It’s a cliche that perhaps stretches back to the first Neanderthal dabbing paint on cave walls: the starving artist.
Although local independent artists may not be begging for food, the average income of the 4,300 people who consider themselves in that category is about $12,500, according to a survey by the ArtsKC-Regional Arts Council,
That’s why Minneapolis developer George Sherman wants to renovate the historic Scarritt Building at 818 Grand Blvd. into 109 affordable loft-style apartments with monthly rents that any struggling artist would appreciate: $525 for studio units, $650 for one-bedroom units.
The $21.7 million redevelopment plan this week won the unanimous support of the Municipal Art Commission. The plan is seeking affordable housing tax credits from the state of Missouri as well as state and federal historic tax credits. If the necessary financing is arranged, work would begin next summer with completion in 2015.
Stephanie Leedy, who offers space for artists to live and work above the Leedy-
Voulkos gallery in the Crossroads Arts District, said there’s a huge demand for the two dozen lofts in what’s casually known as Leedyville.
“You can’t find affordable space in the Crossroads,” she said.
“If they’re not renting from us or a couple of other buildings, they’re out of luck. I have so many people asking for space, and I don’t have anything.”
And with Kansas City becoming more appealing to artists as a place to live and work, the need for affordable housing is only growing, said Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC.
“Our tracking data shows we’re getting more artists moving to Kansas City,” he said.
“I think renovating the Scarritt is a great idea. Ultimately, for artists, it’s about having a space. The whole model of live-work has been successful, and I like the idea of more people living downtown.”
The plan by Sherman Associates calls for renovating the 11-story Scarritt Building into 40 studio apartments and 69 one-bedroom units. The first floor and basement level would be used for retail and community space.
A follow-up phase calls for redeveloping the companion four-story Scarritt Arcade at 819 Walnut St. into studio space and an art gallery. Sherman has both buildings under contract.
The Scarritt Building and Arcade were completed in 1907 and designed by the firm of Root Siemens. They are described as an “outstanding expression of Sullivan-esque design” in a guidebook prepared by the Kansas City Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The buildings went through an earlier renovation in 1985.
“The Scarritt Building is significant as a frankly modern American building, strongly influenced by the architectural dictates of Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School, and completely typical of the ‘new’ skyscraper architecture of the early 1900s,” according to the building’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
The buildings are owned by J. Tim Emerson, an executive at Ozark National Life Insurance Co.
Donovan Mouton, the representative of Sherman Associates, the Minnesota developer, told the Arts Commission the office building is about one-third occupied.
Sherman previously redeveloped the historic 1006 Grand building downtown into 134 apartments in 2011. The firm also made a recent unsuccessful bid to redevelop the Kansas City Power Light Building. In St. Louis, Sherman recently renovated the historic Syndicate Trust Building and devoted part of the building to artist housing.
“This (Scarritt Building) would be the largest residential development for artists in the Kansas City area and perhaps the state of Missouri,” Mouton told commissioners.
Although the marketing of the building will be aimed toward artists, anyone meeting the income guidelines could live there. Affordable housing guidelines limit annual incomes for a one-person household to $30,840; a two-person household, $35,220; and a three-person household, $39,600.
Mouton, however, expected that artists living there would likely inform their peers when openings occurred.
That makes sense to Paul Tyler, ArtsKC grants director, who said artists tend to have a strong sense of community and enjoy networking.
“It’s clear to us that live-work space helps artists do their work best,” he said. “We don’t have any large-scale work space in Kansas City. I’ve seen the Scarritt Building, and I think it’s an exciting project.”
The proposed timetable calls for the renovation of the Scarritt Arcade to occur in about three years. Mouton told the Arts Commission that Sherman would seek a nonprofit organization to run the Arcade. The cost for using the 20 or 30 studio spaces planned for the Arcade has not been determined.
Parking also would cost extra, but Mouton said the owner of the garage at 800 Grand has agreed to lease spaces to tenants.
The architect for the project would be Paul Stark of SWD Architects, and the contractor would be Rau Construction.
Jill Downen is a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute who teaches sculpture. When she was a young artist in St. Louis in the 1990s, she remembers having to move to a suburban location 20 miles from downtown to find an affordable apartment.
Redeveloping the Scarritt would be a “make-it kind of deal,” Downen observed.
“You want to keep artists in the urban environment to have a vital city,” she said. “This is a win-win for the city and the artists.”