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Mobtown Beat

Industry to Easels

Arts-District Designation Easing Conversion of Factories to Studios

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 5/8/2002

The metal door swings open at 405 E. Oliver St., and a grinning Daniel Sullivan says, "Welcome to the abyss." The portal opens into a vast chasm of a building--a four-story, 66,000-square-foot loft that began life in the 19th century as a brewery. Later it housed an industrial-equipment maker and a window-shade factory.

Sullivan isn't an industrialist. He's one of a handful of artists who recently bought the looming brick edifice with a mind toward converting the disheveled "abyss" into art studios and apartments. Since the building falls within the confines of the city's first official Arts and Entertainment District, Sullivan is just one of several urban artists/would-be rehabbers whose plans to convert old industrial spaces into havens for local artists is not so far-fetched.

Jim Vose, one of the building's artist co-owners, leads a tour through a series of rooms cluttered with heaps of old industrial apparatus--metal gears, pipes, pulleys. "We've already removed about 120,000 pounds of steel alone," Vose says of ongoing efforts to prepare the building for its new use. "We're trying to recycle everything we can."

Reaching a vast open room that lets out onto a loading dock, Vose points out what sold him on the building: a series of three-ton chain hoists dangling down from the ceiling--perfect for assisting the 34-year-old sculptor in assembling the looming steel and iron artworks he creates.

An adjacent room houses what Vose estimates is some 80,000 pounds of vinyl window-shade material, piled into heaps. The building's new owners hope to recycle this too. "We had a [buyer] who wanted to pay us 7 cents a pound for it," Vose says. "He was going to ship it to India for use as roofing material. We're not sure if this deal is still going to go through, but we love the idea."

Vose also loves the idea of creating a permanent living/working space for himself and his wife, Stewart Watson, also a sculptor. While renting various studio spaces around town, the pair has spent years looking for an affordable building to call their own. They first toured the Oliver building--which stands in a small industrial district in the Greenmount West neighborhood--about a year ago.

The current artist partnership (which includes Vose, Watson, Sullivan, and two other artists) was formed to put a contract on the former factory in February 2001. The price was $170,000, which Vose calls "really nothing" given the size of the building. But the banks saw it differently. "We went to a dozen or so financial institutions looking for financing," he says. "We had banks tell us they would not loan money for commercial property in this part of town--not for any price."

The artists eventually received financing from the building's seller, and they settled on the property this past March. In the meantime, an event occurred that may assist the property's future--and potentially costly--conversion into a full-fledged artists colony: The address falls within a multiblock area of midtown that was the deemed the city's first Arts and Entertainment District last November (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 21). The designation provides state and local tax exemptions for artistic activities and makes Maryland Department of Economic Development funding available for arts and entertainment projects within the district's boundaries.

"Because of the art district, the city is rezoning all the industrial buildings in the area, which is a very lucky thing for us," says Vose, who describes the planned new zone as "a special mixed office/residential category that will allow everything from print shops to restaurants to retail space."

The lack of proper zoning, however, hasn't prevented artists from living and working in the area's numerous erstwhile factory buildings. Charles Lankford bought a 165,000-square-foot brick building at 1501 Guilford Ave. in the late 1970s (a building commonly called the "Copy Cat Building," after a billboard for the Copy Cat printing company that stood on its roof for years). At the time, it housed a variety of light-industrial tenants.

"After a while we decided, as an experiment, to take one floor and convert it into artist studios, since we were so close to [Maryland Institute College of Art]," Lankford says. "Over time, everybody started 'cheating'--instead of renting an apartment and a studio, they would save money by living in their studios."

Lankford, who added a 40,000-square-foot industrial building at 409 E. Oliver St. that has also come to house artists to his portfolio in 1983, says he has "never hidden" from the city that artists have been working and living in his buildings. But he has had run-ins with various cities agencies over its legality. As a first step to getting his buildings "legit," he launched his own campaign to change the area's zoning from industrial to residential three years ago--only to be told that such a move was illegal. "There was no mechanism to allow this type of change," Lankford says. "You couldn't go from industrial to residential."

The arts-district designation, with its emphasis on using the arts as an economic-revitalization tool, seems to have cleared this hurdle out of the way. (Efforts to reach city planners for comment were unsuccessful, but Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, says the city is "expediting" the code change.) Lankford adds that he is close to completing a host of extensive (and expensive) fire and safety modifications to his buildings to make them compliant with city occupancy codes--noting that since the Arts District designation, he has been "working with the city, instead of against them," concerning these issues. And communications could improve even more. Gilmore says his office hopes to hire an arts-district administrator--"a point person on issues from tax abatements to plans for a block party"--by July.

Back at 405 E. Oliver, Vose and partners continue to clean out their new home. Plans call for using their own funds (and backs) to rehab the first floor for the owners' work/living needs by the end of year. Tackling the upper floors, where they hope to create leasable/sellable studios and apartments, will require further financing. Only now they hope the trip to the bank will be more fruitful. "We will have buildings in an arts district that is zoned for residential and office use," Vose says. "We should have more luck."

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