But that’s a big if. O’Brien was open to the possibility that he’s just building huge apartments and no artist will ever be able to afford to set an easel up in it. That would be the consummation, however, not to be wished.

As to Buxbaum’s project, located at 904-906 and 908-912 Whalley and also at 55 Fountain, it is slated to have 17l rental units. A good percentage of these will be affordable through subsidies, and others through scaled market rates. “It’s the mixture that counts and makes it work.” The plan is to have artists move in November.

Oh, what, by the way, is the qualifying definition of an artist and how are the artist/tenants to be selected? Buxbaum has worked that out with her usual thoroughness, and interested parties can contact her by clicking here.

Buxbaum was especially enthusiastic about a Middle Eastern restaurant, which she says is going to move into one of the store spaces in the property.

Has it all been worth it?

“If, after all these years, I’ll be able to roll out of bed, and have Turkish coffee so close by, yes, God, it is.”

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posted by: say what on September 26, 2006  2:48pm

Buxbaum, the accidental developer and facilitator is offering sage advise on housing development? Why not just ask the developers?