Creative sparks: The value of undeveloped spaces in Charlottesville

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Two years ago John Rubino moved his metal sculpture studio from McIntire Plaza to IX Art Park. He pays approximately the same rent for substantially more space. Photo: Eze Amos Two years ago John Rubino moved his metal sculpture studio from McIntire Plaza to IX Art Park. He pays approximately the same rent for substantially more space. Photo: Eze Amos

This is just a glorious space,” says the artist, his eyes drinking it all in. Many people would probably balk at that assessment. The place is roughed-in and decidedly unfinished—lots of raw wood with minimal concessions to human occupancy. There are lights and a number of electrical outlets and exposed ductwork for air and heat overhead. A few tables tucked into the corners serve as individual work areas within the otherwise open space, with just a few beams, a few area dividers of exposed sheet rock and empty floor. It’s not much to look at, unless you look at it from a certain perspective, and from a certain set of needs. And that’s exactly the way the artist sees it—as a blank slate for doing creative work.

The artist and the owner of this building were not sure they wanted to be featured in an article on the redevelopment of downtown. So I offered them anonymity because the story of this space is so interesting. The artist knew the owner had unused space in his building. He also knows the value of inexpensive studio space to people doing creative work. So he convinced the owner to do a few small-scale accommodations and rent out semi-private work studios. When the artist hears of a fellow creative looking for studio space, he sends him or her to the owner. There are currently three tenants in the space—each with his or her own work area, littered with tools of the trade and plastered with trials and essays and works-in-progress. And everyone seems happy. The tenants get inexpensive studio space, the artist gets the satisfaction of helping the cause of art, and the owner gets a little extra income from his property at the cost of a few minor renovations. Win–win–win.

Correction: win–win–win–question mark. Because it’s unclear how long it can last.

It’s part of the logic of a booming development cycle and a restless economy that sparsely utilized, post-industrial spaces like this one will inevitably get bought up, redeveloped and upscaled. A space that might have started its life 100 years ago as a warehouse may lie fallow for a while after something in the economy shifts. But eventually it will sprout into apartments or boutiques or restaurants or into the combination of residential and office and retail that city planners call, with angelic choirs and showers of light pouring down from the heavens, “mixed use.” Fly a camera drone straight up over this part of town, and what you’d see is one of the most diverse, nonredeveloped areas remaining in Charlottesville. The city calls it the Strategic Investment Area (or SIA). It constitutes 330 acres roughly bounded by the CSX railroad tracks and by Avon Street on the east and Ridge Street on the west. It’s been on a slow fuse for years, and now it’s about to explode.

The Strategic Investment Area, a 330-acre parcel the city has targeted for redevelopment, includes such projects as rebuilding the Belmont Bridge, streetscape projects and redeveloping Friendship Court.

As redevelopment proceeds in this transition zone south of the Downtown Mall, property values are going to rise. And that is a situation that the owner knows quite well. He wants to sell, and he has a price in mind. Sooner or later he’s going to get that price. The artist can see the writing on the wall—right alongside the art. “It’s a pretty amazing space,” he shrugs, “and it’s probably going to go away at some point. But until then, let’s do something.”

The artist introduces me to one of the tenants. I ask what he finds appealing about working here: “The great thing about this space,” he says, “is the location, and also the raw quality of it—that you can with a little bit of work turn it into a nice studio/workshop.” He mentions that a group of colleagues have talked about finding a similar collaborative “making” space somewhere: “The idea is to get out in the community a bit more,” he says.

He has just relocated his studio from a town about a half-hour drive away, where space was plentiful and cheap but the commute was “ridiculous.” I ask him what he thinks will happen when the building gets sold. “To me,” he says, “what’s most important is to have a good space that supports the work. I imagine when it goes away, we go away. You start moving further and further away to find the space.”

And therein lies a story—one that hasn’t yet been acknowledged or identified, much less addressed, in all the city’s planning for the SIA. Economic development and speculative reinvestment aren’t the only things happening in this neck of the woods. There is also a healthy amount of grassroots creative activity—artists and nonprofits and cultural provocateurs doing their thing. There is The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in a nondescript brick box near Spudnuts (itself gloriously, scruffily, endearingly nonredeveloped). Just across Avon Street there is an old service station housing two socially aware nonprofits: the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville and Charlottesville Community Bikes. And then there’s the IX Art Park, which houses the Maker Space and a sculpture studio, not to mention the open space of the park itself, a flexible communitarian plaza—home to Fleaville and music and theater and civic events and festivals. And all of that is on top of whatever other solo-shot studio spaces may be squirreled into the low-rent nooks and crannies of the neighborhood.

Enabled by low overhead and nonredeveloped spaces and the occasional enlightened property owner, cultural pioneers are busy adding verve and vibrancy and economic kick to this part of town right now, not in some utopian mixed-use future. What happens to all of that when the redevelopment freight train starts rolling through?

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