There is a row in Spanish Harlem

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A school in Spanish Harlem ()
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The Westbeth Artists Community, located at West and Bethune streets in the far West Village, was developed in 1968 to fulfill a mission: provide affordable housing to working artists. With apartments, studios, and gallery space in the heart of one of New York's most expensive neighborhoods, it seems like a fantasy land, a creative paradise that simply couldn't be replicated in today's high-rent city.

But a project very much in Westbeth's spirit is currently being developed in a former school in East Harlem. P.S. 109, which was built on 99th Street between Second and Third Avenues in 1898 and closed in 1995, will, over the next few years, be transformed into El Barrio's Artspace by the Minneapolis nonprofit Artspace Projects, which develops mixed-use arts real estate. If all goes according to plan, construction will begin early next year, and the facility will be fully operational by mid-2013.

The project has grown significantly in size:  A fact sheet released by Artspace Projects in 2007 planned for an opening "in mid-2008, if all goes well," and described a facility with 64 residential units and 6,000 square feet of ground-level nonprofit arts and community space. Shawn McLearen, the project manager, said in a phone interview that current plans will provide 90 units and 10,000 square feet for arts and community organizations.

The project's budget has risen with the increased scope of the project. The 2007 fact sheet laid out a total cost of $22.6 million, while McLearen said that the current budget is about $62 million. "The design and budget have evolved over time," McLearen said, citing the increased number of units as well as a "better understanding of historic preservation challenges" at the site. "There are a lot of steps that can delay you and can increase your costs."

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In April, the Ford Foundation announced a $100 million plan to fund arts spaces nationwide. Artspace Projects—which has about thirty properties in various stages of development throughout the United States—was one of the earliest grant recipients, receiving more than $1 million towards the El Barrio project and others. The Ford grant will have a "very significant impact, a critical impact" on El Barrio's Artspace, said McLearen. The money has been allocated to help pay for all the third-party services—including architectural drawings, consulting, fees for the review and approval process—during what Artspace calls the "pre-development phase," prior to construction. "Without the pre-development support of groups like Ford, you just can't get through it," McLearen said.

Artspace's development partner on the project is El Barrio's Operation Fightback (EBOF), a housing and community building organization in East Harlem. EBOF has been instrumental in building support for the project among the community and local elected officials, like City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito.

"We have been providing the East Harlem community services since 1986, and we were referred to them as a local community group," Gus Rosado, EBOF's executive director, said in a phone interview. "I'm born and raised in East Harlem, so we have a good relationship with the community, the elected officials, we're well known in he neighborhood for housing services we've provided for over 25 years. It was almost like a perfect marriage. They had no projects in New York City. We introduced to them to the community, introduced them to local elected officials, brought them to meetings and helped the community understand what they're about and that they're coming with good intentions."

Since 2007, the El Barrio project has been in pre-development, gaining governmental approvals and securing financing. The initial "discovery" phase began a few years earlier, in 2004, when the Warhol Foundation for the Arts reached out to Artspace Projects, awarding them a grant to research possible development sites in the New York area. After meeting with representatives of the city's housing, finance, arts and culture, economic development, and historic preservation sectors, the organization was introduced to the P.S. 109 site by Ibo Balton, then director of Manhattan planning for the Department of Housing and Preservation Development (HPD), the city agency responsible for affordable housing.

"Working with our lead agency, HPD," said McLearen, "we've gone through the ULURP process—Uniform Land Use Review Procedure—and have come up with a project that we feel will address multiple sector agendas such as affordable housing, historical preservation, economic development, arts and cultural infrastructure that is built in a sustainable manner that is also addressing community space needs so that it's available to community groups as well as cultural groups. But doing so in such a way that one hundred percent of the units will be made available to affordable housing at or below 60 percent of AMI, area median income."

McLearen recognizes the similarities between El Barrio's Artspace and Westbeth. "Everyone involved in these types of projects values the role that artists play in communities and community development," he said. But the project is different than Westbeth. It's much smaller, for one thing; Westbeth has more than four times El Barrio's number of units. There isn't space allotted in the El Barrio project for artists' studios, and the ground level will include space for both arts organizations—a promotional video spotlights the New York Hip Hop Theater Festival—and more general-interest community groups. McLearen said that Artspace was not interested in running a gallery, like Westbeth does, or acting itself as an arts venue. "Artspace is a nonprofit real estate developer for the arts," he said. "We draw the line at real estate. We're not a programmatic entity."

The project's main challenge now is securing all its financing, some of which—in the form of competitive state and city tax credits—is contingent on the still-uncertain state budget. "These are big issues that the state faces," McLearen said. "I certainly hope that the state will look at their tax credit program and the development of projects like this, in communities like El Barrio, as opportunites to generate jobs, to bring properties back on the tax dole rather than being off it as blight."

Despite the efforts of Rosado and his organization to maintain good relations with the community, there have also been some small but vocal protests. Gwen Goodwin, a community activist who ran against Melissa Mark Viverito last year, has advocated reviving P.S. 109 as a school. She said in a phone interview, "Artspace does not benefit East Harlem.”

”There's a handful of artists in East Harlem,” he said. “I can't support taking a school away from one of the poorest districts in our state. It shouldn't be given away to frivolous projects like Artspace."

Shawn McLearen denied that the project had disrupted an increase in school space. "The Department of Education had made clear that they had no intention of renovating a nineteenth-century building for twenty-first-century educational needs," he said. "We obviously don't want to get involved in a turf war of that nature."