The city's second annual Artists Space and Housing Expo this Saturday at the Cultural Center promises to be interesting, and not only because more than 90 artist-smitten exhibitors will be on hand to court attendees. The condo association for the Acme Artists' Community will be manning a table, and some other Acme residents say they'll be there too--handing out buyer-beware literature and advice. Acme's developer, the Near Northwest Arts Council, will present its version of the story at its own table; executive director Laura Weathered is a returning lecturer on the expo schedule, and NNWAC was recently awarded a $10,000 NEA grant to publish a guide on building artists' communities, using Acme as a model. Meanwhile, plumbing, roofing, and other construction-related problems at Acme--Chicago's first city-subsidized artists' condominiums--remain unresolved two years after the first units were completed.
Last week Acme resident Miriam Solon was offering her predicament as evidence of what can happen when things go awry. Twenty months after closing on her unit, she's living behind brown-papered windows and a couple of screens in the Acme community room--sharing a futon on the floor with her two cats, dressing out of cardboard boxes, and picking her way across the muddy courtyard anytime she needs to use the bathroom. Solon says her unit flooded before she closed on it and--as a result of a half-dozen more floods, including one that spewed sewage over 90 percent of her floor--developed warping, mold, and a foul smell. Last May she moved herself into Acme's bed and breakfast (owned by NNWAC) and stayed there until February 28, when Weathered kicked her out and changed the locks. Solon refuses to return to her own unit or to allow repair work there until underlying problems she believes will cause more flooding are solved.
Enough of Acme's other residents feel the same way to have put the condo development into gridlock. The courtyard, touted as one of its charms, is dominated by a gaping hole that NNWAC's plumber dug three months ago. This open pit is only partially covered with a sheet of plywood; a mound of excavated earth next to it is draped in blue plastic, and the whole thing is cordoned off like a crime scene. The dig was the beginning of an effort to rectify flooding problems, but residents--wary after a plumbing repair last summer was followed by even worse flooding--halted it. (Weathered blames the persistent problems on residents' blocking the repairs.) They say they've been told by outside experts that this attempt to fix things might not work either. After a January meeting in Alderman Manny Flores's office, the city sent its own inspectors to check the roof and plumbing, and all factions are now waiting in an uneasy truce for the city's reports to come in. As Weathered sees it, "the community would like to see things fixed, but they're part of the problem because they're having a hard time staying focused on getting decisions made." NNWAC offered to buy out the most vocal complainers, but they say they don't want to go--and there's financial incentive for them to stay. City subsidies of $10,000 to $40,000 that made the units a bargain to begin with are forgiven over four- to ten-year periods; anyone selling early would have to pay back part of the bounty.
Acme Condo Association vice president Randy Moe, who volunteered to be the residents' official expo spokesman, advised them by e-mail that they'll be welcome to join him if they are "neutral and positive." But others say they feel a moral responsibility to share what they've learned in this difficult process. Residents Mary Ann Cataldi and Heather Lindahl say they'll be at the expo to offer simple advice that could save others from making the same mistakes--like "hire your own inspector." Says Lindahl, "I don't think I could live with myself if other artists ran into the same problems out of ignorance when I could have spoken out."
Do the Strand
The expo will also offer a look at the city's next great deal for artists: a condo redevelopment of the 90-year-old Strand Hotel at 63rd and Cottage Grove, which was designed by Zachary Taylor Davis, the architect behind Wrigley Field. The developer in this case is Ansco Construction, headed by Argentine native Andy Schcolnik, who says he arrived in Chicago in 1991 with nothing but an architecture degree from MIT and started his firm by borrowing $17,000 to buy a three-flat he rehabbed himself. He's been doing condo conversions on the south side ever since, and says he's now bringing the first new retail to this part of Woodlawn in years. Schcolnik recently renovated the Grand Ballroom, on the same block as the Strand, and is managing it as a special-events venue. The five-story Strand, which he's set to acquire from the city for an amount still undisclosed, will have 36 residential units and seven first-floor retail spaces, and should be ready for occupancy in fall 2006. Residential condos will be priced at $165,000, but Schcolnik says they'll come with lower than market-rate mortgages and--with the help of three city programs--they'll be available to artists for as little as $125,000.
J.J. Jameson won't be able to make it for his April 2 lecture, "Nelson Algren's Chicago: Has Much Changed?" at the College of Complexes. Eduardo Rios will fill in for the most-wanted poet of the month, who was set to present "a singular analysis of social issues in this city." . . . No sooner had the Illinois Arts Alliance mailed out invitations to its April 15 fund-raiser honoring Bobby Short than the singer popped off to the great cabaret in the sky. Julie Wilson will be there instead, performing a Short tribute.
Artists Space and Housing Expo
WHEN: Sat 4/2, 10 AM-4 PM
WHERE: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.