Indy Fringe and Mass Ave and Apartments and Cultural Districts and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Arts Funding and Residential Real Estate and Artists and Low-Income Housing and Architecture/Design and Real Estate & Retail

IndyFringe leads effort to build artists' apartments

November 10, 2008

Joanna Winston has landed several paid acting gigs since she graduated from Butler University in May. Currenttly, she is performing in the Sapphire Theatre Company's production of "Lysistrata," for which she earns about $100 a week.

Not surprisingly, Winston finds herself with a day job —and living in the house where she grew up. For now, she's content to peck away at her "giant" student loan, and work in Indianapolis.

"There are opportunities here that are paying for beginning actors, but we would need a little help," Winston said.

Organizers of IndyFringe, a 10-day festival of anything-goes performances, are leading an effort to provide just that.

"Our visual artists in Indianapolis are very well looked-after," Executive Director Pauline Moffat said. "The performing artists —nobody does anything for them."

Moffat and Gary Reiter, a board member of the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival Inc., are hatching a plan to build an affordable live-work complex near Massachusetts Avenue.

The not-for-profit Riley Area Development Corp. would act as developer for the project, which Reiter estimates would cost $14 million to $20 million, depending on land prices.

Riley's executive director, Bill Gray, is investigating vacant parcels near Massachusetts Avenue, but the location is not yet nailed down.

"Site control is the critical piece of any project," Gray said. "Right now, we don't even have the site control, or what site we would even do this on."

First, a consultant will gather feedback on the concept at a public meeting Nov. 11 and conduct a six-week feasibility study.

"We're doing something that will create art and support artists," said Reiter, who also serves on the board for Riley Area Development Corp. The not-for-profit group has its office on Massachusetts Avenue and works in neighborhoods northeast of downtown.

Reiter posed the question, "How do you keep people in central Indiana?"

"And how do you attract people to central Indiana?" Moffat added.

Their answer is modeled after the Wheeler Arts Community in Fountain Square, where there's a waiting list for apartments. The University of Indianapolis and Southeast Neighborhoods of Indianapolis converted the former Wheeler carburetor factory into 36 studio lofts for artists, including musicians and dancers, plus an arts education center.

Ambitious Project

Reiter and Moffat have ambitious plans for their still-unnamed project. Rehearsal space would meet the needs of various groups —theater as well as dance.

"And because people are living, working, and creating together, the quality of their work improves," Reiter said.

The concept goes beyond the artists' needs. With additional performances, "thousands" more people would visit the neighborhood, Reiter said. The Riley development corporation would lease retail space to businesses wanting to capitalize on the new hub of activity.

Reiter likened the idea to London's National Theatre complex.

"It becomes a festival atmosphere at the national theater each weekend," he said. "That's what we're doing here on a small scale."

The building itself would make a significant contribution to the neighborhood's architecture, Reiter said. It would also meet high standards for environmentally friendly construction with platinum-level LEED certification.

"It's a huge venture," said Bonnie Mill, artistic director of the recently formed Sapphire Theatre Co. "When you're talking about performing artists, our medium is humans and stories. That takes up space."

Tapping tax credits

At this point, Gray is about a year away from applying for affordable-housing tax credits. The neighborhood development corporation would then sell the tax credits to finance the building.

Acquiring the land, Reiter said, will require other sources of financing, perhaps a grant or partnership with a charitable foundation. One question he hopes to answer with the feasibility study is whether Indianapolis can tolerate another fund-raising drive.

The idea is gaining enthusiastic support from local arts leaders, who will participate in focus groups Nov. 11 and 12. Minneapolis-based ArtSpace Projects Inc. will lead the focus groups and conduct the feasibility study.

Michael Pettry, executive director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, said booking rehearsal space for 150 volunteer singers is one challenge of his job. Right now, he'd like to have his own desk.

"We have more staff than we actually have room for," said Pettry, who works in a basement at Butler University. "We're sharing desks and stuff."

Although the choir singers all have other ways of earning a living, Pettry said a new live-work complex could help growing organizations with basic office space.

IndyFringe's own success sparked the idea in the first place. Six theaters in the Mass Ave neighborhood have played host to IndyFringe since its launch in 2005, but Moffat said the festival could easily expand.

She expects the August 2009 festival to draw 12,755 attendees and require seven stages, one more than this year. By 2012, Moffat projects a need for 10 stages.

Moffat worked out those projections early this year, and one day in February, she and Reiter went looking for real estate. They walked the Mass Ave neighborhood, where they both live. For a quick fix, IndyFringe settled on leasing the dilapidated, whitewashed church at 719 E. St. Clair St. that has served as its temporary headquarters in years past. Its renovation was paid for with $45,000 from the Allen Whitehill Clowes Foundation and $5,000 from the Local Initiatives Support Corp. R.L. Young, a longtime Mass Ave landowner, is charging nominal rent. He also offered an option to purchase.

Moffat and Reiter said they quickly realized the big opportunity lay outside the church's back door: roughly three acres of vacant parcels within sight.

Reiter thinks the real estate implosion will work in favor of the Riley, a not-for-profit raising money through the sale of tax credits. "We're not competing with developers, and there are no bank-financing issues."

The key is to be judicious, said Teri Deaver, consulting director at ArtSpace. When acting as a developer, the not-for-profit ArtSpace builds only one unit for every three artists who express a need.

Deaver has seen other projects that failed in the mission of providing affordable housing to starving artists.

"It ended up being a market-rate loft for people interested in living an artistic lifestyle," he said.

Mill, an Indy native who returned home after working in California, hopes the Fringe-Riley partnership succeeds.

"We're poised to go deeper and more interesting," she said of the local arts scene. "This could be part of it."

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