Obstacles in front of building art center with affordable space in Wicker Park

By Yilin Xie
Medill Reports

Alma Wieser’s plan of building an art center in Wicker Park needs to cross over many obstacles. Raising money is the first. Achieving sustainable affordability in a gentrified area is the second.

Alma Wieser, the owner of Heaven Gallery, hopes to build a not-for-profit art center on North Milwaukee Avenue. The center will be dedicated to developing art in Wicker Park. A not-for-profit in San Francisco is her model.

The proposed art center will be in the Lubinski Furniture Store building. The building went on the market on Oct. 10, according to LoopNet, an online real estate marketplace.

As a tenant of the building, instead of moving out, Wieser wants to purchase it.

“There is no an asking price, and they are just taking offers. We work with a developer to secure the building,” Wieser said. But many developers told her the price the building owner wants is too high.

“We need over $20 million for the purchase and rehab,” Wieser estimated.

The Lubinsiki Furniture Store building, built in 1886, is at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. It is a retail and residential property with four stories and over 36,000 square feet.

Community Arts Wicker Park (CAWP), a non-profit organization co-founded and directed by Wieser, leads the art center plan.

CAWP just finished a grant application for The Field Foundation of Illinois, a Chicago based private independent foundation that supports community empowerment through arts.

According to the foundation’s website, if a grant is approved, the applicant will receive funding ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, a very small portion of Wieser’s $20-million estimate.

Wieser explained that the money would be the seed money for her art center, not for the purchase.

“We will be reaching out to both public and private foundations,” she added. “When one foundation gives you money, another foundation gives you money. All we need is a starter.”

The affordability of the building for artists is another problem that CAWP needs to handle.

“The prices of the neighborhood are no longer affordable for small operations like artists,” said Vincent Uribe, owner of the art gallery LVL3 and an organizer of CAWP.

According to Wieser, once CAWP acquires the building, it will be placed in a “community land trust” to preserve the building for art development. “It takes the land away from speculation permanently and provide affordable lands for people,” Wieser added.

A community land trust is a tool to maintain affordable ownership for cities and neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Community Land Trust (CCLT), a non-profit corporation.

“Units in the community land trust portfolio are tied up with a deed restriction that keeps them affordable for a long term,” said Jim Wheaton, the project manager of CCLT.

“There is nothing prevents somebody from creating the land trust individually,” Wheaton said, “But we don’t finance the purchase. So her biggest obstacle is getting the money.”

Wieser’s Heaven Gallery is on the second floor of the Lubinski Furniture Store building. (Yilin Xie/ MEDILL)

“If the entire building becomes a part of the land trust, we have to reach some agreements about how folks would be selected, what the rent would be and what the cost would be,” Wheaton said.

The old furniture store needs renovation for art development. “They have to turn a furniture store on the first floor into a usable art space,” Wheaton suggested.

And he thought CAWP might also need to work on “space zoning”, a process to arrange the usage of each space inside the building. “Is it going to be a performance space or a live-work space?” he said.

CCLT now has 104 homes and condominium units. Most of the CCTL homes lie in neighborhoods that are experiencing or are likely to experience gentrification.

Chris Jackson, the owner of Jackson Junge Gallery, thinks Wieser’s plan sounds good but only on paper.

“People like to say that they are very supportive, but will they put their actual money down?” Jackson questioned. He also pointed out the possibility that another person comes in and purchases the building before them.

Vincent Uribe, although being an organizer of CAWP, doesn’t “know a lot about the land trust plan”.

“Most of the plans have been led by Alma. I’m in it for the community of artists we support. I will be fine going somewhere else,” he said.

Wieser realizes the difficulties, and she is not afraid of failure. “If we lose the building, all the plans we have done can get transferred to another building. I’m not willing to leave this neighborhood,” she said.

Her insistence of building the art center in Wicker Park, a place where she has lived for around 20 years, is that she wants to show how “neighborhood benefiting” arts can be.

Wieser thinks arts are “economic drivers” and can bring new people to the neighborhood, which will boost local business and preserve the diversity. Also, arts help people from different culture backgrounds understand each other.

“Many cities have created solutions to arts displacement, because they understand the benefits of arts are much greater than anyone can imagine. But Chicago has not yet figured out a solution,” she said.

Wieser’s art center model originates from a San Francisco non-profit real estate development organization, Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST).

CAST now owns two deed restricted buildings for permanent arts and culture uses. And with the help of philanthropic grants and incentive policy, it provides affordable spaces to arts organizations in San Francisco.

“We received $5 million to purchase the two buildings and launch CAST in 2013,” said Tyese Wortham, the director of community engagement of CAST. “We are money-driven and that solves a lot of problems.”

Wortham mentioned that in order to build  CAST model, they founded a board at the beginning that consisted of experts in construction, data visualization, arts and affordable housing.

“A model works in San Francisco could definitely be modified for another city,” she said.

But the rising rent in Wicker Park and the limited profitability of small arts business are realities artists have to face. For artists like Wieser, it is crucial to find a sustainable way for art development.

Wieser’s art gallery sets up a retail store to subsidize its revenue. And according to her, the art center is going to provide trainings to artists and arts organizations about how to create a revenue streaming.

Wieser is hoping that if they can give artists affordable spaces and relative training, arts will thrive in a bustling, vibrant area like Wicker Park.

“So that we are not constantly asking for money. We can be independent a little bit,” she said.

Photo at top: Alma Wieser, the owner of Heaven Gallery, has founded Community Arts Wicker Park (CAWP) to organize the purchase of the Lubinski Furniture Store building. (Yilin Xie/ MEDILL)