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Portland has a Heart for artists
All signs point to the creation of the cityís first permanent affordable artist live/work spaces
BY SARA DONNELLY

If not for the worn-in chill collected over months of unheated days this winter, the Sacred Heart School on the corner of Sherman and Mellen Streets in Portland might seem like it closed just yesterday. The classrooms in this two-story former elementary school, which was built in 1927, still house ghostly reminders of the buildingís final lessons ó wide wooden teacherís desks and broken swivel chairs sit in the center of silent classrooms, posters of Spain and France hang on the walls, clocks hang stopped just after the first bell. In the hallway on the second floor is a pile of boxes filled with wrapping paper, cardboard, pencils and paper, all left in 2003 when the cityís school department closed down the multicultural program housed here.

Everywhere lurk echoes of arrested activity. Aaron Shapiro, Director of the Housing and Neighborhood Services Division, stops at the landing on the first floor and points to the smooth stone stairs.

"Everything here is really solid," he says, breaking briefly into a smile.

Though Shapiro shies away from any mention of it, artists in town say he may be responsible for helping to turn this abandoned schoolhouse into the cityís first permanent affordable-housing space for artists. In mid-April, the cityís housing committee will review a request for proposals (RFP) drafted by Shapiro and a volunteer committee that would require the eventual developer to turn this schoolhouse into at least eight studio condominiums for artists.

The Sacred Heart School RFP committee, which Shapiro created, includes longtime artist live/work-space activists Rose Morasco (a visual artist and USM prof) and Jessica Tomlinson (MECA publicity gal, and otherwise), members of the cityís Planning and Development Department, and a neighborhood representative. Jim Cloutier and Karen Geraghty, two members of the housing committee, have both expressed preliminary support for the idea, but have not examined the RFP in detail.

According to Tomlinson, this is the first time the city has made real moves to establish live/work space for artists after identifying it as a need in Portlandís 2002 comprehensive plan.

Tomlinson, who helped found Portland Artist Dwellings and Studios (or PADS), has toured the school and calls it "a natch" for artistsí housing.

"You canít go in there and look at it and not see it as a perfect fit," she says. "Itís a brick shithouse in the sense that it is solid, which is very important if youíre looking at doing large-scale work. And because it was a school, the rooms are already large open spaces so the amount of rehabilitation that would need to be done to turn this into artistsí space is really minimal."

City councilor Jim Cloutier believes the former school, which the city purchased from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Maine in April 1999 for $150,000, could help Portland begin to address its shortage of affordable artist housing, which he says is consistent with a cycle of urban development that happens around the country.

"The paradox of an arts district is they almost always develop in places where rents are next to zero or very low because thatís the kind of space struggling artists can afford," he says. "And the cycle thatís been repeated in Portland and across the country is that artists and crafts people will move into an area, they will populate it and it will be a great place to go and find good art and all of sudden the rents start to rise, the retail and shopping opportunities get upgraded, and now artists can not afford to live there. Thatís happened in Portland with the Old Port and on central Congress Street right now, and I think whatís developed in the rest of the country is that itís a worthwhile endeavor to create an affordable housing and workspace opportunity to support a permanent arts community. Thatís what this is really all about."

Cloutier believes the sale and development of the Sacred Heart School property could be much more financially fruitful for the city than another notable city-owned relic, St. Dominicís Church on State Street, the $1 million renovation of which has been in slow-motion since the city purchased the property in 2001. The Sacred Heart School, he says, has far fewer structural problems that could potentially clog development. Shapiro says no structural analysis has been completed yet on the property, but, for instance, the roof and the boiler are both relatively new.

The RFP draft requires the buyer of the property to develop units for sale rather then for rent. Owners of the units who eventually want to sell would in turn be required to sell to an artist at an affordable rate and on down the line indefinitely, as per a land-use covenant which the city would add to the deed if the RFP is approved. According to Shapiro, the standards for affordable housing will most likely be consistent with the cityís definition, in which all households earning 80 percent of the median income in Portland (about $35,000 for a single person, according to 1999 United States Census data) qualify. Evaluating whoís an artist and whoís a wannabe is more touch-and-go, Shapiro admits, and this eternal question will be largely left up to the developer.

Musicians, you might want to start making your case now.

Sara Donnelly can be reached at sdonnelly@phx.com

 


Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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