Artspace Lofts helps Patchogue's revival

Jim Richards helps his son Connor, 10, on Jim Richards helps his son Connor, 10, on a project, while his wife and daughter work in another part of the loft. (Sept 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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It's been a year since they came to Patchogue with their easels, canvasses and pottery wheels, guitars and pianos, settling into a population of like-minded "creatives" of various ages and backgrounds.

And since then, the $18-million live/work housing complex on Terry Street known as Artspace Patchogue Lofts has created a community of neighbors out of 45 artists, musicians and writers and blended its upbeat cachet into the burgeoning landscape of the village's downtown.

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The tenants, who include about five nonartists, winners of a lottery of more than 100 hopefuls, have moved into units ranging from studios to three-bedrooms that are geared toward low- to moderate-income singles and families.

"Everybody knows everybody; there's no feeling of being alone," graphic artist Kathy Seff said, stressing the sense of small-town community that pervades among the residents. "We network, neighbors become friends."

Seff, 37, said she feels lucky to live there and marvels at the abundance of closets -- one of which has been turned into a computer room -- in her one-bedroom unit.

"This place was so well-thought-out," she said. "It has the perfect location, security, parking, inspiring architecture, and it won't break the bank. It's a pleasure to walk in here every day."

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As Patchogue bounces back from the economic downturn of the 1980s and '90s that had plagued its commercial strip -- an area that ranged from the Lace Mill at its western border to Floral Fantasyland at its eastern edge, both now defunct -- it's become a village that's enjoying what Mayor Paul Pontieri Jr. calls "a sweeping transformation."

But even with a business district bustling with new restaurants, shops and construction projects, the imposing, five-story Artspace stands out like a promise of good fortune for the area's future.

"Patchogue has always been a village in transition," Pontieri said. "At one time it boasted a thriving downtown, busy river traffic and port of entry, over 1,000 hotel rooms at the last eastern LIRR stop, and it was once the seat of town government. And then the economic downturn gave way to our current upswing as a center for the arts."

In 2006, Pontieri's administration began negotiating with Artspace, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit real estate developer behind the project, inspired by the conversion of an old Main Street movie house into the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2000.

Even those who don't participate directly in the arts recognize and appreciate its impact.

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"The arts contribute mightily to the economic vitality of Suffolk downtowns," noted County Executive Steve Bellone.

Artspace Patchogue Lofts is the first such project on Long Island but is one of 24 similar projects scattered across the country, including a Manhattan project that is transforming PS 109 in Harlem into El Barrio's Artspace. The buildings are designed specifically to meet the needs of multimedia artists and their families in live/work, income-based rentals. As in all Artspace projects, prospective tenants must undergo background checks during a comprehensive application process that includes an interview with an Artist Selection Committee.

Efficiency and style

With 12-foot-high ceilings, huge glass window-walls, elevators and ample cabinets in galley kitchens, Artspace apartments are low on maintenance and high on convenience. The vast main floor lobby is in constant use as a gallery for residents' artworks. Now on display through Oct. 14 is "Glas," Seff's exhibit (3-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday and Monday). The lobby's canopy is a web of exposed, red-painted plumbing lines, utility pipes and ductwork, a design feature that takes its cue from big-city industrial plants that are often the foundations for Artspace renovations. Even the fluorescent-tube light fixtures are arranged in sculptural configurations.

The Patchogue Arts Council and a 60-seat movie theater open to the public each have exterior ground floor entrances.

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"Mondrianesque exteriors of plain brown brick and prefabricated cement panels were chosen to recall the village's commercial history; the steel-edged glass panes bring the building into the present," said Matthew Meier, project architect for HHL Architects of Buffalo, the building's designer. "On vertical interior surfaces, our aim was to provide the occupants with simple, unadorned surroundings that encourage them to add their own flourishes to their spaces."

Howard Beckerman, 60, is a composer and linguist who combines both skills into original songs for teaching foreign languages. He hired a moving company to wheel his piano into the fourth-floor, two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, Linda, a painter.

"We were empty nesters in a big house in Stony Brook, and now we've freed ourselves from the burden and expense of home ownership," said Linda Beckerman, 60. "We went through the emotional upheaval of getting rid of 30 years' worth of everything we thought we could live without in order to move into Artspace. It was so liberating. And it's a blessing to be here in Patchogue. We can walk to stores, restaurants, the library."

Her paintings and those of other Artspace tenants are often on display in windows of vacant stores in Patchogue, adding to the ambience of the village's new personality with its emphasis on art-oriented themes. The displays are arranged by the Patchogue Arts Council.

Also on display are "pop-art" paintings by Cheryl Frey Richards, 35, who conducts children's art history programs at public libraries. She and her family -- husband Jim, 39, who works at a beer brewery, and children Connor, 10 and Quinn, 6 -- lived in Patchogue for nine years before moving into Artspace. They occupy a three-bedroom duplex loft, one of only three in the building.

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Aim is affordability

Developer Artspace targets economically depressed sites for building or renovating Artspace apartments.

Rents in Artspace projects are determined by affordable housing guidelines set forth by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Monthly prices for the Patchogue units range from $888 to $1,569, plus metered utilities.

Tenants sign one-year leases with a 30-day "opt-out" provision, which allows them to leave if they give 30 days' notice. In the past year, four tenants have moved out, for personal reasons ranging from divorce to caring for a disabled parent.

Like all Artspace projects, the one in Patchogue was funded by contributions, low-income housing tax credits, plus grants from philanthropic foundations. Donations from the village in the form of a vacant Terry Street site worth $500,000 and $2.6 million from Suffolk County jump-started the funding.

Though tenants rent their units, they possess a strong sense of ownership and pride in Artspace.

"One of the best features here in Patchogue Artspace is the sense of security and closeness with others like myself," said Veronica Johnson, 52, an artist who creates and photographs sculptures of found objects in her two-bedroom unit. "I've lived in another town that attracted artists, but it didn't have this kind of clean, safe living spaces.

"Patchogue is an exciting place for artists these days; the focus is on us, and that's great."

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