John HazlehurstMinneapolis-based Artspace may soon begin construction of an affordable live/work complex for artists on a roughly 1-acre site at 315 E. Costilla. The existing building, which once housed the Gill Center for Public Media, has been acquired for $1.8 million by the Colorado Springs Downtown Development Authority (managed by the Downtown Partnership), with funding assistance from the GE Johnson Foundation and the John and Margot Lane Foundation.

Artspace describes itself as an organization whose mission is “to create, foster and preserve affordable and sustainable space for artists and arts organizations.” To do so, “Artspace uses the tools of real estate development to construct or restore places where artists can affordably live and work. We support and contribute to an accelerating national movement of equitable, artist-led community development and ensure that these spaces remain accessible to artists and their families in perpetuity.”

Like any affordable housing deal, such projects aren’t easy to finance. According to its website, Artspace “accesses public funding sources including those available for the creation of affordable housing, economic development, historic preservation, and cultural facility development. Private sector funding includes conventional bank financing as well as individual and community philanthropic support.”

In other words, local supporters need to have a site, some local funding and be able to structure a deal that qualifies for federal subsidies, such as Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC).

Artists aren’t exactly a protected class, but are believed essential to a thriving, dynamic, creative, sustainable city core (to use some of the favorite clichés of American urbanists). And since these vital urban cogs often don’t make much money, they can qualify for low-income housing.

So how does Artspace determine who is a worthy artist? Here’s the organization’s artfully curated statement.

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“We define the term ‘artist’ broadly to comprise a wide variety of creative pursuits, including traditional art forms and those as diverse as clothing design, weaving, and even canoe making. A community-based Selection Committee interviews all applicants. The committee looks for evidence that applicants are seriously committed to their art and that they will be mindful and positive contributors to the building and community. The application and qualification process does not include judgment of the quality of work.”

The criteria are entirely subjective, just as are those of the El Paso Club at Platte and Tejon. To join the EPC, you need to be male, proposed by a member, reasonably wealthy and unanimously approved by the membership. Unless you’re perceived to be an amiable fellow who will get along with other members and pull your own weight, you won’t get in. The new Arts Club doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex, but requires that you be a “mindful and positive contributor” without much income — in other words, an amiable person. Rich and unpleasant doesn’t cut it at the EPC, just as poor and obnoxious won’t cut it at the new Artspace.

Yet new downtown low-income housing is welcome, as we struggle to recreate what our community once took for granted. A century ago, we had low-income downtown housing, artists in residence and (cliché warning!) a vibrant, diverse and walkable downtown.

According to the 1927 city directory, a dozen artists had downtown studios, including nationally renowned professionals Charles Craig, Lloyd Moylan and John McClymont. There was no shortage of residential rental options. The directory lists 23 apartment houses in the downtown and near-downtown area, as well as 77 rooming houses, where you could rent a furnished room for a night, a week or a year. Another way of looking at it: Downtown had at least 77 unregulated short-term rentals. And who needed to cook, when there were 33 restaurants, cafés and lunch spots in the downtown core?

How was life in the 300 block of East Costilla, where the new live/work space will soon rise? Diverse, interesting and a lot of fun. The south side of the street was given over to the Hampton Garage and United Auto Parts, soon to be consolidated into a single business by Dick Bensberg, a crusty tough guy who headed what City Attorney Ben Wendelken called “the family that has caused more trouble for us than any other in the city.” He may have caused some of that trouble at the Buzzard’s Roost, a Prohibition-era speakeasy across the street that (according to documents at the Pioneers Museum) featured booze and gambling.

Colorado Springs 1927… I miss it already. n CSBJ