Processing Your Payment

Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.

May 25, 2015 PAGE ONE

Making room - and living space - for the arts in Worcester, Fitchburg

Molten glass is lowered into a wooden mold at a glass studio of the Worcester Center for Crafts.

Some of the most dynamic cities in the United States rely on a strong core of artists to boost their image and add an element of desirability that’s missing from other communities.

Artists led the first wave of redevelopment in Massachusetts communities like Somerville and Lowell, as well as in Austin, Texas, as they looked for affordable space where they could both live and create. While Central Massachusetts has many mill spaces that could house artists, the development of these “live/work” spaces for artists has not been a priority.

But Fitchburg and Worcester could be on the verge of changing that.
In Fitchburg, the Fitchburg Art Museum and Twin Cities Community Development Center (CDC) are working together to tap into the “creative economy” by transforming three industrial buildings across the street from the museum into combined living and working quarters for artists, with 55 apartments planned for 94,000 square feet of space.

The goal is to create the beginning of an arts epicenter in the city, museum director Nick Capasso said.

“If you bring 100 creative people to the city and have them eat, live, shop and create downtown … this could be a tipping point,” he said, explaining that it takes the full support of the community and local government to open up these spaces. “If it becomes a civic and municipal priority, then it isn’t individual artists and entrepreneurs banging their heads against the byzantine process of development.”

With many housing projects underway in Worcester, Paul Morano, the city’s director of business assistance, sees such space as a “huge, untapped” source of redevelopment in the city. In the last two months, Worcester officials have been approached by developers from New York and Rhode Island that have created similar projects elsewhere.

This could add another element in Worcester’s efforts to redevelop the downtown area, he added. “All that residential (development) is either student housing or empty nesters or housing for professionals,” Morano said. “But we don’t have that artist (space) planned and that is the gap … that could be a big piece for filling up buildings.”

The greatest indicator that Worcester needs combined living and working space for artists lies inside former mill buildings and large houses scattered throughout the city, where artists and artisans cram themselves into makeshift, illegal living quarters within “maker” spaces they rent so they can afford to ply their craft. While these spaces fly under the radar, they run afoul of the city’s zoning laws, Randal Gardner, CEO and treasurer of the Worcester Artist Group, said.

Gardner is concerned about these spaces around the city that don’t necessarily meet fire code and other safety thresholds — and advocates for legal alternatives. Having one space where an artist can work and live is vital, he said, especially when you look at the economics. Some of these artists — recent college graduates particularly - live on as little as $1,000 a month, according to Gardner.

“I’d rather have it legitimized so (that) if you are going to sleep here, let’s make sure the fire department knows that there are 40 or 50 people in there and that it’s not just an empty warehouse,” he said.

But finances are not the only reason for combined spaces. Even more seasoned artists look for a combined living and working space that has specialized equipment or space they need. And then there’s the issue of quality of life, according to Juliet Feibel, executive director of Arts Worcester.

Artists with day jobs don’t want to return home only to eat dinner and then head back out to a remote studio, she said.

Feibel has seen many artists leave Worcester for other locales such as Lowell and Providence. Many even have jobs in Worcester, she said, but would rather commute to Central Massachusetts if it means they can live where they create.

“What I hear about is people leaving. People leave all the time and that indicates to me that there is a demand,” Feibel said of working artists with steady incomes. “You’re talking about responsible, tax-paying citizens who are also creative.”

A look at Lowell

In the late 1990s, Lowell officials began to focus on artists’ studios that double as living spaces as a potential economic driver. The city approved a zoning district that allows such spaces for artists through special permits, according to Allison Lamey, the city’s economic development director.

“We looked at areas in the city where we felt it would be (appropriate) to mix (residential) use but would be able to access gritty industrial uses,” Lamey said. “We found that is what the artists liked and wanted,” and “where we thought we would like to see the art space go.”

The efforts have paid off. Since the first spaces — 51 apartments — became available in 2000, that number has grown to just under 200 apartments with even more studio space. And the artists have become a financial boost for the city, said Lamey, with cultural events bringing in an extra $9 million in tourism revenue while improving the  quality of life for the one-time industrial hub.

Fitchburg moves ahead

In Fitchburg, the City Council recently voted to sell two properties to the CDC for the artist housing project. Before it buys them, the CDC is in the process of gauging developers’ interest. While Capasso and the CDC’s Marc Dohan are confident of the need for more live/work space, a CDC study now underway will also tell what kind of artists are looking for space and the kind of studio space to include.

Worcester is undertaking a similar study that’s scheduled to be completed this summer. Once the results come in — from which Erin Williams, the city’s cultural development officer, expects to show a need — the city will work with local artist groups to help them formally request live/work space from developers and property owners.

“We need to think not just about old mill buildings anymore, but empty supermarkets, empty church buildings that are not being used by their community, but vacant buildings in all their forms,” Williams said, explaining the city will deal with individual developments rather than enact large-scale zoning changes.

Ultimately, communities must play to their strengths, Capasso said. Artist housing and work space won’t make sense for every city and town in Central Massachusetts, but in places such as Worcester and Fitchburg, which already have strong artistic communities, these spaces can be a key part of redevelopment and even draw artists from elsewhere.

“I have artists on a regular basis who say ‘I love living in Worcester, but I am moving to Providence where I can get live/work space,’” Feibel said.

Fitchburg “is addressing a need. I think (the live/work space) will pull from all of the Boston suburbs and … from Worcester, unless we get smarter.”

Sign up for Enews

WBJ Web Partners


Order a PDF