A group of Silver Spring residents want to turn an old police station into an arts center modeled on the Gateway Arts Center in Prince George’s County. However, building an artist community in Silver Spring will require something that’s hard to find here: housing that artists can afford.
The Gateway Arts Center is successful partly because it’s located in a more established artist enclave, the Gateway Arts District, located along Route 1 in Prince George’s County. Like downtown Silver Spring, it’s one of 19 Arts & Entertainment Districts designated by the state of Maryland, making it eligible for grants to support the arts and arts-related uses.
But the district has also drawn artists for decades. Each year, it holds a yearly studio tour with nearly 120 local artists in 17 venues.
Not only that, but the Gateway Arts District has lots of old houses and warehouses that are cheap and easy to repurpose. There aren’t a lot of buildings like that in Silver Spring anymore. Artists who lack places to work need affordable places to live as well.
Being in downtown Silver Spring less than a mile from the Metro, the 2½ acres the police station sits on are very valuable. Perhaps a better use for this site would be a mix of studio space and artist housing, not unlike Renaissance Square and the Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, two apartment buildings in the Gateway Arts District, or the Brookland Artspace Lofts, a building in Northeast Washington. All three buildings rent apartments and live-work units at subsidized rates to people who earn their living making art.
These buildings, which are each 100% occupied, offer artists who often have low incomes a quality place to live. According to the Census, the median rent in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring is $1206 a month, but actual apartment listings suggest that’s only enough for a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, a one-bedroom in the Brookland Artspace Lofts with studio space rents for $970, while a two-bedroom is just $1,205.
We could turn the police station into an arts center as proposed, but also build low-rise artist housing around it. A smaller community garden could be built, or it could instead be located in any of the 46 other parks in below-the-Beltway Silver Spring and Takoma Park. The lawn in front of the police station could still become a small public space for the neighborhood.
This proposal would cost more to build and may require public money. The Brookland Artspace Lofts in the District, developed by the same company that built the apartments in Mount Rainier, received $11 million in construction funding and tax credits from the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. If a funding source is found, however, artist housing could provide more customers for local businesses while developing a more substantial and diverse arts scene.
When I suggested this to Karen Roper and Steve Knight, two of the residents leading the push for the Station Arts Center, they were skeptical. “It’s a little more unstructured and bohemian,” Knight says. “I know one of the artists we talked to, she’s married and has a house and a family.” He wants to know “how strong of a need” there is for artist housing in Silver Spring.
"My neighbors ... bought their houses cheap” decades ago, says Roper. “They’re looking for studio space.” She notes that “two, possibly three” buildings with subsidized apartments will be built on Fenton Street in coming years, while a developer wants to renovate the Eagle Bank building at Sligo Avenue and Fenton Street into “microlofts,” or small apartments geared at single adults.
One of the reasons the county may support the current Station Arts Center proposal is because of their experience with the new police station in White Oak. Plans to sell extra land around the station to build a mix of affordable and market-rate housing in 2009 were met with intense community opposition before they eventually backed down. Whether the county uses the old police station property to meet its affordable housing goals or make money by selling it to a private developer, dealing with angry neighbors will be inevitable.
That’s why Roper and her neighbors are trying to start the conversation about development. “We wanted to get out there and make our pitch before somebody came in and did the same old, same old,” she says. “I would like to see some imagination in this county. It’s not about how much you develop, it’s about how you develop.”
Roper wants the Station Arts Center to distinguish Fenton Village from the rest of Silver Spring, calling it the “only thing that represents us and who we are.”
As I’ve written before, having spaces for making art makes our community stronger. Even if I don’t agree with every part of the Station Arts Center concept, I’m glad that neighbors are being proactive about what they’d like to see in their community.
That said, Karen Roper might be okay with a few more apartments if they allowed the neighborhood to keep its artistic flair. “I’d rather live in a dense, crowded place with artists and musicians,” she says. “When you take that character away, you just have a bunch of crap next to each other.”