By Helen A. Harrison
Four years ago, Cape Advisors, a Manhattan real estate developer, unveiled the latest of several plans to come down the pike—East Hampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, that is—for renovation of the former Bulova watchcase factory, the once-proud 19th century industrial building in the heart of the village that’s now a crumbling eyesore. The proposal, which called for 63 luxury condominium apartments and 18 town house units, was approved by the zoning board in August 2008. But the venture ground to a halt when the real estate bubble burst and the sponsoring group, now known as Sag Development Partners, lost steam. Maybe that’s just as well, since there was considerable public dissent during the review process, focusing on the lack of affordable housing units mandated by the Suffolk County Planning Commission. So let’s rethink the project, this time a bit more creatively—and I mean that literally.
Last week I attended a forum, with the catchy title “Promoting the Arts, Cultural Institutions and Historic Sites,” sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. Representatives from arts organizations all around the Island met at the Patchogue Theatre to learn how we can take advantage of public funding opportunities. Those of us who till the creative fields know how much the arts contribute to the regional economy, as well as the less tangible quality-of-life benefits. But you can’t have a thriving, diverse arts community without affordable places for artists to live and work. That’s an issue the Village of Patchogue is addressing, and the Village of Sag Harbor just might want to listen up.
The forum’s afternoon session featured a presentation by Shawn McLearen, representing Artspace, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer for the arts. Artspace owns and operates 27 projects in 19 cities, from Seattle to Bridgeport. Twenty-one of them are live/work projects, mostly in renovated buildings like factories, schools, warehouses, and even an old army base, with a total of nearly a thousand residential units. Many also include offices for arts organizations, rehearsal and performance venues, and commercial space for arts-friendly businesses.
A few years ago, Artspace partnered with the Patchogue Village Community Development Agency, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District, the Patchogue Arts Council (yes, the village has its own arts council) and other groups to create affordable residential workspaces for artists and their families. The fruit of that labor—Artspace Patchogue Lofts, a five-story, 45-unit complex on Terry Street—is due to open this spring. Unlike most Artspace projects it’s new construction, a sleek modern building with an $18 million price tag financed by a combination of corporate, foundation and government grants, loans, gifts, and economic development funds. If you don’t want to drive the 50 miles to Patchogue to check it out, you can see it on their website, www.artspace.org.
Interestingly, although preference is given to applicants who “participate in and are committed to the arts,” anyone who qualifies for affordable housing may apply. So while Artspace is focused on serving artists, it doesn’t exclude others. The Patchogue project has had 75 applications so far, and is still accepting them, so if you can’t wait for the watchcase factory to become an Artspace project, you can download the application form.
While you’re on the website, take a look at some of the industrial and commercial rehab projects, like the Northern Warehouse in St. Paul, the Harvester Lofts in Council Bluffs, and especially the Switching Station in Chicago, and see if they remind you of a building closer to home—on Hampton Street, in fact. Sag Harbor may not have an arts council, but it does have a Community Housing Trust that could work with Artspace, the Long Island Housing Partnership, the Suffolk County Office of Economic Development and Workforce Housing, CONPOSH, Save Sag Harbor and other interested parties to rescue the watchcase factory and transform it into a hive of creative activity, as well as a monument to creative thinking.