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It Pays to Convert Industrial Buildings to Artist Spaces

This week’s reader contribution is an interesting perspective--the commercial view--on the value of converting unused industrial buildings into artist spaces. Commercial broker Jon Davey is the author.

Oil & Water: Artists and Commercial Real Estate.

It just doesn’t mix. Or does it? For as long as I can remember, artists and the art world have been shunned by commercial property owners and commercial brokers alike. It would be easy to say it’s been a bad mix, but the truth is: It’s barely been a mix at all. But things can and do change and some commercial property owners have turned the artists into proverbial gold. Others are looking to mirror that success.

Case in point, 86 Joy St. in Somerville, AKA Joy St. Studios. Just prior to the onset of the recession, Property Manager Louise Maxwell converted 30,000 sq ft of near useless basement space and second-floor industrial space from almost empty storage space, renting at $3/sq ft, to artist studios that now rent for an average of $22/sq ft in a building that boasts a 98% occupancy rate.

Although this success in and of itself may seem genius, take a closer look and one might think Maxwell should receive a Property Manager of The Year award. The conversion to artist studios cost approximately $200,000 or about $6.66/sq ft. Far less than the tenant improvements now being offered by the majority of Boston retail and office property owners. The average rent rivals that of downtown Boston office properties yet has a vacancy rate far below that of Boston office properties. Joy Street Studios sits amongst Somerville’s industrial jungle. Flanked by a transfer station, auto body shops and other assorted eye sores, yet has a near zero vacancy rate and rents rivaling that of the glitzy and glamorous Downtown Boston. Louise has turned industrial waste into gold by catering to the art community.

In Dorchester, Linda Webster and longtime Dorchester resident has been considering converting her building in Upham’s Corner to artist space as well. Located at 584 Columbia Rd, the iconic building and former Masonic Hall seems a natural conversion candidate with 24,000 sq ft on the upper three floors featuring high ceilings, an open layout and abundant north light. The space could be ideal for photographers, painters, sculptors, media artists, video artists, jewelry makers and more.

Webster is cautiously optimistic and simultaneously excited at the concept. “In today’s economy, sometimes you have to get innovative. Maybe the artists are the way to go. Hopefully, this can be a win-win situation, and I think if this works out, it would be great for the neighborhood as well. Time will tell,” she said.

Through the annals of history, it has been said that necessity breeds innovation. Pairing commercial property managers and artists may seem like mixing oil and water, but apparently, some of these artists are spinning gold.

Jonathan Davey is the managing Director of ABG Commercial. As a commercial broker in New England, Mr. Davey acts as a consultant to several banks, municipalities, community development organizations and private investors as well. Amongst other things, Mr. Davey is responsible for Asset Management, broker training & compliance, property valuations, market studies, Broker Opinion of Value ( BOV) and feasibility studies.

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