Affordable Artist Housing in Downtown Elgin, Illinois
Originally built in 1908, this Sears and Roebucks building is being adapted into affordable live/work units for artists in Elgin, Illinois.
Image courtesy of Artspace Projects, Inc. Downtown Elgin, Illinois, located just 40 miles northwest of Chicago, has long enjoyed a vibrant arts scene complete with museums, performance halls, opera and theater companies, and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, the second-largest orchestra in the state. However, downtown Elgin has not always been the premier arts and entertainment destination it is today; urban decay, loss of retail, and a spike in abandoned buildings beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s left Elgin in economic decline. Today, the revitalization of downtown Elgin — as directed by the city’s 2000 Center City Master Plan — is a top priority. Recognizing the role of artists in the revitalization of communities, officials sought to marry Elgin’s reputation as a regional arts destination to the city’s revitalization plans. After hearing artists voice their concerns over housing affordability, the city partnered with Minneapolis-based Artspace Projects, a nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, and began anchoring artists to downtown Elgin by designing affordable live/work spaces.
Affordable Live/Work Housing
Elgin Artspace Lofts, opening October 2012, provides 55 affordable live/work units serving low-income artists who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income. The units include 6 studio apartments, 27 one-bedroom, 16 two-bedroom, and 6 three-bedroom units; rents range from $326 to $1,018 depending on the size of the apartment. According to Heidi Kurtze, director of property development at Artspace, anyone who meets the income requirements may apply, although preference is given to working artists — broadly defined as someone who participates in and is committed to the arts (e.g., writers, fine artists, dancers, actors, or musicians). Applicants who meet the income requirements are reviewed by a selection committee that evaluates their commitment to their artistic pursuits. As we go to press, 134 people are on the property interest list vying for one of the 55 live/work units.
Adapting to a New Use
In 2010, the city of Elgin, using the Center City Master Plan as a guide, sought not only to add more affordable housing and build up its reputation as a center for the arts but also to enhance the aesthetic and historical character of the central city. The city acquired a 104-year-old building, one of the original Sears, Roebuck and Company retail stores, as a possible site for the project. As the notion of affordable artist housing began to take shape, the building’s owner, Elgin Community College, and the city took a major step by negotiating a land swap. The city secured the downtown property in 2010 and the college acquired 16 acres of recreational land outside of downtown.
Recognizing the architectural importance of the historic building, the city and Artspace chose to pursue an adaptive reuse approach. Artspace gutted most of the building and even demolished part of it to connect the building to a new three-story addition. While maintaining the building’s general aesthetics and restoring its original façade, the developer also expanded the building to include 5,000 square feet of commercial space, including a paved courtyard, meeting rooms, and gallery space for residents to showcase their work.
The project received funding from various sources in the community. By locating within a tax increment finance district, the project acquired $975,000 from the Central Area district. Along with donating the land, the city of Elgin contributed $1 million toward the $14.5 million project, and local businesses showed their support by raising an additional $300,000. Finally, the Illinois Housing Development Authority provided significant assistance in the form of $1.1 million in federal tax credits for a 10-year period.
When completed, the Elgin Artspace Lofts will bring a new vibrancy and new affordable housing to downtown Elgin. The city anticipates a thriving community of artists that will attract visitors to downtown Elgin’s galleries, theaters, restaurants, and cafes. Film director and producer Gwydhar Gebien, an Elgin Artspace hopeful who witnessed firsthand how artists revitalized a neighborhood in Chicago’s Humboldt Park, says, "Artists are always on the forefront of the cultural wave… of making a place flourish. Having an arts community will do great things for Elgin." After a history of decline, that is exactly what the community hopes to see.