Making room for art: Renovated northeast-side factory to target artist tenants

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An Indianapolis native with an interest in troubled real estate has set his sights on creating an arts center in a former factory in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood.

Investor Robby Richards has purchased the former Atlas Engine Works at 2045 Andrew J. Brown Ave. and is in the process of cleaning it up to lease to artists and others interested in the space.

Richards hasn’t formally marketed the space and only recently hooked up with a broker, but he said word of mouth through local organizations has sparked strong interest. The first 20,000 square feet of the building will be nearly fully leased by artists and arts-related groups when it hits the market later this winter, he said.

Local landlords who cater to artists aren’t surprised.

Downtown’s Harrison Center for the Arts receives “at least a call a day” from artists looking for space, said Executive Director Joanna Taft.

The center, which opened in 2000, currently has 17 artists in its 15 studios and rarely has an opening. The not-for-profit began leasing studios for $100 a month and found them quickly snapped up, regardless of the “size, shape or smell” of the space.

In the past several years, more developers have taken on buildings for reuse as art studios. Industrial buildings such as Atlas are particularly popular because the open floor plans, high ceilings and tall windows work well as studios.

And local artists, many of whom pursue their art as sidelines to their regular careers, are often willing to put “sweat equity” into partially finished space in exchange for less expensive rent and flexible lease terms, landlords say.

Turning a profit on such an endeavor can be trickier than merely renting out the space, however. Richards said as a developer, his primary goal with Atlas will be recouping his investment, but he hopes to do that by creating a center where people from around the city can see and purchase art representative of cultures around the world.

“Two hundred thousand square feet is a lot of space to lease,” Richards said. “As a business, you have to be practical. I don’t want to turn away paying customers, but at the same time, I want to stay as close to the goal as possible.”

Once Richards opens the first 20,000 square feet, he’ll begin work on the next phase, he said. Completely renovating the building, including spaces for gallery and theater space, could take two years or more.

Richards spent about $40,000 to buy the property out of bankruptcy, but paying off back taxes and clearing up environmental issues will run his initial investment to several hundred thousand dollars.

Atlas is in the city’s urban enterprise zone, making it eligible for some tax credits and government assistance with cleanup. The local Urban Enterprise Association is working with Richards to get that assistance and is also trying to help clear up some of the outstanding tax liability, said John Gootee, the organization’s director of business development.

“Robby is exactly the kind of person we’re looking for to do these kinds of things,” Gootee said, adding he’s been working with Richards for about a year on the property. “He is sincere. He’s as good a man as we’ve come across. This is what he enjoys doing. Yes, he needs to make money, but he also enjoys helping the community.”

Atlas is a brick-and-mortar culmination of several of Richards’ personal interests, he said. He became interested in international art and cultures after meeting a diverse group of people while living in London. And as a racing fan and native of Indianapolis, the automobile-related history of Atlas appeals to him as well.

But for most of his professional career, renovating properties with environmental or other issues has been his specialty. Richards said he developed the niche renovating residential properties in Phoenix before returning to Indianapolis.

Old buildings such as Atlas have intrinsic economic value in addition to their historic value, Richards said. Redeveloping them may not be as glamorous as buying and selling new developments and generally takes longer, but it can be profitable nonetheless, he said.

“Some people would never see the value in what I’m doing,” Richards said. “They would just knock [the building] down.”

In its heyday, Atlas operated a sprawling 65-acre campus and was one of the city’s largest employers. Founded as the Indianapolis Car and Machine Works in 1872, Atlas primarily sold steam engines and boilers, but also made automobile engines in the early 20th century. Following the death of founder Stoughton A. Fletcher, the company was sold in 1912 and renamed Lyons Engine Works.

At 200,000 square feet, Atlas will be one of the larger spaces available to local artists. The Stutz Business Center, opened in 1992, is twice as large.

The Stutz typically has 40 to 50 artists among its 120 or so tenants, said Anne Jester, vice president of leasing for Turner John Management, which manages the former automobile factory. Occupancy typically runs above 90 percent, she said. Based on interest at the Stutz, she predicted Richards will have little trouble finding tenants for his space if the price is right.

“We have seen some demand for some very inexpensive space,” Jester said. The Stutz typically leases space for $9 to $9.50 per square foot per year. “People want to have something a little rough around the edges, something creative.”

Richards expects he will start leasing space for $5 to $6 a foot per year, at least until Atlas takes on a life of its own. He’s had interest from a few international artists as well as some looking for new space following the sale of factoryturned-artist-studio the Bodner Building at 1200 S. Madison Ave. The building’s new owner plans a change in use.

For years, the Stutz was one of the few studio-rental options for artists. When the thriving artist colony at the 170,000-square-foot Faris Building was displaced in 1999 to make way for Eli Lilly and Co. office space, developers and not-for-profits began converting buildings in nearby neighborhoods.

At the same time, awareness of local artists and their work increased, due partly to attention from the city’s cultural tourism initiative. Spurred by more galleries and shows focusing on local art, demand for studio space has increased, those in the arts community said.

Although most redevelopment has occurred in and around downtown, there are signs the city’s artists are beginning to spread out.

Developer Hugh Kennerk, a member of a partnership that owns Broad Ripple Cannery, said spaces at his 40,000-squarefoot arts center have rented out quickly since he and his partners took over the former Village Commons near 54th Street and Keystone Avenue two years ago. Tenants at the Cannery-including his sister, artist Emily Kennerk-enjoy being near Broad Ripple without paying Broad Ripple rent, he said.

The center’s 24 studios are nearly fully rented now, Kennerk said, and he and his partners are ready to tackle another project.

“Space can be kind of expensive for startup [businesses] and for artists,” Kennerk said. “There’s a real economic use for older buildings.”

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