While news of failing businesses echoed through downtown, the Mercantile and Northrup buildings in BoDo were busy getting a $1.5 million face lift—exposed red brick, airy interior windows and artful, bohemian chandeliers. Though the 8th Street Marketplace has been affected by the recent monsoon of economic hardship—local restaurant 8th Street Wine Co. bubble wrapped its wine glasses in August—the ownership decided to do something unique: use the slow economy to both redefine their image and bolster the local arts community.
Developer Ephraim Greenwall and his San Francisco-based firm Talcott Holdings teamed up with Boise's Erstad Architects, Eagle's Guho Corp. and Presidio Development Partners to revamp the interior office space of the buildings that currently house Cafe Ole, Cole/Marr Coffee House and Liquid Lounge as well as retail stores Miss Molly's, JuJu Accessories, Piece Unique/Shoez, The Stylish Stork, Salon 162 and Mr. Peabody's Optical Shoppe. With the goal of becoming "the center of Boise's thriving professional creative class," 8th Street Marketplace began grooming itself to attract artistically and aesthetically inclined nine to fivers.
Feider had a chat with Public Arts Manager Karen Bubb at the city's Department of Arts and History about ways to integrate the arts community into the newly revamped office space. The two found a solution that would benefit all involved—open some of the Mercantile Building's empty rooms for free to artists looking for downtown workspace. A panel of jurors would select a group of one to four artists to occupy the spaces for three-month intervals.
"The Artists in Residence program (AiR) came out of a whole bunch of other discussions. How do we elevate this space as a different kind of office experience? It's not just office rental, it's got retail," explained Feider. "The target audience for the commercial space is start-up companies, agencies, maybe an architecture firm—more creative-focused agencies."
The program aims to inspire a creative working atmosphere and solidify BoDo's status as a cultural district by weaving artists into the area's existing tapestry. With rows of interior and exterior windows, the raw second-story spaces will soon be humming with artists dripping paint on canvases, scrawling poetic verses and reciting lines from plays. For both office workers and passersby, the program promises to add a kick of local culture to an area increasingly dominated by large retail mega-chains.
"There's so much need for studio space in Boise, so it's answering a need that I hear about a lot," said Bubb. "There are a lot of artists that, because of financial reasons, work in their own homes. So [their] space is limited and not exactly set up for the kind of work that they may do."
Recently, a panel of jurors comprised of Greenwall, architect Andy Erstad, filmmaker Heather Rae (whose Frozen River was nominated for two Oscars), documentary filmmaker Ben Shedd, BW art director Leila Ramella-Rader and ad-agency owner Jamie Cooper selected the first and second round of artists for the residency program. From February 1 through April 24, three empty office spaces will house the first four recipients: Alley Repertory Theater, visual artist Holly Streekstra, poet Adrian Kien and painter Kelly Packer.
From May 1 through July 24, two rooms will house dancer Johanna Kirk and painter Laci McCrea, with visual artist/community organizer Chris Kennedy occupying a third space in May and visual artist Kirsten Furlong taking over for him in June and July. All of the above spaces may be shuffled in the event a prospective paying tenant wants to rent out one of the artists' rooms.
Though the Arts and History Department considered developing an artists-in-residence program in the past—briefly opening low-cost artists studios off 25th and Fairview—funding and maintaining a central space without help was too difficult. This time, the department acted as cultural staff for Capital City Development Corporation, lending its artistic expertise to the privately funded AiR program by putting out a call to artists and organizing the 47 applications that poured in.
"What these kinds of programs are doing is they're creating vitality, they're creating opportunity instead of looking at this economic downturn as a 'woe is me' and 'we have to retract'; they're reaching out to engage, and I think that is benefitting everyone," said Bubb.
For developers, especially in an urban infill situation, cultivating an artistic image not only adds credibility to a newly revitalized community, it also helps draw in prospective tenants.
Another recently redeveloped area, the Linen District, has courted the artistic community since its inception. David Hale, owner of Hale Development and pioneer behind the Linen District, helped institute the annual Modern Art Event at the Modern Hotel and hopes to continue involving artists in other ways.
"I've always been an advocate for the arts—I'm on the Department of Arts and History executive committee—and I like to cater to those types of events because it does bring more exposure," explained Hale. "I give discounted rates [to rent the Linen Building]—whether it's a nonprofit or arts related event—I usually like to offer some sort of discount to get [creative types] into the space."
Garden City Waterfront District developer Jim Neill also knows the value of appealing to artists. His concept, a 17-acre community with single-family residences, townhouses, high-rise condos and a retail center, is trying to court the young live/work/play urban taste-makers. While the project is still a ways from being completed, Neill explains that the current economy, though regrettable, has allowed him more time to ponder adding various artistic flourishes.
"It's kind of a quiet time in real estate, but I think it's helpful because recessions are kind of a rethinking, too," says Neill. "People say, 'wait a minute, why were we doing that in such a frenzy?'"
Though a program like AiR offers an excellent opportunity for businesses to support the local arts community, it's yet to be seen whether it will also be a viable solution for maintaining—or increasing—property value in vacant urban spaces during these troubled economic times. But regardless, Feider sees AiR as a clear boon to BoDo.
"It's really sort of an answer to and sort of making good on this cultural district thing that's been rumored to be going on [in BoDo] for a long time, but maybe hasn't quite come to fruition."
Stop by the Mercantile Building every First Thursday beginning February 1 to check out work from the artists in residence. For more information on applying for the third residency program beginning August 1, visit 8thstreetmarketplace.com.