Degentrifying Condos

A program in Boston preserves live/work spaces for artists in new buildings.

Like many other artists inhabiting the cluster of old brick ware­houses in Fort Point, Andrew Woodward had cast a wary eye toward the wave of development sweeping the neighborhood near the Boston waterfront. But rather than getting priced out, Woodward is moving into a 92-unit converted warehouse topped by a gleaming glass-and-steel canopy. Woodward and his wife, a furniture maker, were able to purchase one of three affordable live/work spaces at FP3—which opened last summer with penthouse units starting at $1.8 million and studios at $350,000—thanks to a program aimed at keeping artists in Boston. With its concierge and swanky lobby, the condo building is a far cry from their old digs. “We used to have to share a sink on the floor,” he says.

Boston is not the only city that has promoted artist housing in recent years. From Berkeley, California, to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, municipalities have adopted a range of artist-friendly measures, including zoning allowances and tax incentives. But Boston’s program, launched in 2002, is one of the country’s most ambitious. In a high-pressure real estate market, the Artist Space Initiative aims to make the presence of artists enduring, rather than a stage on the way to gen­tri­fication. “This is the whole reason it emphasizes the creation of permanent space,” says Heidi Burbidge, who coordinates the pro­­gram at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the city’s planning agency.

Boston already requires that at least 15 percent of units in large new residential buildings be priced based on income limits. Artists’ units with specific requirements for ventilation, insulation, and loading can be tacked onto the affordable component of a building, adding bohemian cachet. The city has also pushed all-artist projects and market-rate/artist hybrids, such as South End’s ArtBlock, which opened early last year. For that project, the city conveyed public land to a developer based on the promise of 50 percent artists’ housing and an adjoining studio and gallery space. Since the Artist Space Initiative began, nearly 200 units have been created, with another 120 in the pipeline.

Still, the program has its limits. Even as dozens of artists’ units have been created in Fort Point, most in Midway Studios, an 89-unit building completed in 2005, the local artists’ coalition estimates that far more unofficial live/work spaces—long tolerated under a Boston zoning provision giving artists the ability to live in industrial areas—have been lost since developers began taking over. Meanwhile, the troubled economy has led developers to put projects on hold or to shift their focus from residential to commercial. “The arts community in Fort Point is down to about 250 artists, from 600 in the early nineties,” says Cheryl Forté, a leader of the Fort Point Arts Community. “The BRA is in the difficult position of promoting development and protecting artists, but over the past two years the arts community has been getting the short end of the stick.”

While most artists agree that the future of Fort Point will require a balance between art and commerce, many lament the loss of its rough edges. “It’s sad to see the original artist spaces disappearing,” Woodward says. “I’ll miss the cooperative feel.” But even he recognizes new opportunities in the changes to the neighborhood. “There are a large variety of artists,” he says, “and now there’s the potential to have a wealthy clientele nearby.”

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