Friday, January 6, 2006

Armory arts center: South Portland's vacant landmark could be reborn as a cultural icon

published in the Portland Phoenix

A 25,000-square-foot building sits on just shy of three acres at the foot of the south end of the Casco Bay Bridge. Vacant since 1996, the former South Portland armory remains in limbo. its owner, the moribund Museum of Glass and Ceramics, declared bankruptcy last year, before ever moving in.

Even a wealthy real-estate developer, Cape Elizabeth's Greg Boulos, a partner in the Boulos Company, one of Maine's largest development firms, last month withdrew an offer to buy the building. He had not expressed any specific plans for the building.

But the armory would be the perfect spot for a multi-disciplinary arts center, with room for a performance-and-exhibition space, soundproof rehearsal rooms, photo darkrooms, small offices for business activities, and ample parking.

All of those things are needed in greater Portland, and an arts-oriented developer was interested enough to want to tour the building after hearing the idea.

REAL POSSIBILITIES

The building is in a landmark position at the entrance to South Portland, an area used to lots of traffic, where attracting more wouldn't be a real problem.

There is room for parking on the armory property, as well as on an adjoining lot owned by Central Maine Power (CMP).

John Carroll, CMP's manager of communications and company relations, said the company had been in talks with the museum about using some of CMP's land — a transmission corridor under high-tension power lines — as a parking area. Carroll said the company would be "open to" discussing a similar arrangement with another owner of the building.

But the real possibilities are inside.

The building's formal entryway, with three doors facing the bridge, is a beautiful space, with wood paneling and brick features reminiscent of government buildings of the early 1940s — when public spaces still sported some degree of grandeur in addition to cheap functionality.

Paint flakes and pieces of broken drop-ceiling tile crunch underfoot in the lobby, a bright space on a rainy day, even with no overhead lights.

Facing the entrance is a reception-style office, with a sliding glass window and side door. To the left is a large space with two offices and a storage area. To the right is a three-office suite with a storage room. (On the wall in one of this suite's offices is a phone jack labeled in red "Hot Line President.")

A hallway runs the width of the building, with small offices and what is now storage space off of it. With a little plumbing, the windowless storage rooms would be excellent — and roomy — darkrooms.

Upstairs is another pair of office suites, with funky skylights in the ceiling. Across the hall are two viewing galleries, long rooms with windows overlooking the building's star attraction: a full-size basketball court, 150 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a double-height ceiling complete with steel beams for rafters.

On each side of the ground-floor entrance to the court are storage areas or small offices.

And running the length of the court on both sides, behind massive garage-type doors, are equipment bays once used by the National Guard to service their vehicles. There are storage spots here and smaller offices, like parts desks at a car dealer.

A group of arts organizations, or individual artists, all looking for office space, gallery or performance space, or even just a conference room to hold business meetings, could get together to purchase the building. Each of them could have some office space, sharing the gymnasium area, which could be easily refitted into a performance space with shared lighting and technical equipment. A part of the gym could be made into a conference room, or even a small gallery for visual arts. The equipment bays could be walled off and made into music-rehearsal spaces.

The common spaces could also be made available for rental by other groups, on a shared-revenue model or even at a flat fee, to help generate revenue.

WHAT IT WOULD TAKE

Starting with the obvious, the entire building could use a floor-to-ceiling paint job.

There are a couple of small bathrooms, but nothing on the scale of what would be needed to serve a performance audience. There no elevator to the second floor. And there is no central heating-system — for some reason the National Guard took it when they left.

But the armory building could be had for $20 a square foot — a bargain-basement deal if ever there was one. The property has outstanding mortgages and taxes due totaling right around $615,000. It is valued at $600,000 in the museum's bankruptcy filing, though the city assessor's office rates it at $515,400.

Boulos had offered $625,000, but pulled out after failing to get an extension to a 45-day deal, according to bankruptcy trustee William Howison, who has control of the building until it is sold. Howison said Boulos wanted eight months to get permits to develop the property.

