Reading

Beloved Artist-owned Space Area 405 Listed for Sale

Previous Story
Article Image

Jonathan Monaghan, 2021 Sondheim Finalist

Next Story
Article Image

The Internet Is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles [...]

The Baltimore Business Journal reported earlier this week that Area 405, an artist-owned and -occupied community anchor of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, has been listed for sale. The four-story, nearly 66,000 square foot industrial space located at 405-417 E. Oliver Street was put on the market by owners, according to the BBJ, and the listing names realtor Ari Azarbarzin of Cushman & Wakefield as the principal contact. The real estate listing, which became active on May 28, calls the place “Oliver Street Lofts,” a name that has never previously been associated with Area 405. In the BBJ, Azarbarzin is quoted as saying, “The building is a great opportunity for any developer or real estate operator looking to capitalize on the growth of Penn Station and the greater regional connectivity along the Acela Corridor that will arise out of the redevelopment.” 

The owners of 405-417 E. Oliver Street, 3 Square Feet LLC, was formed in 2002 to purchase the building, and currently includes artists Stewart Watson and Jim Vose (who own a 27.16 percent share of the LLC), engineer and entrepreneur Steve Freel (27.16%), artist Monika Graves (17.7%), businessman and furniture maker Tom Witt (22.16%), and artist Daniel Sullivan (5.82%). Of the five owners, Stewart Watson has acted as the managing partner of the building, and for anyone who has interacted with Area 405 over the past fifteen years, Watson has been the main public- and community- facing member of the group.

As a studio tenant in Area 405 for two years, and after hosting events, covering Area 405 exhibitions and Alloverstreet gatherings for many years at BmoreArt, as well as curating several exhibitions there with Watson, this news was tragic–for me, and for Baltimore. However, it was even worse to learn about the sale via the BBJ, rather than directly from a representative of the building. Like the other 50 or so artists renting studios at Area 405, I still have not received any official notification from the property manager or any of the members of the 3 Square Feet LLC, and it is unclear what the plans are for the future. I reached out to all five members of the LLC and heard back from Graves and Sullivan, but they declined to answer my questions.

A phone call with Watson on June 17 revealed that she also was informed that the building was on the market through the BBJ article. Although Watson had been involved in discussions with the other members of the LLC over the past year about selling the building, including a lawsuit between members, she said that she and her husband, Jim Vose, have received no documentation from the realtor and have signed no paperwork authorizing the current listing.

The sale of the building is complicated because Watson and Vose relocated to the United Kingdom in 2019 for Vose’s employment, although Watson hired a property manager to care for the gallery space and studios, a role she had previously filled. Travel restrictions prohibited her from returning to Baltimore during the pandemic, and although there were rumors of an impending sale and lawsuit between the members of the LLC, there has been no official communication between owners and tenants or with Watson and Vose. It appears that the majority of the owners have now decided to sell the building, which is their legal right.

 

An exhibition by Lu Zhang, an Area 405 studio artist, in the gallery, photo by Joe Hyde

The BBJ mentioned the $90 million Penn Station development project set to begin construction this summer, as well as a recent undisclosed sum from opportunity zone investor Blueprint Local as spurring development interest in the area, which is less than half a mile from the train station, with a prediction of $500 million in investments in the region. 

Unmentioned was a string of recent commercial property purchases made by a Pennsylvania-based developer in the immediate vicinity of Area 405. Since December 2019, Bastogne Development Partners, a suburban Philadelphia-based firm that calls itself a “development and advisory company with extensive experience planning and delivering projects that deliver social impact, often in very challenging environments,” has purchased 1801 Guilford Avenue ($1.05 million in December 2019), 325 East Oliver St. ($2.25 million in August 2020), and 401 E. Oliver Street ($1.6 million in January 2021). These purchases were confirmed at a Greenmount West community meeting on Zoom in January 2021, where a Bastogne representative said they didn’t have immediate plans for redevelopment, though didn’t share what plans they do have.

And that uncertainty weighs heavily on Area 405 studio tenants and Greenmount West residents who have put sweat equity into making this pocket of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District a community that now includes the Baltimore Design School, City Arts 1 and 2 apartments, the Station North Tool Library, Open Works, and a variety of smaller businesses and homes. In 2018, the Central Baltimore Partnership helped the owners secure grant funds of $200,000 to complete code upgrades in 2018, so the building has made a number of improvements for its tenants and, according to Watson, it was finally bringing in a modest monthly income.

