Few would argue that the vitality of New York’s artist population contributes to the city’s dynamism, its magnetic draw for newcomers, and the identity of certain neighborhoods. How best to sustain that vitality, however — through public subsidy, philanthropy, or property — is a matter of debate, and must evolve to meet the demands of the day. As civic leaders around the world have recognized the economic and social impacts of a strong arts sector, their efforts to support it tend to prioritize the most readily quantifiable indicators: visits to museums, galleries, and performing arts venues, and the related retail dollars spent. But the production of art is as critical to a city’s cultural life as its presentation. And affordable workspace is as vulnerable to the pressures of the real estate market as affordable housing, manufacturing, or small business. With these pressures in mind, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which provides funding, advocacy, and technical assistance for the cultural community, sought a way to address how the crisis of affordability was affecting its constituents.
The strategy chosen — helping to establish Spaceworks, an independent, non-profit real estate developer — bears lessons that extend far beyond the space needs of New York’s artists, touching on issues of real estate economics, publicly-owned property, neighborhood stabilization, and the shifting needs of an increasingly diverse urban workforce. So, we sat down with Paul Parkhill, the man charged with heading up this ambitious effort, to learn more. Parkhill’s background in developing supportive housing and affordable industrial space, and producing place-based public art projects, prepare him well to identify opportunities in unlikely spaces and to help keep New York a place where art is not just seen, but made. –C.S.
What is Spaceworks and how did it come to be?
About two years ago, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) decided that something needed to be done to address the crisis of affordability for artists around New York City. The agency’s first step was to hire a consultant firm, Forsyth Street Advisors, to think about different approaches to the problem, whether through affordable housing for artists or some other strategy. They came around to the idea that creating a citywide infrastructure of affordable workspace was the right way to go about it.
So, Spaceworks will be an independent entity founded specifically to help create that citywide infrastructure. We’ll work with cultural organizations, community organizations, and City agencies to create — not necessarily to program — affordable workspace for artists. We’re not a cultural organization in the traditional sense. We’re a non-profit real estate developer, managing development projects and then managing the buildings. Our financial modeling indicates that we should develop 100,000 to 150,000 square feet of space to become self-sufficient. If we break even on a bunch of buildings, then we’ll have to develop more space.
The initial idea was to use underutilized real estate assets in the City’s existing portfolio, in order to keep things as affordable as possible. So at the outset, we were looking at sites owned by various City agencies and other public entities, including a couple of buildings on Governors Island, and some Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library properties. We’ve been talking to the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) about some sites as well.
When I started, about six months ago, the first thing I did was to look at the list of sites that DCA and Forsyth had identified and determine which could be developed immediately and which were medium-term or longer-term prospects. And in order to test the model quickly, we started to look at some private sites as well, since one of the challenges of working with public financing is the amount of time involved.
Why do you think creating affordable workspace for artists is important for a city?
There are a number of ways to answer that. While New York City’s role as a global cultural capital is not at imminent risk, cultural vibrancy cannot simply be quantified by sheer numbers of performance and exhibition venues. In today’s real estate environment, there is the danger of artists deciding that New York is only a place to perform or exhibit, that it’s too expensive to make work here, that there’s just not enough room. It’s hard enough to find an affordable place to live, let alone to work in as well.
Making sure that New York remains a place where people can make art is critical not only to maintaining New York’s historical identity but also to ensuring it remains a dynamic city. Of course, artists used to be able to find space in New York City more easily — everyone thinks of the people who moved into SoHo in the 1970s or the Lower East Side or Williamsburg in the 1980s and were able to fit out large spaces on their own. I think that some of that can still happen around the edges of the real estate market, but for the most part it’s too expensive. Spaceworks reflects the City’s desire to ensure that those kinds of workspaces can still exist in this real estate market.
Do you think Spaceworks, as it has been conceived, represents a shift in how the City has traditionally sought to support the production of art and culture in the past? I’m thinking of traditional strategies such as artist housing or subsidizing large cultural institutions, like art museums or performing arts centers.