"He wanted more time and I wasn't willing to agree to it" because a Chapter-7 bankruptcy is supposed to be a relatively quick liquidation of assets, rather than a months-long process, Howison said. Boulos was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Fred W. Bopp III, an attorney with Perkins Thompson who is representing Howison, said the deal should at minimum pay off the mortgages and taxes, and ideally would generate some additional income to pay off other creditors the museum has.

"We are still trying to see if we can put together a sale that makes sense," Bopp said. Neither he nor Howison would talk about how much interest, if any, the building has generated. No offers other than Boulos's have been filed with the bankruptcy court.

What could be done with the building "depends on how much money you have," Howison said. The building is zoned as a residential property, allowing no more than four housing units per acre, or a church, school, museum, or municipal building. It also could allow "recreational or community activity buildings" if they were run as non-profit organizations.

For certain uses, a buyer might need to get a zoning change or variance from the city, though the property is in a high-traffic area next to the fire and police station and across Broadway from a busy shopping area.

The zoning has limited "somewhat" interest from developers, Howison said.

If he cannot sell the building, he will have to get the mortgagors to accept less than their full investment as repayment, or let them foreclose and perhaps auction the building.

INTEREST GROWS

The amount of money involved is a good fit, according to David Shorette, treasurer of the Children's Theatre of Maine, which offered roughly $800,000 for a building in Westbrook last year.

"We'd like to buy a building" and "$600,000 seems quite doable," he said. "I think the location is perfect," though it may have asbestos, which could increase the cost of renovations.

Shorette said there is a need for more room for artists to work and practice. His wife is a dancer, and groups with which she performs are always trying to find rehearsal space and end up changing locations and times often to make schedules work.

The city of South Portland has been interested in the building for a decade. It offering $250,000 for the armory to the state in 1996, then upped its offer to $350,000 in 2001. The city is considering whether to make another offer now.

According to South Portland city attorney Mary Kahl, the armory building has been discussed as a possible new home for the public-works department or for offices for South Portland's city-hall, both of which agencies are slated for new facilities or relocation.

South Portland mayor Maxine Beecher said one problem could be parking — though a CMP agreement could help — and another could be access, because the site is right off a busy intersection with traffic-control islands preventing people from turning into it when heading west on Broadway.

She said there has been talk of housing small art galleries in the building, but zoning restrictions were an unknown factor (though such use might be allowed if the building was owned by a non-profit group).

"I always wanted us to have it" for the city, she said, with the idea of keeping a part of it — including the picturesque front facade — and possibly selling a portion of the property.

Beecher said she liked the idea of drawing more artists to the city and said the schools might be able to get more involved with professional artists and creators.


Artists are looking for more space.

An idea like this one has already been "floated about," according to Jessica Tomlinson, who is active in several capacities in the arts community, including as director of public relations at Maine College of Art, a board member at the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, a member of Governor John Baldacci's council on the creative economy, and a member of the Maine Arts Commission.

"Portland is just getting really pricey," which means "So-Po starts becoming really attractive," she said. A lot of people go to restaurants and beaches in South Portland, and "I think we're going to see more shifting" of arts as well.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to the armory, Tomlinson said.

"It's located in the middle of a massive intersection," which could be a problem for some tenants seeking quieter quarters.

Tomlinson said the building's purchase price is not a real obstacle, but the costs of renovation could be prohibitive.

The building could meet many needs, however. "We still need a black-box theater in this town," and more dance space and rehearsal space would be snapped up quickly, she projected.

Such a building could allow for the "consolidation of resources" — e.g. sharing the cost of a receptionist and even a staff accountant — and owning a building could provide artists with better security for their businesses, she said. "We're all struggling alone in similar ways" trying to protect investments and provide for the future, she said.

Tomlinson liked the idea if the offices were handled on a condominium-style plan, where artists or groups owned their own office space and then paid monthly fees to handle upkeep of the building's common spaces.

She foresaw some trouble with the actual organization of such a project. "Arts organizations have incredible personalities and needs" but those sometimes stand in the way of organizing, she said. Turning the space into a working artist's center would require leadership, including "a small core committed group of individuals" plus some "lightning rods" who have the skills to handle complex tasks like funding and permitting.