 

Stewart Watson at Area 405, photo by Elena Volkova for BmoreArt Issue 01
Since December 2019, Bastogne Development Partners, a suburban Philadelphia-based firm has purchased 1801 Guilford Avenue ($1.05 million in December 2019), 325 East Oliver St. ($2.25 million in August 2020), and 401 E. Oliver Street ($1.6 million in January 2021).
Cara Ober

The Central Baltimore Partnership, an organization that promotes healthy growth and investment in specific Baltimore neighborhoods with the goal to avoid displacement, began working with Greenmount West community leaders and the owners of 405 for several months to stave off the sale of this property and, in their desire to keep Area 405 an artist-occupied space, the CBP talked to area developers, foundations, and lenders.

They ordered an appraisal of the building in spring of 2021 with Three Square Feet LLC and, for the first time in the organization’s history, submitted a letter of intent to purchase the building on May 21, 2021 at the appraisal amount, which was $2.2 million. Executive director Ellen Janes says that she has not gotten any response from Three Square Feet LLC, but remains committed to their goals. By phone, Watson acknowledged that she had received the CBP offer, as did the other partners, but that no discussion of it had included her, if it occurred.

“We have worked to mobilize a team who could purchase the building and preserve the affordability of the arts studios; protect the Station North Tool Library; and attract new tenants to the first floor who would both maintain the current spirit of the building and bring new vitality to the street, neighborhood and Arts District,” says Janes. In addition to facilitating ownership for artists and locals of properties in the region and securing grants for building improvements, the CBP has recently taken the Station North Arts & Entertainment District under the umbrella of their organization and plans more robust future engagement and advocacy in the district.

Given Area 405’s vital role in helping build the Station North Arts &  Entertainment District since its inception in 2002, it’s not surprising that artists and Greenmount West residents now fear that multi-million-dollar development projects may displace a thriving arts community that calls it home.

According to Jackie Milad, a mixed media artist who has rented a space in the building since 2015, “Emailing your artist tenants before sending a press release would have been the right thing to do, a common courtesy.” Milad says she will be moving out of 405 because the instability and lack of communication is adding too much stress to her life.

Milad said that she chose Area 405 for a studio because many artists she respects have studios there, the proximity to Amtrak is convenient, the rent is subsidized, and the ability to arrange studio visits to multiple artists with collectors and curators is unparalleled. On the decision to sell the building she said, “It is never simply about the artists–it is the continued and regular threat of whole-community displacement in our Black and brown city” that has become a common theme in gentrifying areas of Baltimore.

Phaan Howng, another artist who has rented a studio since 2017 and recently exhibited her work in a solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art said the news of the sale was like “being broken up with via text message,” since there has been no communication with tenants. She described her studio as “dear and amazing and affordable” and said that the building has been a great place to be, instrumental in creating giant works of art within a community that has been “one giant force.”

 

Phaan Howng's dogs, Kiki and Ghosteye, photographed by Jill Fannon in her Area 405 Studio for BmoreArt Issue 11
Jackie Milad in her Area 405 Studio, photographed by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 05
As a black queer person living in Baltimore there aren’t many spaces where I can do my multi-discplinary work as an artist, writer, and cultural worker to create an artistic sanctuary for collaboration... There are so few spaces like this, in Baltimore or across the country
Abdu Ali, 405 Studio Artist

Joan Mitchell award-winning sculptor Elliot Doughtie (whose 405 studio is featured on the cover of BmoreArt’s most recent print journal, Issue 11), has rented a studio in the building since 2018, but says he wanted to be a “405 artist” since the first time he visited the studios in 2013. The MICA MFA graduate says, “I live in the neighborhood, so having a studio across the street is extremely beneficial for me. I also work in DC and the proximity to Penn station allows me to walk to the studio and work for an hour or two before going home, even with the lengthy commute.”

Doughtie continues, “My studio set-up right now is ideal for my practice. I’ve made friendships with many of the artists in the building I would not have otherwise. I truly love being there and my work and career has benefited immensely because of it. I’m devastated to lose it and to have found out the way I did. It felt so cold and isolating after a relationship that was anything but for so long.” Doughtie explains that the tenant-landlord relationship he had with Watson has been special, and that she helped him to find a space that truly fit his needs, at a price point that has allowed his practice to grow and achieve a national level of acclaim. “I wouldn’t have been able to grow as I have without that,” says Doughtie. “My time at 405 will always be a very pivotal time in my career. I don’t know what I will do when I have to leave.”

