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No Longer Washers And Dryers: Developers Put Arts Districts On Amenity List


When Mike Wirth moved from the West Village of New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2005, he was looking for the arts. He found it in the NoDa area — a former mill village turned self-proclaimed Arts District that had been known for its gallery crawls, live music and cheap rent since the 1990s.

“I needed that quirky, mixed-use, rehab-type of neighborhood to feel like I belonged,” said Wirth, who is an associate professor in the art, design and music department at Queens University in Charlotte.

Arts districts have traditionally brought life to areas that were previously near poverty lines, drawing creatives who were searching for cheap rent and a sense of community. As the artists create a vibe for an area, others are drawn to it, and arts districts are increasingly being seen as amenities for other development.

Charlotte's NoDa neighborhood

What is an arts district?

Arts districts are next to impossible to define, according to Americans for the Arts Senior Director of State and Local Government Affairs Jay Dick. They are all distinctive. But regardless of the flavor of district, people want them around.

“The arts is being seen as the next ‘amenity’ from the developer’s parlay,” Dick said. “It used to be washers and dryers. Now it’s ‘what’s the cultural landscape in walking distance?’”

Americans for the Arts keeps track of cultural districts across the United States, with more than 300 districts currently highlighted on an interactive map. In truth, there are more like thousands of arts communities sprinkled across the United States, Dick said.

They exist as both officially recognized districts earning public-private incentives for those who choose to invest in them — and as unofficial, organic groups of artists who find pockets of the world to call their own.

Within the arts districts that have formed organically, cities and developers often step in to help them evolve, spending money on projects and giving tax breaks because they see the districts as beneficial to the rest of the community. 

Hyattsville, Md., community arts festival

As a former board member of ARTSFAIRFAX, Dick said developers who were on the board alongside him looked at the arts as an attractive benefit, whether it was in the form of a black-box theater, a coffeehouse or a gallery.

“At the end of the day, developers want to know ‘What can we do to make our development attractive and profitable?’” Dick said. “The arts are one of the answers to that question. If you set aside arts space in your development, it will pay dividends far and beyond. People will want to live there, shop there, eat there.”

In addition to artistic offerings, key ingredients to an arts district’s success are the inclusion of street-level restaurants, bars and hotels, according to SMU National Center for Arts Research Director Zannie Voss.

Voss said SMU’s data research has shown when these components are located near arts organizations, they collectively create an arts and leisure destination. This enhances perceived benefits and increases the likelihood of attendance. 

“People want a destination for an entire day or night out, even if it means a longer drive," Voss said.

Hyattsville, Md., arts festival

Developers play a role in the transformation of an arts district

In the mid-1990s, woodworker Stuart Eisenberg found an old warehouse in Mount Rainier, Maryland, not far from his home in Hyattsville. He paid $4/SF in 1995 for a whopping 2K SF. He later subleased some of his excess space to other artists.

It was a blighted area, full of used car dealerships and auto repair shops — not a good tax base, he said.

“We called our area ‘the artists on the tracks,'” he said.

The now-bustling area was named the Gateway Arts District when it was founded in 2001 as Maryland's first official arts district.

Eisenberg now serves as executive director of the Hyattsville Development Corp. in the arts district. The group uses forward-thinking market analyses, small-business assistance and land use expertise, tools Eisenberg said have been critical to the success of the community.

The Gateway Arts District includes public-private partnerships with lower rents and studio space to artists as well as market-rate rentals. The County Gateway Arts District Sector Plan offers a vision statement and land use plan for development standards in the area.

Established businesses are thriving in the Hyattsville area. There is a meadery, a distillery and microbreweries. Art is prominent in every business in the community, from hanging arts on the wall to concerts inside of a bookstore, which is inside of an upcycle furniture shop.

This theory is called asset-based development, based around the concept of strengthening what was already strong to begin with.

“We were already strong in the arts, so organizing around the arts makes it very sustainable,” he said.

The area consists of four neighborhoods and is the home to the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center, the Gateway Arts Center and the Mount Rainier Artists’ Lofts. The group looks at the district as a whole, making sure each piece of the puzzle fits together.

“How can we best organize businesses? What’s complementary and what’s a buzzkill?” Eisenberg said. “We are trying to build a vibe of sustainable, creative commerce that’s driven by a social network. I’d like to think there’s no end in sight in that.”

Junction Properties’ 97-unit apartment community with ground-floor commercial space in the Arts + Garage district of Oakland.

Overcoming skepticism to build arts districts from scratch

Oakland, California, already has a thriving arts community, with areas including the Black Arts Movement & Business District and Chinatown

However, residential rents have increased 100% in the last 10 years and office rents by 70%, Junction Properties principal Charlie Long said. Gentrification has forced many residents from their homes, he said.

“Oakland faces a major, major challenge. They’ve been so hungry for so long to get development, their policies need to catch up — the market has fundamentally changed.”

Rather than developing in one of the city’s existing arts districts, Long is working with a coalition of arts and development professionals to create a new arts district in Oakland. As a former city planner, Long offers dual insights into how commercial properties should take place in the context of land use in a community.

The new arts district that Long’s group is seeking status for is called the Arts + Garage District, named after the number of former auto maintenance shops in the area. The group has requested that the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan create development proposals to set aside space for creative arts activities at below-market rates.

“Unfortunately, the development community in Oakland is skeptical of requirements such as these,” Long said.

Developers have said they fear the added requirements will slow processing, but Long said the opposite is true.

“It will make clear how development can address these challenges and avoid the confrontation that is increasingly occurring on development proposals.”

In the meantime, his group has reached out to developers of nearby projects for their support, and at least in one case, it is getting it. In September, TMG Partners modified ground-floor plans of an office project to dedicate 2,800 SF to Creative Arts Enterprise. 

Purposefully incorporating the arts won’t fix everything, but Long said it is one of several ways new development can connect with the changing community.

“I think cities — to the extent that they recognize that development is not generic and a commodity, that development needs to fit — they will do a better job of doing things like creating arts districts and preserving local businesses and creative activities that are going on in that neighborhood,” Long said. “The identity of the neighborhood remains and is enhanced by having more people live there.”