- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

The Downtown Arts District in Washing-ton has offices, hotels and a sports arena, but few artists.

It hasn't always been this way. For years, cheap studio rent and proximity to the downtown galleries and theaters brought painters, photographers and sculptors to the city's designated arts district, roughly defined as a 10-block swath in Northwest framed by G Street to the north, Sixth Street to the east, Pennsylvania Avenue to the south and 14th Street to the west.

But the economic resurgence that has made the District a destination for businesses for the first time since the 1960s is pushing artists out of downtown.

Some artists are moving because of soaring rents. In other cases, landlords are evicting artists and other tenants in order to build new office and retail space, which can fetch between 50 percent and 60 percent more in monthly rent than what the typical artist can pay, according to real estate brokers.

"There was a time when the arts community was entrenched in downtown D.C., but those days are over," said Anne Corbett, executive director of the D.C. Cultural Development Corp., a private group that pushes de-velopers to incorporate arts space in their projects.

Ms. Corbett estimates that as many as 200 artists had studio and exhibition space in downtown in the 1980s. Today, 97 percent of those artists are gone and their space has been replaced by the more lucrative office and retail space, she said.

The most dramatic change has unfolded along F Street NW, a haven for local artists since the late 19th century, when museum founder William Corcoran rented studio space in a building at 15th and F streets.

Today, F Street is being trans-formed into an office corridor. The owners of several buildings that once housed studios have evicted their tenants and redeveloped their property.

On F Street's 900 block, the Atlas and Atlantic buildings which housed studios for years are being renovated as office space.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, which owns a string of eight low-rises on the block, is planning to demolish the town house-style buildings to build an 11-floor office building.

Michael Berman, a painter who pays about $500 a month for 600 square feet of space in one of the church-owned low-rises, said he is one of about 15 artists left on the block.

"There is so much history here, [but] when we're gone, that's it," he said.

Battling redevelopment

Mr. Berman has formed a group, the Downtown Artists Coalition, that is suing the church to stop the $50 million office building, dubbed Carroll Square.

Preservationists have joined the fight, saying the old buildings are the last bit of 19th-century architecture left in downtown.

David Bell, president of the D.C. Preservation Society, said re-placing the buildings with the Carroll Square complex will turn the block into a sterile office corridor that is lifeless in the evenings and on weekends.

Under the church's plan, the facades of seven of the buildings it plans to tear down would be preserved to meet the District's requirements governing historic buildings.

A D.C. administrative law judge denied the church's request for demolition permits last November, ruling the project was inconsistent with the Historic District Preservation Act of 1978.

But earlier this year, the church's lawyers found a loophole in the city's regulatory code that forced the District to issue the permits because the judge took longer than 60 days to make his decision.

Church leaders have said they want to replace the F Street low-rises with office space because it would fetch higher rents and generate more funding for church programs.

Stuart Gosswein, a painter who leases studio space in one of the church-owned buildings, said he pays rent on a month-to-month basis, never knowing when the church may tell him to leave.

"This is my livelihood… . I need to be in a commercial district [where] my clients can find me easily," he said.

John E. Akridge III, the developer the church has hired to build Carroll Square, said it is "entirely possible" the new building will feature studio space for artists.

Mr. Akridge said he and church leaders will meet with the artists and the Preservation League to try to reach a compromise.

"There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle and they are all in play right now," he said.

Beyond downtown

The problems facing the downtown artists have also surfaced in other parts of the District.

In Northeast, sculptor Randy Jewart believes the city's efforts to lure high-technology companies to his neighborhood will jack up the rent for current tenants.

Mr. Jewart's studio is on N Street, in the heart of what District officials call "NoMa" because it is the area north of Massachusetts Avenue. The city believes young techies will want to move to NoMa because it is home to warehouses and retro-style buildings that give it an urban, funky feel not unlike SoHo in New York.

Those warehouses have also attracted people like Mr. Jewart, who estimates he is one of 50 working artists in the neigh-borhood.

Although several tech comp-anies including XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. have already leased buildings in NoMa, Mr. Jewart said his landlord hasn't raised his rent.

He expects that to change soon.

"I can stand on my roof and throw a rock and hit a billion-dollar satellite company, so yeah, I'm pretty sure my rent will be going up eventually," Mr. Jewart said.

Ms. Corbett, the executive director of the D.C. Cultural Development Corp., said she hopes the artists and the tech companies in NoMa will be able to coexist.

"We hope they will feed off each other," she said, noting that more visual artists are using computer graphics to create their work.

Seeking solutions

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat, has included several arts-related proposals in his plan to redevelop the area surrounding the Washington Convention Center at 900 Ninth St. NW.

The mayor has said he wants to create an "arts walk" to link the galleries along Seventh Street NW and to establish more joint "live-work" spaces for artists in the city.

Some artists said the mayor and other city leaders haven't done enough to support them.

"The city has not done anything strategically to protect artists. They've talked about it a lot," Ms. Corbett said.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, a Democrat whose Ward 2 constituency includes the city-designated Downtown Arts District, has endorsed Carroll Square, the proposed office complex on F Street.

But even if he didn't support it, Mr. Evans said there is little he could do to stop Carroll Square since it is a matter between a private landlord and its tenants.

"Everybody wants the city to get involved in everything. There's not always a role for the city to play," Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Berman, the head of the Downtown Artists Coalition, said the District could help the F Street artists by selling the city-owned Mather Building at 916 G St. NW to a developer who would agree to turn the space into apartments and studios for artists.

The Mather has been vacant since 1990. This year, the city spent $135,000 on a study to determine new uses for the building.

The study recommended the first floor of the 10-story building be turned into an art gallery, with the upper floors used to create 54 live-work spaces for artists.

"You can put the artists in there and it would be perfect. It's a great solution," Mr. Berman said.

If the city requires the new owner of the Mather to provide live-work space for artists, it would be difficult to make the project "financially feasible," according to Michael Darby, a D.C. builder who helped conduct the Mather study.

The study estimated it would cost $8.1 million to renovate the Mather for artists. Since a landlord would have to charge less rent for studio space than a conventional apartment, "the city would probably have to offer some sort of assistance to make it financially feasible," Mr. Darby said.

Elsewhere, one of the city's leading arts promoters, said he grew weary waiting for the city to help its artists and took matters into his own hands.

Bill Wooby began leasing-to-own the abandoned Randall Junior High School in Southwest after raising $280,000 from arts patrons around the country and using $250,000 in his own money primarily the proceeds from cashing in his stock in America Online Inc.

Mr. Wooby has rechristened the school the Millennium Arts Center, and subleased several of the old classrooms to artists, including some who have fled or been kicked out of their studios on F Street NW.

Another tenant is the Washington Opera, which has taken over the school's auditorium. Its first performance is scheduled for late October.

Eventually, Mr. Wooby hopes to turn the remaining classrooms into theaters and exhibition halls, and plans to build a coffee house and a glass-blowing facility in the gymnasium. He estimates the project will cost $5 million to complete.

"We think this is going to be something wonderful, something that D.C. deserves but has never had," Mr. Wooby said.

Colby Caldwell, a graphic artist who moved into one of the classrooms, has dubbed his new digs "Home Room." He said the center has provided a lifeline to local artists searching for workspace.

Other artists said they prefer working in private-studio space and not in a community arts setting like the one Mr. Wooby is building.

Mr. Jewart, the sculptor in NoMa, is one such artist. He said he is planning to move to Austin, Texas, where he said studio space is cheap and plentiful.

"The arts scene in D.C. is so unappreciated. It's not worth being a martyr for," he said.



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