Abdu Ali, photo by Elliott Jerome Brown, Jr.

Abdu Ali, a 405 studio artist and a globally known and award-winning avant-garde electronic musician, writer, and multidisciplinary artist who has performed at MoMa Ps1, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and The Kennedy Center, says, “As a black queer person living in Baltimore there aren’t many spaces where I can do my multi-discplinary work as an artist, writer, and cultural worker to create an artistic sanctuary for collaboration, especially in the As They Lay curatorial platform I founded… I had been looking for a studio space for years but was never able to find one that fit all the things that I do.”

“I love Stewart so much because she gave me the perfect studio and it was affordable,” says Ali, but that the announcement of the sale of the property without notifying the artists who rent there was a huge disrespect from the LLC who listed the property. “With this space possibly not being mine in the future, this creates so much anxiety. Artists are tired because we do everything, in addition to doing our actual artwork and we need Area 405, not just for the artists who work there, but for its ability to nurture talent in this city because there are so few spaces like this, in Baltimore or across the country.” Ali says they feel that the future of their career and ability to make an income, as well as the future of the community, is looking unstable and unsustainable because of the sale of 405.

According to Ali, the collective success centered in the Greenmount West area is proof that artists are one of the city’s most valuable assets, but that the entirety of the weight of this labor and economic insecurity falls upon artists. “We have these arts institutions and City Hall and they love to praise our work, but they are not doing enough to make sure artists in Baltimore are able to have careers that are thriving,” says Ali. “We need resources and economic opportunities and affordable studios, which are scarce. This needs to be corrected, but not by the artists. We do too much of the work already and we are tired. If we are truly what makes Baltimore special, we deserve respect and support and investment.”

Stewart Watson next to the Area 405 bar area in the gallery, photo by Elena Volkova for BmoreArt Issue 01
Artists do too much of the work already and we are tired. If we are truly what makes Baltimore special, we deserve respect and support and investment.
Abdu Ali

Greenmount West homeowner Amber Eve Anderson says that she suspected Area 405 might go on the market after learning that 325 Oliver Street sold for $2.1 million to Bastogne Development Partners earlier this year at a Greenmount West community association meeting. “The strength of both GWCA and the arts was a big draw for me to buy a house in this neighborhood, and I’m concerned that capital interests will ultimately outweigh community interests. I would love to see a local foundation invest in the property so that the Tool Library can continue to thrive.”

Adam Kutcher, a Greenmount West resident and Chair of the Greenmount West Land Use Committee Association who is also a proud Tool Library member, expressed the huge and lasting significance of the space to community members saying, “Both physically and spiritually, 405 is the heart of the Oliver Street corridor of the Station North A&E in Greenmount West. It’s where creative and makers are. It cannot be overstated how much the residents of 405, and what they have created, has added to the neighborhood and the city.”

For Kutcher and others, especially young artists who rent studios and apartments in the area, Area 405 and the Cork Factory are aspirational examples of achievement for artists, and “an inspiration for how a current generation of artists would like to realize their future in Baltimore.” Kutcher says he has been a part of many conversations with artists in the community, especially those living at the Copycat building, about how Area 405  and the Cork Factory, both artist-owned, came to exist as a product of collective ownership. “Owning your destiny in a changing city, and the creative freedom that comes from owning your own building is a model so many artists want to replicate,” he says. “Losing 405 is not just a tactical loss for the community, it’s a loss of inspiration for the next generation.”

 

Area 405 Real Estate Flyer
It cannot be overstated how much the residents of 405, and what they have created, has added to the neighborhood and the city.
Adam Kutcher, Chair of the Greenmount West Land Use Committee Association

This community presence of artists living and working together to achieve a collective success has largely been the most valuable aspect of Baltimore’s A&E districts, which are state-designated but offer few state or city funded  financial incentives or support for artists to buy and own property in these regions. It’s long been a cliche that artists are the first wave of gentrification, and after they invest their energy into an affordable and often challenged part of town, that real estate development follows, and then the artists are displaced. Until now, Baltimore has not fit this sad pattern because we have not had the influx of money to interrupt the slow, steady, organic growth pattern over the past two decades in Greenmount West, where occupancy rates have soared and maker spaces, schools, and even a brand new brewery (Guilford Hall) have been established.

