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Creative housing concept proposed for Austin’s creative class

Thursday, December 6, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

A new affordable-housing concept could provide more options for musicians and other artists who are finding Austin a pricey place to live.


City officials, including members of the Arts Commission and the Music Commission, have struggled to address the increasing number of complaints from working artists who can no longer afford to live in the Live Music Capitol of the World. Austin housing prices continue to go up, aging housing stock continues to be torn down for new development and Austin voters nixed the idea of additional affordable housing bonds in November.


Artspace, sometimes referred to as artist villages, could be one part of the answer. In places like Cleveland, New Orleans and, most recently, on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, arts organizations and the nonprofit world are coming together to finance live-work space for working artists. This year, the National Endowment for the Arts announced grants to 51 cities to underwrite a portion of what is being called “creative placemaking.”


The concept began in the warehouse district in Minneapolis in the late 1970s, and so far about 1,000 live-work units have been financed in 13 states.


“Finding and retaining live/work space is an age-old problem for artists, painters, sculptors, dancers, and others who require an abundance of well-lit space in which to work,” according to the website of Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that calls itself the nation’s largest developer of real estate for the arts. “Many artists gravitate to old warehouses and other industrial buildings, but their very presence in an industrial neighborhood often acts as a catalyst, setting in motion a process of gentrification that drives up rent and forces the artists out.”


Where that creativity could begin may not be in an industrial district, but the new Austin Playhouse in the Mueller Town Center. Hans Venable, president of the Playhouse, expressed an interest in creating a combined artspace/theater concept, one that would create theater space on the ground floor, topped with 35 to 40 condominium units.


Janet Seibert of the city’s Cultural Arts Division is spearheading a survey of interest for artspace development. A July artspace feasibility report, financed by the Austin Playhouse and the city, indicated the city could support more than one live-space project. An artspace survey, open through Jan. 10, is intended to gauge the level and type of interest in the project. To date, about 300 artists have completed the survey questions.


This concept of affordable housing is at the intersection of the city’s new Imagine Austin master plan and the four-year-old CreateAustin cultural master plan, Seibert told the Music Commission this week.


“In CreateAustin, the participants really felt the cultural space or creative space is critical to sustaining what makes Austin Austin,” Seibert told the commission. “With Imagine Austin, we’ve begun to participate with staff, and I’ve been really excited to see there’s going to be lots of opportunities to work with our colleagues. These transit-oriented developments will be well populated by our creative community in Austin.”


Asked what the timeline was for the artspace at Austin Playhouse, Seibert would only say the local arts organization was going to take “take this one step at a time.” A strong level of interest in the concept could spur more interest in nonprofit financing, which will be the key to getting the project built. Most artspace projects take between three and five years to complete, she said.


One key finding of the survey will be what price point the Austin creative community finds affordable, Seibert said. That number will drive what kind of potential an affordable live/work space might have. Already, Austin Playhouse has a number of artists who have expressed interest in the project, she said.


“This input is really going to be valuable as we get into implementing Imagine Austin,” Seibert said. “If you all know anything about Imagine Austin, there really is a big effort afoot to address the needs of different kinds of areas of town, and we’re trying to make sure the creative sector has a role in making those places happen.”

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