Artists could soon live in buildings where they work


Effort aimed to bring more residents, visitors to the Station North arts district downtown

February 10, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

For decades, local artists seeking affordable, well-lighted studio work space have gravitated to the large loft buildings east of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station.

Soon artists and others will be able to live in those buildings as well, if Baltimore's City Council passes legislation drafted to support the emerging Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Baltimore's Planning Commission last week approved three pending council bills that would change zoning for nearly a dozen industrial properties in the arts district so people would be able to use them as residences, work space or both -- assuming the buildings are upgraded to meet applicable building codes.

The rezoning also would permit the properties to have galleries, cafes and office space, without displacing companies that have been there for years.

It's all part of an effort to bring more residents and visitors to the 100-acre Station North arts district by finding new uses for the largely underutilized loft buildings on its periphery.

The district is bounded roughly by Howard Street, North and Greenmount avenues and the Jones Falls Expressway. The arts district designation, which became official in January 2002, provides a state income tax break for qualified artists working and living in the area and a 10-year tax break for owners of commercial buildings renovated for arts uses.

"This is an example of very creative reuse of industrial loft buildings," said Susan Williams, current planning division manager in the city's planning department.

"I think it's historic," said Kirby Fowler, chairman of the mayor's advisory board for the arts district. "It's going to be a model" for other rezoning initiatives.

The buildings named in the legislation and most likely would house artists include:

The "Copy Cat" building, a five-story, 150,000-square-foot structure at 1501 Guilford Ave.

The Cork Factory, a six-story, 33,000-square-foot building at 1601 Guilford Ave.

A four-story, 20,000-square-foot building at 419 E. Oliver St.

The old Albion Brewery at 405 and 415 E. Oliver St.

Several of the buildings -- including 1501 and 1601 Guilford -- were originally part of the Crown Cork and Seal manufacturing complex and date from the 1890s. At one time, the buildings served as world headquarters for the company that made bottle caps and the machines that put caps on bottles. The company moved to East Baltimore before World War II.

Also included in the rezoning legislation are 1611 Guilford Ave., owned by Industrial Roll Co.; 1639 Guilford Ave., owned by the city; 325 E. Oliver St., owned by Lewis Industries; 401 E. Oliver St., home of a cabinet maker; and 1418 and 1444 Belvedere St., home of Venture Vending and Venture Amusement. All would be able to retain their current occupants but could be converted to new uses in the future.

The legislation would change the zoning for these properties so they are no longer restricted to industrial use. Instead, they would become part of a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, in which multiple uses, including housing, galleries and cafes, are not only permitted but encouraged.

Studies show that many of the area's multi-level buildings are no longer desirable or marketable for industrial use, not even as warehouses, Williams said. At the same time, they are large, sound structures that have historical significance and the potential to be valuable anchors for the arts district.

Such loft buildings typically appeal to artists, and more than a few have tried to live in them over the years. But artists haven't been able to live there legally because the city's zoning code does not permit residences on industrially zoned properties. The pending legislation removes the industrial designation that has been a barrier to residential conversion or rehabilitation.

Williams said one of the unusual aspects of this legislation is that the property owners got together and worked with the city planning department and local attorney Stanley Fine to find a way to reuse their buildings. In most cases, properties are rezoned for a developer who wants to buy and renovate them for new uses, but in this case the buildings' current owners will retain them and upgrade them, she explained.

Fowler said one benefit of the legislation is that it will make it possible for current and future owners to fix up buildings so they meet the needs of artists and others. In the past, he said, if artists tried to live in the buildings illegally and something needed to be fixed, the owners couldn't get building permits to make repairs because their projects weren't consistent with the industrial zoning. In the future, he said, that wouldn't be a problem.

Charles Lankford, who owns 1501 Guilford Ave. and 419 E. Oliver St., said those two buildings together have room to house 100 to 120 artists. He said he plans to spend $1 million to upgrade them.

James Vose, a 34-year-old metal sculptor, said he is part of a group that plans to convert the former brewery at 405 E. Oliver St. to an artists' cooperative, with 10 living spaces and 36,000 square feet of studio or gallery space.

Vose said space at 405 E. Oliver will be sold for about $3 per square foot for work areas, and $6 per square foot for living areas, and the project already has drawn interest from woodworkers, sculptors and painters. "There are a lot of people looking for spaces out there," he said.

The area has been a core for artists for years, he added. "Now it's a city-supported core."

Area 405 opening

The group converting the old Albion brewery at 405 E. Oliver St. to an artists cooperative will open a gallery there called Area 405 on Saturday. Hours are from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., with a reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The first show will feature works by 19 artists. For more information about the gallery or the cooperative, call 410-528-2101.

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