However, in Baltimore’s Station North A&E district as a whole, real estate developers have often brought blight to the district by purchasing vacant properties and leaving them empty, while artists have brought value to these regions through their vision, labor, and sweat equity which has brought stability and opportunity. In Baltimore, the power of uniting artists together in designated areas has proven to be powerful in building a creative community, but without strategic resources for artists, this is unstable, essentially a cultural interlude in the cycle of real estate neglect and investment.

For anyone not familiar with Area 405, it’s difficult to explain the magnitude of its presence without considering its origin story. In 2015, when BmoreArt published its first print journal, Bret McCabe wrote about how 405 came into existence: “In 2002, Watson, Vose, and the Three Square Feet LLC, bought the 405 E. Oliver property, and began the long, hard journey of converting it into a mixed-use arts space.” He explained that the Station North Arts & Entertainment District was established after they purchased the building, a happy coincidence.

Heading back even further, McCabe wrote, “sculptors Stewart Watson and James Vose had spent the better part of the 1990s living in warehouse spaces and being priced out of them. By 1998 they began looking for a place to buy where they could both live and work. They thought they found one in a large, old factory located at 405 East Oliver Street in the Greenmount West neighborhood, but bank after bank—12 in all—turned down their loan application. Yes, the loan officers would tell them, they financially qualify, but the bank wasn’t going to lend them money to purchase this building in that neighborhood.” Although redlining worked against them, Vose and Watson persevered and eventually got that loan and others to fix up the building, which they did for the first thirteen years of its existence with zero city, state, or federal grant support.

 

The Art of Caring, an annual benefit for CASA Baltimore hosted at Area 405
Airplane by Sarah Doherty, exhibited in CASA auction and fundraiser, 2016
In cities across the US, artists and others who invest early in struggling communities are displaced by higher wealth investors who are attracted to the vibrant areas the artists help create. This happens so frequently it is considered inevitable. But it is not inevitable. We have a chance to interrupt that pattern. We have what we need to do it: an active arts community, a strong neighborhood association, a concerned philanthropic and lending community, a city committed to equity, and flexible State resources.
Ellen Janes, Executive Director of the Central Baltimore Partnership

Before it was purchased by Three Square Feet LLC, the building at 405-407 E. Oliver Street sat vacant for nearly twelve years. The only reason Watson found the building was because she saw an old For Sale sign on it. “She asked her real estate agent about it, and he assured her she wouldn’t want to see it,” McCabe wrote. “It was enormous and full of junk. He’d never shown it to anybody. The only reason she even considered looking at a place so large was because she had no luck finding a smaller space. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, most 5,000-to-10,000 square feet buildings were being picked up by dot-com start-ups that didn’t quite survive the decade.” However, once Watson and Vose got inside, they knew this building was the one.

Fifteen years later, after hundreds of exhibitions, fundraisers, community events, dinners, Area 405 has been listed for sale, a decision made by four partners, with Watson and Vose a dissenting minority of the LLC. We don’t know what will happen to the building, and the blithe, commercial language in the real estate listing completely negates the role and power that this building has played as an arts hub for the past fifteen years, how beloved this place is because hundreds, if not thousands of people, have been welcomed into a building that has offered freedom, hospitality, creativity, and an authenticity that is palpable. This role cannot be erased, as the understanding of the vital importance of this building is shared by thousands. Across the city and country, Area 405 is known as a beacon of hope for what artists are able to accomplish if they work together and it has been truly, genuinely, and generously available to anyone who needed it.

The Central Baltimore Partnership’s message about the sale offers some hope to artists, community members, and potential real estate investors: “Now that the building is on the market, the CBP is ready to work with a potential buyer who shares this mission, or has another plan that the community supports.” Janes said there are many equitable models they can follow and they’re interested in any viable and sustainable plans and it would be ideal to preserve the current look and feel of the space, keeping the entire first floor “as a vibrant, diverse, and affordable hub for the arts that is done with minimal alterations to these spaces” and the upper floor studios would be maintained with “minimal disruption.”

“To make this preservation sustainable would require that other areas of the building generate income that could sustain these uses and we are hoping to work with a new owner who can make that happen in a way that respects the legacy tenants, the building and the neighborhood,” says Janes.

“In cities across the US, artists and others who invest early in struggling communities are displaced by higher wealth investors who are attracted to the vibrant areas the artists help create,” says Janes. “This happens so frequently it is considered inevitable. But it is not inevitable. We have a chance to interrupt that pattern. We have what we need to do it: an active arts community, a strong neighborhood association, a concerned philanthropic and lending community, a city committed to equity, and flexible State resources.” Currently, the CBP has an opportunity to create a new model that includes both artists and real estate investors respectfully and equitably, a model that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country.

