By Ibby Caputo
Feb. 13, 2012
LOWELL, Mass. — Tucked between train tracks and the Pawtucket canal, is an old mill – a place that made Lowell a cradle of the industrial revolution. Today, manufacturing is gone and this mill is the cradle of an artists’ revolution.
But getting here took some time and a major obstacle: trust.
A "dirty, smelly" start
Karl Frey purchased the mill ina 2004 as an investment. However, his tenants quickly went bankrupt, moved out and left the mill empty. With few options, Frey turned to the city for advice and learned about a group of artists who were courted in the 1990s to revitalize Lowell but got burned by developers who had promised them affordable housing — and then built luxury condos instead.
Frey invited the skeptical artists to visit, but he overestimated the romantic draw of his old mill.
“It was dirty, smelly, poorly lit, broken-down cardboard boxes all over the place, but I figured they could visualize the space,” said Frey. “Boy, was I dead wrong on that one.”
Frey said he wasn’t taking no for an answer, so he emptied out a floor and painted it white, then invited the artists to the mill again, this time for a party.
“We stopped at Walmart on the way and picked up some plastic tubs and stopped at the liquor store and got ice and beer,” Frey said. “We set up a card table and a cheese platter, and I had an architect draw up some floor plans.”
Frey even mapped out the studios on the floor using yellow traffic paint. This time, the artists loved the clean, open space.
“It started a land rush, and we leased that whole floor that night,” Frey said.
Building up Western Avenue
That was the beginning of a very successful symbiotic relationship. Artist Maxine Farkas runs the mill, which became known as the Western Avenue Studios. She said Frey has never broken a promise to the artists.
“I think that is what makes this relationship with a developer so successful,” Farkas said. “Because he keeps his word.”
Frey’s word led to 200 artists moving into studio space in the converted mill. But that’s not all. Frey and the artists started working on a new idea: converting another building in the mill into 50 affordable work-living spaces for artists. Learn about the new building.
“This used to be a freight elevator shaft, but we’re going to turn it into my husband’s recording and mixing studio,” said jeweler Heather Wang, who recently shared her vision of the renewed space with some artist soon-to-be-neighbors.
“Heather has a space that is carved into the old uses of the space,” said Rebecca Mattson, the local developer working on the project. “Some of them are wide open, some have exposed brick, some have exposed wood — there’s all the variants of the original building based on how it was built and what it was used for,” she said.
The new housing units are between 800 and 1600 square feet, the size of an apartment or a small house.
“Literally it's wide-open space so you can do whatever you want,” Mattson said.
Farkas, whose apartment is being built on the second floor, said she is most excited about her neighbors.
“I’m going to have a community. And that’s the most important thing for me,” Farkas said.
Mattson relished the artists’ enthusiasm.
“It’s freedom. It’s community. It’s open spaces,” Mattson said. “You just can’t go into any apartment building and paint your walls and build a loft.”
It’s also remarkably affordable: one dollar per square foot.
Making the new space happen
Mattson said that was possible because the developers and artists worked closely together.
“We don’t have an elevator in the building,” Mattson said. “They were willing to go without air conditioning. They’re willing to go without dishwashers. There willing to go without any flooring. They just want primed walls. They just want space that they can afford.”
Mattson said that this is the first time a space for artists is being traditionally financed.
“Usually it's highly subsidized,” Mattson said. “This is different because it’s coming from the real estate perspective. It was hard for bankers to get their mind around what an artist rental live-work space could be.”
Fortunately, the artists had Karl Frey on their side. And in the words of Farkas, Frey is wicked persistent.
“TD Bank, a very, very well-run financial institution, has made us the loan to do the 50 live-work units,” Frey said.
Frey said it's not a loan a bank would normally make, but he was able to show them five years of success at the Western Avenue studios.
“One day I will turn the building over to the artists and their principal interests, taxes, insurance, reserves for replacements — everything that cost them to run the building will be exactly the same as it was the day before when they were paying rent,” Frey said.
Frey said that seven years ago no one would have believed that 250 artists would be living and working in his mill. But he courted the artists, he convinced the bankers and he even surprised himself.
The next open studios at Western Avenue are on Mar. 3. The live-work space is anticipated to open in May.