Art makes a start

With little outside help, the city's Station North district claws its way toward vitality, but displacement is a worry

August 07, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

When sculptor Stewart Watson moved into a former venetian blind factory near Penn Station, she embraced a more bohemian existence by helping convert the 100-year-old building into artists' lofts. But reality still had a way of seeping in - specifically, dark viscous sludge bleeding through the ceiling.

"Omigod, what's that?" she gasped on a recent tour. "It looks like roofing tar," she said as she raced up the stairs. On the floor above, Watson found a 10-gallon drum overturned amid ceiling-high piles of industrial junk - one of many headaches the new occupants inherited from the building's previous owner.

"This is what the responsibility of ownership is about, as opposed to the fun part," said Watson, one of six artist-owners who pooled their resources 3 1/2 years ago to buy the building. "This is the part that can make you older than your years."

Yet Watson, at 39, is very much part of the new wave of youthful artist-entrepreneurs slowly but visibly transforming the once-neglected area around Pennsylvania Station between Mount Royal and North avenues.

They have taken over long-vacant factory buildings and turned them into elegant studio and living spaces, rehabbed boarded-up rowhouses in a troubled city neighborhood and started new businesses in a community where commerce has languished for decades.

For all their efforts, however, enormous challenges remain, including the widespread perception of the area as unsafe and reluctance among property owners and commercial developers to bet on the neighborhood with significant infusions of capital.

Still, in the past few months the roughly 100-acre area designated as the Station North Arts & Entertainment District in 2002 has seen a surge in new galleries, restaurants, performance spaces and residential housing.

The burst of activity has the potential to turn the faltering business strip along Charles Street north of the station and the distressed residential blocks just west of Greenmount Avenue into lively new urban destinations.

The change is being driven largely by the sweat equity of young artists in their 20s and 30s who, like Watson, are seeking cheap studio space, rather than by developers with deep pockets or by city officials.

"Things are moving along very well even though there's been very little public money," says Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership. Encompassing the Charles North and Greenmount West neighborhoods, he says, progress in the arts district has been fueled by what he calls "microdevelopment," in contrast to the large-scale, publicly funded development projects on the city's west side.

"In the past few years, a lot of new actors have moved in, including the Load of Fun studios, the Maryland Institute College of Art, the roycrosse gallery, the Station North Arts Cafe, Sophie's Crepes, the Metro Gallery and the Station North Townhomes, where three-quarters of the units are already sold," Fowler says.

But some residents of Greenmount West, where the median income is less than $20,000 a year, fear they'll be priced out of homes they've occupied for decades if affluent professionals decide to follow artists into the area - as has happened in such cities as New York and Washington.

"The original response to the city's request for proposals was for an arts and entertainment district that would support children, youth and families," says Eric Goods, director of the nonprofit Greenmount Community Development Corp., which sponsors neighborhood improvement projects. "It was never intended as a tool for displacement and gentrification."

The irony is that gentrification would displace the urban-pioneering young artists who are transforming the area as well as the neighborhood people referred to as legacy residents who've lived there for years. Neither can afford the market rates charged by commercial developers.

Units at the Station North Townhouses, a luxury residential complex in the 1700 block of N. Calvert St. that opened in May, start at $300,000. Similar market-driven redevelopment projects are in the pipeline, spurred by the area's proximity to Penn Station and the easy commute to Washington.

For the moment, however, the district's artists - Fowler estimates they number about 400 - and businesspeople are exhilarated by the prospects opened up by the recent uptick in arts-related activities, which have brought new visibility - and vitality - to the scene.

"All of sudden, it seems like a whole lot of things are happening," says Sarah Williams, whose Metro Gallery opened in June in the 1700 block of N. Charles St.

"I've had so many people say to me, `Oh, I used to live here five years ago, but then I moved out,'" Williams said. "Now people are staying and a lot of people who moved out are coming back."

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