In contrast, the sales description says nothing about equity or artists. Instead, “Future ownership has the rare and immediate opportunity to reposition the property as a live-work community greatly increasing the existing multifamily density, while preserving the property’s artistic heritage and community presence,” citing the growth and investment around Penn Station an obvious and easy investment to capitalize on.

In this instance it is easy to see the potential for investment in Baltimore’s Greenmount West neighborhood, especially after two decades of investment from artists and designation as an arts and entertainment district. Baltimore needs so much investment. However, it is infinitely more difficult to make a visionary investment when a neighborhood is perceived as less than desirable, the way Watson and Vose and their Three Square Feet partners did back in 2002 when they had to apply a dozen times to get approved for a mortgage in a neighborhood that was home to the Copycat artist housing/studios and a lot of abandoned warehouses and unoccupied homes.

While the visionary action of Three Square Feet LLC has proven to be transformative in this neighborhood and helped to make Greenmount West into the active, desirable, and stable part of town it is today, the eventual economic success of the region, contingent upon the city’s Penn Station investment, is actually making it difficult to maintain ownership of this important community building.

Back when he wrote about 405 in 2015, Bret McCabe could not have predicted the decision to sell this property, which is so much more than a piece of real estate to thousands of people whose lives it has touched. “Now, it’s possible that anybody who walked into the place could’ve recognized its potential,” he wrote. “The thing is, nobody else did. Two artists saw a possibility.”

“From the moment they started looking for a space in the late 1990s they had ideas for wherever they landed, including some kind of public component,” wrote McCabe. “The size of the building meant they had to think a little bigger—hence the ambitious scope of Area 405, the insistence to try to maintain affordable rents and safe spaces in the Oliver Street Studios, the attending neighborhood meetings and advocacy and advising on projects such as the City Arts buildings and the Baltimore Design School. Having affordable spaces to retain artists in Baltimore is one step. Building audiences and finding ways to support those artists is another. And that process takes open communication and careful nurturing.”

In the case of listing Area 405 for sale, the communication part is clearly missing with the surrounding community and the artists who rent studios in the space, and the reason for this lack of communication is as unclear as the future of the building.

According to the Baltimore Neighoborhood Indicators Alliance, the city has more than 16,000 vacant buildings and 14,000 vacant lots for a total of around 30,000 vacant properties and more than 75% of all vacant properties in Baltimore City are privately owned. In some neighborhoods the vacancy rate is as high as 30%. Within this context, it would be an even greater tragedy for a developer to purchase Area 405, a fully occupied building in the heart of an arts district, a structure teeming with artists achieving success and bringing investment to the area, only to return it to a state of blight and disrepair.

There are already so many developer-owned vacant buildings in the Station North A&E, sitting fallow and waiting for eventual investment. What Baltimore needs are more artists who are willing to invest their ideas, time, and resources into buildings and the diverse, verdant, and generative communities that build our city into a unique and rich environment for creative people and more individuals like Janes and Kutcher, working as advocates for art communities in allocating the necessary resources to keep arts districts stable. What Baltimore City needs, as Abdu Ali says, is to properly invest in the artists who are making this city special and to put pressure on landlords of unoccupied buildings, especially in arts districts, to sell or renovate.

“In the larger context, Area 405 looms large for what happens on Oliver Street for the A&E district,” says Kutcher. “There are great opportunities there and we know that large old industrial buildings need investment beyond what DIY groups can provide in order to really thrive. Recognizing that need and yet, there’s a path that could be out there to both realize investment in the building as well as the preservation of what the  building means to the A&E district and to Baltimore. I am hopeful for a solution that provides an influx of capital and preserves use.”

 

Related Stories
Let LeVar Burton host Jeopardy, the end of Kimye, the return of Gawker, grieving with A.I., and more

The internet was all over the place this week.

On the Baltimore artist's ever-evolving practice

“I do not have the collage without photography. There is no photography without community,” Wallace says.

Baltimore news updates from independent & regional media

Baltimore news from the Baltimore Brew, WYPR, Baltimore Fishbowl, Maryland Matters, and more

The best weekly art openings, events, and calls for entry happening in Baltimore and surrounding areas.

Stay home, stay healthy, stay engaged in the arts.