In 2009, Atlanta passed a milestone that few within the arts community paid attention to: 2009 was the year Atlanta logged a higher rental property vacancy rate than Detroit. Detroit! That’s according to the U.S. census bureau, which counts up all the properties that could be rented but aren’t.
Sure, everybody knows about Detroit’s legendary ghost towns and derelict properties, which — being uninhabitable — don’t get calculated into census data at all. Still, it’s a sobering statistic that Atlanta’s imminently habitable real estate is emptier than a city built for twice the number of residents than living there today.
Artists have traditionally rushed in to these empty spaces where others fear to tread. Setting up studios, pop-up galleries and other artistic uses of otherwise unused space has often kept entire neighborhoods from spiraling into economic death. Houston’s Project Row Houses — a combination of urban development and arts programming spearheaded by artist Rick Lowe — has been the most spectacular example. But others abound: Baltimore, Md.’s, extensive network of artist-initiated alternative spaces or the city of Paducah, Ky., for example. Qualified artists in Paducah can purchase live/work spaces in key urban zones for as little as $1 as part of the city’s Artist Relocation Program.
All of these efforts keep properties from becoming boarded-up eyesores and magnets for crime. But the Atlanta real estate world on the whole has been slower to recognize how artists can inject vitality and energy into flagging neighborhoods.
Enter Castleberry Point Lofts, the loft condo building perched where Walker and Nelson streets converge in Castleberry Hill. Unable to rent out most of the newly constructed building when the bottom fell out of the market in September 2008, developer Jerry Miller of Miller-Gallman Developers considered his options. He could have chosen to let the building sit as an empty shell, narrowly and single-mindedly focused on the bottom line of market rate rents. Instead, he opted for what made sense for the long-term economy and culture of the neighborhood, largely turning the building over to creative uses.
"We really had to reach back and say, ‘OK well, what's this neighborhood all about? What's it stood for all these years?’” says Miller. The answer was art. The building is now a model for sane community stewardship. What could have been a drain on the neighborhood is instead a boon both to the neighborhood and to the building itself.
“Fiat Lux” was the first major work to be installed in the building’s unfinished street-level space with its gravel floor and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. The installation of fluorescent light tubes by Jason Butcher, Scott Carter and Mario Schambon was a standout work in the 2008 edition of Le Flash.
“Fiat Lux” was followed by choreographer Lauri Stallings’ memorable roaming dance performance, “Pour,” which culminated at Castleberry Point. Since then, a nearly constant series of installations and events has followed, including works in this year’s recent neighborhood-wide art program, FLUX, Oct. 1. All of this is in addition to the galleries, student groups and writer’s workshops that occupy the space at next to no rent.
Miller emphasizes that the artistic activity in Castleberry Point takes advantage of current market conditions, which are bad but probably temporary. When market demand returns, he plans to rent out the space to paying tenants. “This is not a situation I would choose,” he says, “but once we saw that [the economic downturn] was happening and we saw that it was going to be a fairly longstanding situation — that is I didn't see any groundswell of demand for the space — I do think it's natural [to allow artists to use the space].”
Castleberry Point is not entirely alone. The former Pier 1 store in Atlantic Station, for example, has hosted the work of SCAD students as a kind of makeshift gallery. But in a city as empty as Atlanta, temporary public art should literally be spilling out of unused architectural spaces, both public and private. That it’s not means too few developers and property owners recognize the resource of creative talent in their own backyards.
Artists need spaces and developers need people to occupy their spaces. Allowing the temporary or permanent use of unoccupied spaces on the cheap for artistic endeavors should be a win-win for both parties. Developers can use giant inflatable gorillas or girls in hula skirts in a vain attempt to draw attention to their buildings, or they can help build the cultural value of a neighborhood.
By doing the latter, Miller-Gallman has done what’s right not only for his bottom line but for the entire community.
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