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Tampa Plans Enclave For Artists

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Mar 22, 2004

City Plans Enclave For Artists

By SHANNON BEHNKEN

[email protected]

YBOR CITY - Genie White, 63, has seen what happens when artists cluster in shady neighborhoods.

``The neighborhood gets better and the artists are priced out,'' said White, who rents studio space to artists at her Artists Unlimited Inc. business in the Channel District.

It happened years ago in Ybor City and Hyde Park, and there are signs it's beginning to happen in the Channel District, where condominiums are selling from $200,000 to $400,000.

Now, the city has a plan to bring back artists to Ybor City and to make sure they can afford to stay. The proposed East Village of the Arts - north of Interstate 4, between 12th Street and 19th Street - would begin with five houses and four apartment units that would be leased to artists at a fixed low rate.

The houses are among the 33 moved and rehabilitated by the Florida Department of Transportation for the expansion of the interstate. The houses are being deeded to the city, which is selling some and forming a nonprofit organization to maintain and manage the village. That organization would consist of art leaders, who would choose the tenants.

This is the first large-scale project overseen by Paul Wilborn, whom Mayor Pam Iorio named the city's creative industries manager in May. He hopes luring artists to the V.M. Ybor neighborhood will help to improve the overall image of the entertainment district, known mostly as a weekend party place for young people.

The Tampa City Council embraced the initial plan, but it is not without controversy.

Some question whether it is fair to give artists a break on their rent and to restrict who can live in the neighborhood. And there are many unanswered questions, such as how the artists will be chosen to live there and how the city will define ``artist.''

``Why not teachers and firefighters?'' asked Edward Giuanta II, a real estate developer. ``Artists are very important to the community, but everyone is important. I just don't understand how you could use tax money to subsidize rent for one group.''

This plan is worth it, Wilborn said, because the city will get something back - a better atmosphere in Ybor City.

``It doesn't make much sense to create a cluster of teachers,'' Wilborn said. ``We already offer housing assistance programs for people who need it.''

Working Artists

Artists lived and worked in Ybor City's historic buildings until bars moved in in the early 1990s. As Seventh Avenue became a party strip and rents increased, artists were forced to leave.

The village, Wilborn hopes, will be a catalyst for development in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood. Artists can't afford to move to most parts of Ybor City on their own, he said, and most wouldn't move alone to this rundown part of the neighborhood. As the neighborhood improves, businesses such as grocery stores and cafes will follow, he said.

The village will start with five houses on 15th Street and one building that can accommodate four apartments on Columbus Drive, a block from the Academy Prep Center of Tampa. The private school for low-income students opened in August, and art is a big part of the curriculum.

The houses are expected to be ready by the end of the year. Wilborn has created a 15- member advisory committee that probably will morph into the nonprofit that will manage the housing and chose the tenants.

White, a committee member, said it's important the artists chosen have ``day jobs.'' There is a misconception, she said, that artists will get subsidized rent so they can live on the profits from their art alone.

``We have to make sure the artists we select can pay their rent,'' she said. ``Most artists have other jobs.''

White added that many artists she has spoken to want to own houses in Ybor City, not rent them. That way, she said, the houses would be cared for and the artists will have assurance that they won't be pushed out again.

``Artists aren't stupid,'' White said. ``If there is going to be a profit made on them gentrifying the neighborhood, they want to profit from it, too.''

Selling some of the houses to artists is a possibility, Wilborn said, and the city is working to acquire additional houses and properties for the village. In addition to city-owned houses, Wilborn wants to talk to banks about offering mortgages to artists interested in buying in the village.

Wallace Wilson, director of the University of South Florida's School of Art and Art History, hopes to get in on the village concept early.

The school would like a large building that can be used for art exhibitions and six to 10 efficiency apartments to be set aside for students and rented for $400 to $500 a month.

``If you tell students they would be in an art district with other artists and art galleries, I don't think you'll have a problem finding tenants,'' Wilson said.

The university doesn't have money to buy a building, Wilson said, and he hopes an investor would let the school use it for 10 years.

Other Villages

Arts districts are not a new concept. Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington and Toronto have similar programs.

Wilborn came up with the village idea after visiting Bradenton's Village of the Arts. Five years ago, the city targeted an economically depressed area and installed lighting and sidewalks and increased police presence, but it didn't subsidize any of the housing.

Bill Theroux, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, said the city invested $100,000 and recently spent an additional $650,000 in improvements to public infrastructure in the village.

``We waited five years to make sure it would work,'' Theroux said.

On the first Friday and the second Saturday of the month, the district of 51 properties opens its streets and galleries to the public.

Unlike the Ybor City proposal, none of the housing was reserved just for artists. In five years, Theroux said, property values have increased 40 percent to 50 percent.

That worries Wilborn, who wants to make sure Ybor City's artists aren't priced out again.

Theroux says that could happen in Bradenton, ``but if [artists] get in early, they'll have a good investment.''

Wilborn said the advisory committee will continue to meet with the community and work on the village.

``It's a little early to judge what we're doing,'' Wilborn said. ``Let it play out and then determine whether we did the right thing.''

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