New York City has been enormously proactive on the cultural front. A lot of capital funding goes into preserving and sustaining culture in the city. If Spaceworks represents a shift, then that shift has to do with acknowledging the amount of time and energy cultural organizations currently spend dealing with real estate concerns, which distracts them from their missions and often threatens their survival. That’s why the basic idea is to create a standalone, self-sustaining organization that is focused on the buildings and the spaces — not on producing, curating, or exhibiting artwork — and on keeping those spaces as affordable as possible.
What kinds of input have you sought from artists about what the demands are for workspace?
We’ve had a lot of conversations with artists. We’ve had four focus groups so far, two in Brooklyn and two in the Bronx, one each for visual and performing artists. We’ve listened to a lot of fine-grained, practitioner-oriented feedback along the lines of “What we need is storage,” or “It has to be $400 per month or less,” or “We need rehearsal space for three months at a time, not for an hour at a time.” And then we’ve also listened to a lot of big-picture feedback from borough arts councils and arts services organizations like the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) or Dance NYC.
Some of the questions we asked were about whether or not we should mandate community participation for all the artists in the space. We’re certainly going to do as much as we can to make the spaces we develop available to artists living in the neighborhoods surrounding them. But I don’t think it’s going to be mandatory.
We’re still in the process of working out all the intake criteria. What are the threshold criteria for allowing somebody into the space? It’s not free space, it’s not an artist residency, so we aren’t going to be making qualitative judgments about art projects. We’re also not going to ask potential tenants for tax returns or bank accounts. It won’t be like applying for affordable housing where you have to demonstrate a certain income. So, it gets tricky and a certain amount of honor system will be required. That said, the nature of what we’re producing is not necessarily going to appeal to artists with means — if you are able to rent an 800-square-foot studio, you’re likely less interested in the 150-square-foot studio that we’re going to create. Typological factors will weigh into who looks to use our space.
Have the ways that artists and art groups have improvised to meet their space needs informed your understanding of what those needs are?
People are very creative about how they deal with our tight real estate market. They create spaces to meet their needs and do as much with what they are able to get their hands on, even if the space is temporary or if it’s ill-suited to all of the different aspects of creative process: production, rehearsal, performance, office, et cetera. A lot of the feedback communicated the need for a home base, for offices. The need for offices is especially acute among performing artists, who tend to work in larger groups, are often itinerant, and carry a lot of equipment wherever they go. And that pushed us to think that we should be making desks available as well as rehearsal space.
Tell me about your process for identifying properties.
We started out with that list of potential projects, identified by Forsyth Street Advisors and DCA, in underutilized, public buildings. The City Council, at some point, had mandated an inventory of all publicly owned properties, used and unused. And this list illustrates just how difficult it is to determine the actual uses of such a complex and diverse inventory of space. Each entry is coded with something like 55 different variables. A lot of the sites marked “No Use” are very much in use. We were hoping to sift through it and find some hidden gems. But even the sites that are actually vacant, typically there’s something already planned for them.
We looked at some empty NYCHA community centers, for example, which I think would be really interesting projects. But we had to step back from that because NYCHA is in the midst of coming up with a system-wide plan for those spaces. Another series of hypothetical sites we investigated is the New York Public Library (NYPL) system. We toured a number of NYPL sites, mostly in Upper Manhattan, that have these incredible caretaker apartments. All the Carnegie branches used to have caretakers, and these are genuinely unused spaces that are quite amazing. But we immediately ran into accessibility issues — there are no elevators up to these spaces — as well as a lack of separate entrances, meaning Spaceworks activities would have to happen during library hours, which would limit the possibilities dramatically.
