Artistic Living

The opportunity for an artist live/work enclave is brewing in the downtown warehouse district.

Like a loose belt wrapped around a thinning man, dozens of huge, historic warehouses encircle the declining downtown core. For years, artist studios have gravitated to these affordable spaces. But a growing number of tenants would also like to live in them, a move that, under present conditions, is probably illegal.

To ensure safety, building code regulations place restrictions on combination live/work spaces. One mandates fire separation between the uses, another that a few basic essentials be provided, and one more which stipulates the entire structure meet minimum standards.

Ignoring at least some of those requirements, a few artists have turned their studios into their homes. According to one who used a "do-it-yourself" building approach and has lived in a small portion of her large, open work area for several years: "It is a very stylish way to live. It enables me to focus on my art and has helped my career. When I get up in the morning, I can go straight to work, so my life becomes my work."

Her unconventional living arrangement, though, doesn't mean she misses out on some of life's other pleasures, even if she only has a hot plate and toaster oven with which to cook.

"I hosted a dinner party for 10," she says proudly. "This may be a little makeshift way to live, but it is funky and cool."

One potential advantage of combined live/work space is creation of a community of like-minded people who don't ever disperse. Another is the substantial savings many low-income artists would realize by only having to rent one unit rather than a separate home and studio.

These savings, however, could be less if the spaces actually complied with adopted building codes. While the city of Tucson put revisions in place last year which should dramatically reduce the cost of implementing these requirements, meeting them can still be a major financial hurdle for many financially strapped artists.

To help overcome that monetary barrier, artist and warehouse property manager David Aguirre thinks the city should adopt specific "Loft Laws." Citing examples from several other communities, Aguirre believes there are numerous downtown structures, both privately and publicly owned, which are candidates for conversion to artist live/work space.

If implemented, Aguirre says more than 100 artists may take advantage of the opportunity to live downtown. With a city government desperately seeking to increase the population of the area in hopes of revitalizing it, he thinks the possibility should be a natural fit.

"City officials don't know much about the idea," he says. "They are still in search of a vision for live/work space."

Fifteen years ago, the Tucson City Council adopted a plan that called for creating a downtown arts district. One of the major recommendations to accomplish that goal was the promotion of artist live/work space in the warehouses.

Since that time, the concept just hasn't been actively pursued. Instead, building code requirements and lack of communication between artists and government administrators have prevented the objective from being achieved, except illegally by tenants who have done the work themselves. But Aguirre and others believe there is now another chance.

With City Hall looking to assume ownership of about two dozen of downtown's major warehouses (See "Building Blocks," March 28, 2002), the opportunity to promote an artist live/work enclave may be re-emerging. Assistant City Manager Karen Thoreson hopes that by dressing up the area's appearance and providing longer term leases on the buildings it may acquire, the city will be encouraging the concept.

But, Thoreson admits, safety of the warehouse tenants has to be the primary consideration.

"We can't compromise that," she says, adding that some of the structural conditions of the old buildings keep her awake at night.

Thoreson doesn't think meeting building code requirements for live/work space should substantially raise the rents of artists. Greg Handberg, director of property development for the Minneapolis-based firm Artspace, agrees. The nonprofit company has implemented several major live/work space projects around the country.

"Through assembling our financing sources for a project, we allow for low rents," he says. "These tools include using federal affordable housing funds, economic development money, historic rehabilitation tax credits and grants."

As for what other cities do to insure public safety in spaces occupied by artists, Handberg comments: "Some do take a wink-and-nod approach; others try to use financial incentives to improve the buildings, and some crack down on the artists."

He and Thoreson also agree that building upgrades don't have to lead to eventual gentrification of an area. This has occurred in some places when low-cost artist live/work space has eventually been replaced by trendy loft living for upper-income boomers.

But Thoreson doesn't fear the possibility of gentrifying Tucson's warehouse area by making it too chic.

"We're a long way from unaffordability," she says.

Instead of possible gentrification, Tucson appears to be facing a continued impasse. While artists seek to use a low-cost, self-help approach to converting their studios into living units, the city government must insist on building safety. Thus, while the demand for residing downtown in affordable spaces is growing, the communication gap between governmental officials and artists remains wide.

Thoreson hopes a current survey of the warehouse tenants will help close that divide and provide a vision for the area.

"The city has a real resource down here which has a great deal of appeal," she says. "It could help create a progressive, intelligentsia community which would benefit the entire city by developing a different and diverse culture in the downtown."