Roosevelt Row faces rising costs of living, could displace artists


(Sierra LaDuke/DD)
 (Sarah Kolesar/DD)
Roosevelt Row, one of four districts that make up the Phoenix arts district, is seeing new housing developments move in, potentially threatening the livelihood of the artists already living in the area. (Sarah Kolesar/DD)

The rising price of land on Roosevelt Row could soon force the artists that make up its very core to move elsewhere, a co-founder of the nonprofit Garfield Organization said.

“The time has come,” said Kim Moody, the founding executive director of Alwun House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming community through art on 12th and Roosevelt streets. “Densification has arrived.”

According to Moody, Roosevelt Row is one of the four districts that make up the Phoenix arts district, which also includes the Garfield, Central and Grand districts.

Moody said he believes that new housing developments in downtown Phoenix are a threat to the artists that make up the core of those districts as well as the character of the arts district.

“The densification (of Roosevelt Row) is a process that is removing the affordability for artists to live there or to have live-work spaces,” Moody said.

Moody said he is not upset with the small entrepreneurial businesses opening in the arts district but rather the mid-rise housing developments that are being built.

Moody said the housing developments are not good for individual artists but are good for business in general due to the increase in people.

“It has been a positive impact (on Alwun House) because of the increased bodies that are moving in, but as soon as these structures finish being built, they’re pushing (artists) out,” Moody said.

Roosevelt Row is not only losing artists, it is also losing character, Moody said.

“The proviso is that those businesses that have buildings that have been swallowed up by development are a loss to the character of (Roosevelt Row) being an arts district occupied by human beings and creatives.”

Moody said the Garfield district has seen an increase in people because artists who can no longer afford Roosevelt Row are moving to Garfield, where they can afford to live and work in the same house.

“We’re encouraging people to buy and are holding workshops here for artists to buy their home,” Moody said.

Moody said he would rather have artists or families move into homes than have developers buy old homes to tear down and build condominiums.

“We respect and are working, trying desperately, to have as many families stay and not be pushed out by someone offering them a lot of money for their house,” Moody said. “It’s wonderful to see what were unoccupied buildings being fixed up. That’s what artists do.”

Moody said small businesses are fine as long as they try to match the culture of the arts district.

“We want businesses that are sympathetic and respectful to the neighborhood,” Moody said.

Greg Esser, founder and board vice president of Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation as well as the owner of Eye Lounge, said to his knowledge no individuals have been displaced due to housing development because most of the development is happening on vacant lots.

“In terms of residential properties, there really haven’t been that many places for artists to even live because so much of the buildings here had been previously demolished as a result of zoning decisions that started back in the 1970s,” Esser said.

There may be some artists leaving Roosevelt Row, but it is natural for that to occur in any community, Esser said. He added that both now and before housing increased in the area there were galleries opening and closing and artists coming and going.

“I don’t think that there’s a direct causal relationship that can be clearly delineated between an influx of new market-rate housing and the displacement of artists in this particular area,” Esser said. “I think that it’s counterintuitive, what we’re actually seeing is that it’s providing more opportunities for artists to live in and be a part of the community in ways that they didn’t have access to even a year ago.”

Esser said he believes the increase in development is doing more good than bad for Roosevelt Row. Esser said Roosevelt Row’s residential population has quadrupled since 2005 and the number of locally owned businesses in Roosevelt Row has grown from 10 in 2002 to over 200 in 2015.

“There’s been a dramatic increase in artists that are part of the area, locally owned businesses that are part of the area, and people that have a longer-term investment in the area,” Esser said. “So even while some businesses may close, move, grow out of their space or move to other locations, there’s still definitely a net increase in terms of the options that are here in Roosevelt Row.”

Artist spaces at accessible price points are critically important, Esser said, so the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation is working with developers to incorporate some of these spaces within their developments.

“Where you had a vacant lot, you might have three or four new artists as part of a broader community or broader group of people living downtown and being part of the neighborhood,” Esser said. “At the end of the day there’s a net growth rather than a displacement.”

Esser noted that the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation is making sure that Roosevelt Row keeps its arts-driven character intact.

“I would say that every developer I’ve spoken with has an understanding that there’s a sense of place here that has really been driven by arts and culture, and where every development doesn’t cater specifically to that, they understand the importance of the sense of place that the arts have made in this community,” Esser said.

Esser said he believes as the arts district grows and more community members are engaged and involved, the entire downtown area will become stronger.

“Downtown and the things that are happening here are really amazing in terms of the growth and the new investment that’s being made,” Esser said.

Phoenix Director of Grant Services and Community Initiatives Dwight Walth said the increase of development in the arts district is really helping the city.

“It’s providing a lot of downtown energy, it’s providing a lot of street traffic, it’s providing a lot of foot traffic for people, and those people are engaging with the arts organizations,” Walth said. “First Fridays and the other kinds of events that the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation is putting on, and that kind of energy and traffic is drawing other businesses to come into the area.”

Walth said he believes the increase in development is also helping local artists because it provides them with new opportunities.

“The amount of street activity and visitors to the area means there can be additional programming,” Walth said. “There can be more frequent changes in exhibits and the kinds of activities that the galleries are doing which provides more opportunities for the arts.”

Walth said Roosevelt Row started with small galleries and has grown to add small businesses and restaurants.

“(Roosevelt Row) begins with the nucleus of artists and arts organizations,” Walth said. “Then as they sort of develop that area and develop programs and they attract people, then it begins to attract other kinds of businesses and other kinds of investments in the area.”

Walth noted that the development happening in Roosevelt Row is normal and happens across the country. Artists go into undesirable areas to invest in the property, Walth said, which draws people to that area, leading businesses to the area as well. This increase in development leads to an increase in land values, tax values and property values, which begins to reach a tipping point where it becomes unaffordable for the artists who created that interest, growth and opportunity to live and work there.

Walth said that some of the development near Roosevelt Row is caused by Arizona State University opening up its downtown Phoenix campus.

Roosevelt Row is successful, and in order to remain successful, what is working needs to be built upon, Walth said. Walth added that his office is trying to build on Roosevelt Row without pushing any artists out of the area.

“Through our office, we do what we can to help artists find work and they just need to find those opportunities to work with developers and other developments going on,” Walth said.

Moving forward, Walth said it is important for developers to communicate with Roosevelt Row officials and city officials to make sure future projects “fit” Roosevelt Row.

Alan Stephenson, Phoenix’s planning and development director, said it is important to incorporate artists and affordable places for them to live into the future of Roosevelt Row.

“It’s going to continue to have a push and pull challenge of how do you infuse some art and the ability of artists to find places to live and work consummate to Roosevelt Row,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson said he believes the price of land in Roosevelt Row has increased because the economy is good and is coming back around.

Stephenson said figuring out the future of Roosevelt Row is a “balancing act.”

“I am concerned about (pushing out artists) and how it would impact the long-term character of Roosevelt Row,” Stephenson said.

Collaboration is key moving forward with the development of Roosevelt Row, Stephenson said.

“I think if everyone works together as development happens, it will ultimately benefit the community and the arts district,” Stephenson added.

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