Making Space for Art in Dearborn

Imagine having a place, at the heart of a city's downtown, where dozens of artists could afford to live, work and collaborate. Imagine if that space also had room for the community to engage with the artists through events, classes and an arts marketplace. Think what a hub of bustle and creativity it could be. Envision the how many new businesses and organizations would gravitate toward such a place.
Come 2015, the Dearborn community will no longer have to imagine such a place. After five years of planning, applications, preparing and dreaming, the 80,000 square foot historic City Hall building will be reborn as the City Hall Artspace Lofts with 46 live/work units and 25,000 square feet of space dedicated to commercial and community uses.
"This has been years in the making," says Melissa Kania of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority (EDDDA). "It's not just a Dearborn project, it's a southeast Michigan project. We are just so excited."
Kania and the many EDDDA partners who have worked to bring the national non-profit Artspace to Dearborn certainly have reason to express their delight. Should all the final funding details fall into place as planned, the $16 million project will be one of about 30 Artspace projects in the country, and the first of its kind in Michigan. To even be considered by Artspace, Dearborn went through rigorous application and evaluation process. 
"When we go to a new community, we look for a commitment to the arts, from the mayor to local volunteers," says Vice President of Property Development for Artspace Heidi Kurtze. "We ask, 'How deep is that commitment?' and determine if there is also a commitment financially to help us advance this project and really be true project partners."
What they found in Dearborn, after community visits, applications and surveys, had them convinced. Anyone who might hesitate to categorize Dearborn as a particularly artsy community now has plenty of evidence to believe the claim.
"Dearborn really hit the ball out of the park," Kurtze says.
In an initial survey of artists and arts organizations within a 50 mile radius of the city, Kania says an overwhelming number were identified and expressed enthusiasm to support the project. 
"We honestly did not have any fear that we would find those creatives because we know that Deaborn has such an artistic community," Kania says. "Artspace saw that the here too, and it was confirmed through that artist market survey."
Throughout the project, the EDDDA and the City of Dearborn has partnered with the Arab American National Museum, the Henry Ford Museum and other local organizations and businesses to make the community's case as a candidate for Artspace.
All of that effort was put forth for good reason. While the arts are fun, exciting and meaningful for community members, when it comes down to it, Artspace is an economic development opportunity for Dearborn. Two third-party studies have proven economic returns in cities with Artspace projects. The reports found the projects have animated deteriorating historic structures, brought vacant or underutilized spaces back on the tax rolls, boosted area property values, and attracted additional businesses and organizations to the area. 
"The studies show there are benefits to the artists," says Artspace's Senior Director of National Advancement, Kathleen Kvern. "But also the communities benefit, from increased density and creative businesses moving into the area to create more livability."
Should plans move forward as intended construction is scheduled to begin this fall and continue for about a year. The exterior of the 1922 city hall building and the two other buildings on its campus will remain the same, but their insides will be transformed. The 46 live/work units will be developed inside the City Hall Building and West Annex Building, and will include studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. The units will be available to artists and their families at rates affordable for those earning 30 to 60 percent of the area median income. 
"Most artists can't afford a separate studio and living space. Here, they have better tools, resources and connections with other artists to help them advance their careers," Kurtze says. "The building is just naturally conducive to spaces for artists, with large windows, high ceilings and a large volume of space. It was just a natural fit."
The 25,000 square foot Concourse Building connecting the two residential buildings will house "A Space Between" area that could take a variety of forms. Business training and classes may be available to artists, as well as co-working spaces, a weekend global arts marketplace, entrepreneurial spaces and more. 
"They're excited about this," Kania says of the Dearborn community and the EDDDA's partners. "They're excited to see change, and this new, vibrant activity coming to downtown."
With potential economic impact, a new hub of activity downtown and the entrance of more creative professionals into the community, there's plenty to be excited about. Though the Dearborn City Hall Artspace Lofts may seem the stuff of imagination, all involved are confident the project will begin to enter to realm of reality this year, making Dearborn's future as a destination for the arts pretty easy to imagine.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the development news editor for Concentrate and Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.