In the final analysis we set our sights on a 20,000-square-foot school building on Governors Island that we hope to convert into 45 visual arts studios and two rehearsal spaces. We’re looking at the Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the second floor of which is largely unused, for a combination of visual and rehearsal spaces. We’re looking to carve off a corner of the Red Hook Library, which has a lot of underutilized space, because, given the way library books circulate now, books end up in the branches where they are most in demand. And then there a few other sites, including some private sites in the Bronx, that we’re looking at.
Do you anticipate some sharing of resources or equipment will emerge from the co-location of different creative people?
We’ve talked about that; it definitely comes up in focus groups a lot. The level of management required for shared equipment and services concerns me. A place like 3rd Ward operates on a membership model and has a relatively large staff. There’s certainly been a lot of growth in co-working environments and incubator spaces in the past few years. But for us, thinking about running a citywide portfolio of properties, we’re trying to keep it as streamlined as possible right now.
Did you do a quantitative study about specific space needs?
We have done a lot of research. And there are so many different ways to frame it — there’s the demand question, there’s the existing facilities question, there’s the question of the different ways people use space — that it’s hard to be comprehensive. We still don’t have one single, comprehensive document that details the demand, community by community.
So there’s a lot of individualized legwork going on, in terms of the needs as well as the development process — creating a community process around Governors Island is very different from creating a community process around Red Hook or the South Bronx. We’ve talked to a lot of cultural organizations that are close to the buildings we are looking at, to try to get a sense of how we can best structure the project to be successful, to meet local needs as well as the needs of artists, and to bring in the community. The worst thing we could do is to build these things out and not have people use them, so having those community connections are critical.
What were you doing before Spaceworks?
About 15 years ago I started a non-profit called Place in History that produced neighborhood-based public art projects. And prior to that I worked for an affordable housing organization called Common Ground that was building supportive housing projects. And for the 12 years prior to Spaceworks, I was the director of planning and development for the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (GMDC), a non-profit industrial developer in North Brooklyn. Over the past 20 years, GMDC has developed 700,000 square feet of space primarily for light-industrial and artisanal businesses (with a lot of artists in the mix). The first property GMDC developed was a public disposition, and after that we would purchase buildings on the private market and develop them through the use of public subsidy or tax credits. In many ways, Spaceworks is a similar model with a slightly different user base.
How has creating space to meet the demands of industrial tenants informed the way you’re going about your current project?
Because of my GMDC experience, I tend to think of arts and industry as on a continuum. There is a long history of these uses living together in productive, rather than competitive, ways. But, of course, the real estate market often pushes different user groups into competition for space, which is unhealthy for neighborhoods. Some have even voiced the concern that Spaceworks might end up undermining industrial neighborhoods (though, interestingly, most of the sites we’re looking at are in residential areas). I’m still very committed to the idea of New York City sustaining vibrant industrial neighborhoods. And I am committed to the notion that the arts and industry should work in a collaborative mode.
When we spoke with Brian Coleman for a feature on GMDC’s work as a non-profit industrial developer, he talked about the increased interest in the GMDC model in other cities around the country. Do you think non-profit real estate development, regardless of sector, is growing?
We used to talk about this at GMDC a lot. The nonprofit housing industry is so established that the government has moved away from developing housing itself and instead finds ways to support non-profit or for-profit developers to create affordable homes. But economic development is very different. And cultural development, for lack of a better term, is also quite different. There is still a lot of direct government involvement in both. Entities like the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for example, are heavily subsidized by the City. I think there could be more capacity on the non-profit side in the non-housing sectors. It would be interesting to see things move in that direction.
You mean more non-profit developers rather than non-profit organizations having to own and develop their own facilities?
In New York and other cities, the arts and artists have served the role of coming into a neighborhood, energizing it, and then making it palatable for more lucrative types of development that end up displacing the artists. Whether that process takes ten years or six months, artists tend to operate as a transitional group that doesn’t have the resources to stay put. So it’s a bit of a paradigm shift to try to think of the arts as a stabilizing force in neighborhoods, with active links to the community, rather than just as occupying space until something bigger or more lucrative comes along.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.