"Portland really lacks those true arts champions-slash-heroes," she said. "All the ingredients are here," but "we just really need a cook."

Tomlinson said she is "looking for some new energy" from people who have done this sort of thing before in other places.

Tanja Hollander, one of the organizers of the Bakery Photographic Collective, shares Tomlinson's concern about organization.

"Organizing artists is one of the hardest things to do," she said. "Everybody has their own ideas."

The Bakery group, of about 20 people, have "talked about buying something," but that's years in the future if at all, she said. The group now rents space in a Pleasant Street building.

Hollander also liked the condo-style idea, where "everybody owns their own studio." That, she said, would free up time for artists to be artists, rather than building administrators and contractors.

"In theory, I think it's a great idea. In practice I don't know how that would work," especially if the artists didn't know each other going in, she said.

"I think that artists should really think about owning their studios," though she admitted that because of property costs and artists' income, "a lot of artists don't think that they can buy anything."

COULD IT BE REAL?

Mike Levine of Acorn Productions made a brief business model for a similar idea a couple of years back, but didn't get very far because financing was too big a challenge for him to handle with his other commitments.

"There is a lot of interest in the arts community," he said, including from groups without office, performance, and rehearsal space.

His bigger question was "do you build the collaborations first ... or do you just sort of take the plunge," what he called the "Field of Dreams" approach, where a person or group goes out and creates an artists center and then hopes the artists come.

Levine has decided for himself that he will seek a smaller rehearsal space for Acorn, and then see if other groups or artists want to collaborate and potentially share it.

But in his research for the business plan, he found artists and musicians and others were already paying between $40,000 and $50,000 a year in rent for creative space. For him that meant enough money to rent or buy about 1500 square feet in Portland, covering not just rent but also utilities, maintenance, and other overhead, including possibly a skeleton staff.

Such a project would "need someone who's willing to be a tireless exhorter." Levine expressed willingness to be involved "but not as the lead person."

He said he had also considered partnering with a retail business such as a bar or a coffee shop to generate consistent foot traffic.

His estimates did not include a capital campaign, which he said would be made harder if the building — like the armory — did not have an official designation as a historic building. He said grants for the St. Lawrence Arts Center were easier to come by because the group there was not only creating an art space, but was restoring a dilapidated historic site.

Levine warned that "the bigger the space, the harder the project is to pull off," and said his research into similar ideas showed "the only successful ones were where the city bought the building and leased it to the non-profits for a dollar a year." That freed up rental income for paying off construction loans to refit the building.

"If the city of South Portland wants to do that, I'm sure there would be a lot of interested parties," he said.

The city may be interested, but there is a commercial developer also curious about the idea.

Charlie Hewitt, a painter, printer, and sculptor born in Brunswick and now back in Maine after many years in New York City, estimated a group would need to collect $150,000 for a down payment and come up with $4000 to $5000 for mortgage payments every month. Hewitt is now at work developing high-end artists' live-work condos on Congress Street, and said that model would not be profitable given the space and condition of the armory building.

But as a group of shared offices with a large common space — even split up to handle several uses — the armory model could work, he said.

The equipment bays off to the side could be rented or even sold as storage spaces, potentially making up the whole down-payment amount.

Some organization with some good backing would need to hold the mortgage, Hewitt said. A group of organizations working together could get their separate backers each to put up some small portion of the money, and would still generate plenty of capital, he said.

Sharing the monthly costs among several groups could mean as many as 12 organizations or artists paying between $300 and $400 a month to own and maintain their own spaces.

"That much space could create a whole cultural scene," possibly bringing architects and other independent professionals into closer proximity with working artists, he said.

The large gym could be split into three black-box theaters, sharing lights and sound equipment, running in repertory. There would also be room for an 800- or 1000-square-foot gallery for visual arts, as well as a conference room, he estimated.

Hewitt liked the idea so much he considered taking the lead on the project, and wanted to see the building's interior.

"It's a good old-fashioned artist's idea that's going to be challenging everybody to use it," he said.

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