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updated: 10/16/2012 2:36 PM

Artists rejuvenating suburban downtowns

Lofts in Elgin may help revitalize downtown

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  • Megan Lalleman is one of the first to move into the new Elgin Artspace Lofts along Spring Street. Here, she greets her cat, Mr. Binkers, whose portrait, done by a friend, is about to be hung in the one-bedroom unit. Waukegan's Artspace Lofts expects to have artists moving in by December; an open house is Saturday.

       Megan Lalleman is one of the first to move into the new Elgin Artspace Lofts along Spring Street. Here, she greets her cat, Mr. Binkers, whose portrait, done by a friend, is about to be hung in the one-bedroom unit. Waukegan's Artspace Lofts expects to have artists moving in by December; an open house is Saturday.
    photos by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street. The complex features a community room, pictured here, which is situated adjacent to a courtyard.

       Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street. The complex features a community room, pictured here, which is situated adjacent to a courtyard.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • The complex also features a lighted courtyard with children's play area, seen here, as well as a catwalk and community deck for additional outdoor recreation.

      The complex also features a lighted courtyard with children's play area, seen here, as well as a catwalk and community deck for additional outdoor recreation.

  • The complex features an art gallery, pictured here, that will be filled based on the desires of the residents.

       The complex features an art gallery, pictured here, that will be filled based on the desires of the residents.
    photos by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street.

       Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street.
    Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

  • Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street.

      Tenants have begun moving into Elgin Artspace Lofts, a two-building, 55-unit project that includes renovation of the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square campus and new construction along Spring Street.

 

Megan Lalleman is a writer. She doesn't get paid for her art and she doesn't like to call herself an artist, but her passion for poetry and creative writing was enough to secure her a spot in the Elgin Artspace Lofts -- a $14.5 million, 55-unit project that has been in the works in Elgin since 2007.

The first seven tenants already have moved in with another 30 applicants making their way through the screening process. The artist applicants include singers, painters, photographers and writers.

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Lalleman said she writes mostly for pleasure but loves to share her work. The West Dundee native has been living in Elgin for the last two years and was intrigued by the Artspace project, though she didn't think she'd be chosen to move in.

Lalleman is excited to be part of the revitalization of downtown, helped along by so many creative minds in one place.

"I think there's a great canvas in downtown Elgin, but it's been neglected for such a long time," Lalleman said. "This is going to be the right group of people to really kick-start downtown Elgin."

The development project included building a new complex and gutting the old Elgin Community College Fountain Square Campus at 51 S. Spring St., which the city acquired and donated to Artspace after a landswap with the college worth $2.6 million. The City of Elgin's contribution also included about $1 million in cash, $250,000 of which was tax increment financing money that is set aside for projects within the TIF district and funded by extra taxes collected based on previous development. The rest of the project was funded with a combination of federal grants and outside donations.

Besides the artist housing units, there is gallery space, a community room, a computer room, a playground and outdoor courtyard, and commercial space.

Kim Moore, asset manager for Artspace, said decisions about the commercial space will be made in the next week, after which build-out can be completed according to the specific businesses' needs.

The move-in is a month ahead of schedule, thanks in part to a mild winter and steady work by Shales McNutt Construction.

Elgin's Artspace will be different from the other 30 Artspace projects throughout the country, all with specific committees and initiatives based on what the artists in the communities choose to do. Lalleman is passionate about urban gardening and cooperative efforts between Artspace residents and the wider community.

Already she hopes to help turn abandoned spaces in Elgin into gardens and plant a community garden on the Artspace property. She hopes to teach people -- kids especially -- to appreciate where food comes from.

"We all have different ideas and things that we want to accomplish," Lalleman said. "We're just waiting for the manpower to do it."

The Waukegan Artspace project in the historic Karcher Hotel is just a couple months behind Elgin's project. Moore said the first artists should be able to move into the $12.8 million, 36-unit development Dec. 1 with leasing of the 2,500 square feet of ground-floor retail and community space following.

A sneak peek look at the project's progress will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the hotel, 405 Washington St. Prospective tenants for both the artist housing and commercial areas are invited to scope out the space.

In both cities, the projects are expected to revitalize the downtowns. But a core mission of Artspace since its founding in Minneapolis in 1979 is to retain affordable housing for artists even after the effects of gentrification increase the cost of living in newly sought-after areas.

Artspace Chief Operating Officer Will Law said the Minneapolis warehouse district that housed the first Artspace artists was a big hit in the 1970s. The nonprofit formed as a solution to the "SoHo effect," where artists get priced out of neighborhoods they made trendy.

"We said, 'Let's figure out how we can find a more permanent and stable way for artists to stay in the mix,'" Law said of Artspace's beginning. The organization now embraces the notion of gentrification in some ways, Law said, but it makes sure artists won't get pushed out of neighborhoods because of it.

Applications are being accepted at both developments with tenant info sessions planned until the units fill up. Visit artspace.org/properties/ for more information about Elgin Artspace Lofts or Karcher Artspace Lofts.

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