As wine consumption increased, cross words rehashed old arguments that have threatened the WALDO ordinance since it was conceived in 1995. Artists desire affordable studio space, but property owners want profits.
"If you don't give us what we need, we're not going to stick around," said Edith Barrell, a Paulus Hook resident who once rented studio space from 111 First St., to former mayor Gerald McCann and property owner Bob Lehrer.
Lehrer owns the Morgan building, which falls under the scope of WALDO. He replied to Barrell's repetitive comments by in turn repeating his own mantra: "Go to Russia."
The ordinance attempts to provide affordable studio/living space for artists in the downtown area, where an arts community has evolved for the past two decades, long before high rise office buildings adorned the waterfront.
For the first six years, the ordinance asked the property owners to abide by the conditions voluntarily. Those conditions included providing affordable housing for artists in 50 percent of the building. In 2001, voluntary became mandatory, and an ongoing lawsuit has followed.
To settle this issue among others, the Division of Planning recently used a federal grant to hire the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit urban planning firm, to conduct a feasibility study that consisted of evaluating the idea of a downtown arts and entertainment district. The 11-member panel will make conclusions after interviewing different people in the community including artists, city officials, property owners, and surrounding businesses.
But the study includes more than this ordinance. City planners want to turn the downtown area into an arts and entertainment district, where residential artists make up a small part of the grand scheme. Such a district would provide arts and crafts stores, theaters, cinemas, restaurants, nightclubs, and galleries. The panel is also questioning the best adaptive reuse for the Powerhouse, an abandoned brick-and-steel structure that once supplied power for the underground trains traveling to and from Manhattan. It's owned by the city and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Finally, the panel will take a look at the city's need for cyber districts, areas where warehouse space can be converted into data storage centers for Internet servers. The need for such districts has subsided since the dot-com bust, giving the city time to prepare for the next electronic boom.
Not legitimate apartments
But most people attending the reception Monday night seemed focused on attaching live-in artists to the overall plan. Currently, 111 First St., a former cigarette factory, has been the only property providing artists with studio space. Although tenants have lived there unofficially for quite some time, property owners have resisted making the necessary changes to the structure that would allow tenants to legitimately reside there.
Artists swarmed the panel experts, asking them their opinion of legally retaining affordable housing for artists in the area. Michael Banner, a financial planner from Los Angeles, told William Rodwell, president of the tenants' association for 111 First St., that it seemed possible if the artists could convince the property owners that it was in their best interest. He said that he had worked on financing affordable housing in the past, and had convinced developers that some value cannot be expressed monetarily.
Lehrer said that that the value has to be monetary, or it is not feasible to finance the project. "I found it's impossible to finance a building under the zoning ordinance," he said.
According to McCann, the whole WALDO region happens to be in a lucrative real estate market. Property owners, he said, want to make a profit on this land. "You can't force someone to lose money," McCann said. "I think the entertainment district is a good idea, but that's market rate."
The plan would work, McCann said, if the property owners were subsidized by federal grants, similar to Section 8 housing. "I want it to work," McCann said. "But it will work by having to subsidize the property owners." Mayor Glenn Cunningham said that he thinks its possible to subsidize some space and allow property owners to lease out the rest according to market rate. "I don't see why we couldn't have a housing plan for artists who meet a financial criteria," Cunningham said. "I don't envision only low-income housing. We could come up with some kind of mixed-use housing that benefits everybody."
The panel planned to release its conclusions during a Friday morning gathering at City Hall before press time.