Aurora eyes whether creative arts district has the room to bloom

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AURORA | City officials inched closer toward adding dedicated studio spaces to the Aurora Cultural Arts District Oct. 6 after the Housing, Neighborhood Services and Redevelopment Committee approved an early-stage proposal to evaluate the vitality of the north Aurora pocket.

The committee, chaired by Ward I City Councilwoman Sally Mounier, voted 2-1 to move a discussion of whether to hire an outside consultant to a forthcoming city council study session. If approved by the greater council, the chosen consultant would take stock of the available space in ACAD and determine if the area has the ability to blossom into the bohemian hive it has long been advertised to become.

“It seemed to make sense because they (a consulting firm) are going to tell us if we even have the potential to be an art district,” said Bob LeGare, at-large city councilman who also sits on the housing committee. “We’ve bought buildings, art centers and theaters; we’ve put in hundreds of thousands of dollars in neon lights; we’ve done branding and given storefront improvement loans; and nothing seems to be taking off (in the ACAD) on a big scale. The great hope is that we can get it to take off and this consultant, I think, can shed some light on that.”

There is currently no specific dollar amount attached to consulting costs, according to Tony Chacon, urban renewal supervisor with the city and staff source for the studio space initiative. If council were to approve the proposal to hire a consultant, Chacon said that the final price would be dependent upon the level of detail requested. He added that if approved, the process could take anywhere from six months to a year to complete.

Regardless of a future financial burden, Ward IV Councilwoman Molly Markert, who sits on the housing committee and cast the lone dissenting vote on the studio space issue, said that the city has already invested too much and seen too few returns in the ACAD to justify increasing the district’s running tab.

“It came down to the usual discussion on investing on the Colfax corridor, investing in ACAD and how many millions it will take before that catalytic moment happens and that area can support itself,” she said. “In a city that has 1,000 homeless children and uncounted seniors who can’t buy affordable housing, I can’t justify building spaces just for artists. For me, it just felt like a little bit too far of a reach.”

The city has unofficially identified ArtSpace, a Minnesapolis-based developer of repurposed artist spaces, to head the potential consulting effort. City officials met with representatives from the organization to discuss their services and the specific challenges facing the ACAD last month, according to Andrea Amonick, manager of the city’s development services division.

“They would do market studies to determine what kind of studio space might be needed, where spaces are and where clients should come from,” she said.

Regardless of a future financial burden, Ward IV Councilwoman Molly Markert, who sits on the housing committee and cast the lone dissenting vote on the studio space issue, said that the city has already invested too much and seen too few returns in the ACAD to justify increasing the district’s running tab.

ArtSpace has completed live-work studio space projects in more than 20 states across the country, including one in Loveland that began leasing in June. Housed in the former Loveland Feed & Grain building in that city’s downtown, the project topped $8.9 million and boasts 30 livable units, according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald. The Lakewood city council also approved a $600,000 contract with ArtSpace in April.

Currently, the ACAD boasts just two buildings that rent spaces to visual artists, only one of which is owned and operated by the city. Aurora took control of the gallery space at 1400 Dallas St. in December 2013 after the former tenant, The Other Side Arts, defaulted on loan agreements with the city. The former District 1 police station now offers 14 studios, which average about 240 square feet in size and cost roughly $1 per square foot in monthly rent, according to city documents.

The only other rentable studios for artists in the ACAD are controlled by Walt Weinberg, owner of Sunrise Artworks at 1556 Florence St. Sunrise houses 13 studios that range from 200 to 500 square-feet in size and run an average of about $300 per month.

After being priced out of the Santa Fe Art District in Denver, Weinberg purchased his Aurora building in 1998 for $95,000 and made interior improvements with the help of a grant from the Aurora Small Business Development Center.

“It was a real mess when I got it — you couldn’t give things away in this area back then,” he said.

Currently, the ACAD boasts just two buildings that rent spaces to visual artists, only one of which is owned and operated by the city. Aurora took control of the gallery space at 1400 Dallas St. in December 2013 after the former tenant, The Other Side Arts, defaulted on loan agreements with the city. The former District 1 police station now offers 14 studios, which average about 240 square feet in size and cost roughly $1 per square foot in monthly rent, according to city documents.

But following a three-year battle with leukemia, Weinberg recently put his building on the market in order to buoy mounting healthcare costs — a move that could nearly cut the number of functioning ACAD studios in half.

“Selling the space would allow me to be set for the rest of my life,” he said.

Doug Adams, a principal with Cornerstone Equity and a longtime friend of Weinberg’s who has agreed to help him sell the Florence Street property, said that he would like to find a buyer willing to keep artists in the 5,000-square-foot building.

“The city of Aurora has an opportunity to lend itself to opening studios and make a difference with things that could last a long time,” Adams said. “Do they have enough forethought? I don’t know.”

Adams approached the city about buying the building earlier this fall, but officials weren’t interested because of how close the property is to another pottery facility — Sunrise is home to two electric kilns — at Bicentennial Park, according to city documents.

“We didn’t get much traction with the city,” Adams said. “They’re not as interested in (studio spaces) as they are in their tax base, and I understand that, but there needs to be a balance — a society without art and science is pretty dismal.”

The studio space issue has yet to make it to a study session agenda, and Chacon said council may choose to wait to discuss the topic until after the municipal elections in November.

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