Downtown welcomes artists to affordable housing

The+unused+Saddle+Blanket+site+will+house+striving+artists+in+the+city.+Occupancy+is+expected+to+start+in+late+spring+or+early+summer+of+2016.+
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Downtown welcomes artists to affordable housing

The unused Saddle Blanket site will house striving artists in the city. Occupancy is expected to start in late spring or early summer of 2016.

The unused Saddle Blanket site will house striving artists in the city. Occupancy is expected to start in late spring or early summer of 2016.

Tania Moran

The unused Saddle Blanket site will house striving artists in the city. Occupancy is expected to start in late spring or early summer of 2016.

Tania Moran

Tania Moran

The unused Saddle Blanket site will house striving artists in the city. Occupancy is expected to start in late spring or early summer of 2016.

Jose Soto, Staff Reporter

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What is currently an underutilized space in Downtown El Paso will soon house local artists and creative businesses.

The unused former Saddle Blanket site will undergo a massive transformation into an innovative, an affordable housing project for striving artists in the city.

Artspace, America’s leader in artist led community transformation, partnered with the El Paso Community Foundation, Artists’ Communities in the Downtown Core, the city of El Paso and local artists to set the plan in motion for permanent affordable housing for artists and affordable commercial space for businesses. Artspace follows the mission to create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations.

The dire need for such development became apparent when a market survey was released to the El Paso public in 2008, producing more than 400 responses. The results were given to local stakeholders in 2010, who have proceeded with the plans.  The goal is to create an entrepreneurial arts center, where artists currently face a need for affordable space, to  create and sell their art and maintain a profitable lifestyle.

“In our many meetings with the creative community, we have learned that there is a great need for a permanent place/space for artists to live and work, collaborate and experiment and share their ideas with the community,” said Cathryn Vanderbrink, vice president of Artspace.  “The response from artists in El Paso is one of the largest in our experience.”

Vanderbrink said that two local artists, Chris Cummings and Katherine Brennan, had previously heard of Artspace and worked with the city to bring a project to El Paso.

“The work began with a Preliminary Feasibility Study, progressed to an Artist Market Survey, and ultimately to the predevelopment contract that has allowed us to advance the project to its current place,” Vanderbrink said. “This method of working (responding to invitations by a local community) is how almost all of Artspace’s work began.”

Samantha Brown, a UTEP alumna with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, sees this as an opportunity for El Paso to focus on their local artists.

“Most often, local artists are overlooked by the general public.  Many don’t realize that the salary of an artist, most usually isn’t enough to live off of,” Brown said. “This will surely help out our community in assisting them find a better economic zone.”

Yvianna Hernandez, a UTEP alumna with a bachelor’s degree in art, agreed with Brown and said
this project is long overdue, and she feels a sense of relief to see that it is
actually happening.

“Unfortunately, some of El Paso’s best artists leave the city because they simply can’t afford to work and live on their own here.  This will help the art community here in El Paso preserve it’s talent,” Hernandez said.

Both Brown and Hernandez have been waiting for the project to begin since 2010.  Although they say that it’s taken longer than expected, they are excited to see some progress.

“I’m glad they finally have announced dates and information,” Brown said.  “The art community was starting to worry.”

Anyone working and skilled in any fine arts is encouraged to apply.  This includes painting, drawing, sculpting, book art and printmaking, among other art genres such as film, video, digital media, photography and music composition.

“For live/work residential units, the application process is a formal low-income housing application process that involves submittal of materials that demonstrate income qualification (low enough income to qualify for affordable housing, enough income to be able to afford the rent), prior rental history verifiction, etc.,” Vandenbrink said. “Qualified households are then interviewed to discuss their involvement in the arts.”

A preference is given to qualified households, who demonstrate a commitment to their particular art form.

“For commercial spaces, we are in continual conversation with individuals and organizations interested in establishing an arts-related business in the project,” said Vanderbrink.

Miguel Veliz, senior graphic design major, said he believes the art community will benefit a lot from this project.

“Having all artists in one building would help to support each other and collaborate in projects. Also, the El Paso community could come and learn about what an artist’s studio life is like,” Veliz said.

“I do want to be part of this project, and definitely I would apply for space in the future, because not only would benefit me as an artist, but because it’s a great opportunity to share visions with other artists as well.”

Vandenbrink describes the living spaces as being larger, more durable and flexible to accommodate the living and working needs of the
artistic residents.

“Community facilities will exist that will allow artists to exhibit work and hold arts-related events and performances on the property,” she said. “The building will be sustainable, with many green building features.”

The budget for the Artspace El Paso project is set at approximately $11 million.  Public sources include the city of El Paso, Federal Home Loan Bank, private fund raising and an affordable housing tax credit application that was submitted this year. Artspace expects to have the funds for the project secured by August, with site construction expected to start in spring 2015.

Artspace is currently engaged in site investigation and is also doing schematic designs and ongoing communal activities. Occupancy is expected to start in late spring or early summer of 2016.

Jose Soto may be reached at [email protected]