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[With Video] 7 approaches to creating affordable housing for artists

July 07, 2022

By William Ketcham

Pullman ArtSpace Lofts in Chicago provides a look at balancing quality and amenities with historic character

This article first appeared as “For art’s sake” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 15.

Housing affordability is a major challenge in many North American cities. The full-time artists in these cities who have gravitated toward low rent live/workspace in former industrial spaces are particularly vulnerable as those areas become revitalized. When real estate values in their neighborhoods skyrocket, rents go up, they’re squeezed out. It leaves behind a cultural vacuum in communities in which the artists are vested. Thus, many communities are looking for solutions that preserve housing affordability for professional artists in these neighborhoods.

The Pullman Artspace Lofts is a 52,000-square-foot development in Chicago’s historic Pullman district.

The Pullman Artspace Lofts, a 52,000-square-foot development in the historic Pullman district of Chicago, Illinois, is a great example of how cities can preserve the cultural elements that have defined their neighborhoods. Pullman Artspace features 38 units of affordable housing with public and gallery space in a new building flanked by two historic 1870s brick tenement buildings. This project challenged us to combine historic preservation, quality low-income housing, and dedicated arts space in a single building. Many of the challenges and opportunities we uncovered at Pullman can act as a guide to the reuse of historic buildings and designing of affordable housing.

Historic neighborhood

Pullman is a unique place and landmark district. Built in 1881, the Town of Pullman was the country’s first and most elaborate planned industrial village. Railroad car mogul George Pullman hired architect Solon Spencer Beman and landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett to realize his vision for a self-contained community where his employees would both live (he charged them rent) and work building Pullman sleeping railroad cars. At its peak, this company-owned town contained shopping, a church, and residences for more for 9,000 employees and their dependents—a brief experiment in affordable workers’ housing. 

Pullman Artspace Lofts project included the restoration of two historic 1870s brick tenement buildings.

Following the tumultuous Pullman Strike in 1894, the neighborhood was annexed by Chicago. Since then, this historic working-class neighborhood has been saved from the wrecking ball several times by local civic organizations. In 2015, President Obama designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument.

While no two affordable housing projects are quite the same—regional differences, city policies, and financing mechanisms vary considerably—the approaches we took in designing the Pullman Artspace Lofts, have wide application. Here are seven approaches.

1. Design for context and storytelling

The Artspace Lofts development represents an additional facet in the revival of the Pullman Historic District, which includes the renovation of the Pullman Clock Tower as the Pullman National Monument’s new visitor center and the restoration of historic Pullman Row Homes. Block Houses A and C, the two buildings that are now part of the Pullman Artspace Lofts, were part of the original 1881 Pullman tenement housing for the lowest wage-earning employees. They served as a barrier between the factories and Pullman’s residences. Our design was intended to contribute to efforts to protect and promote Pullman as a site for significant social, labor, and architectural history.

The team drew upon its experience with national historic landmark projects in Chicago— including Wrigley Field and the Overton Hygienic building. With Pullman Artspace Lofts, it was crucial that we design and preserve required historical elements to access historical tax credits, which help make the project financially viable as affordable housing.

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Etiti Ayeni is a jewelry designer/resident at Pullman Artspace Lofts in Chicago.

2. Listen to the community, be a team player

As the first new housing development in the neighborhood in more than 60 years, it was important that this project succeed to show that revitalization can recognize the cultural and economic diversity that makes Pullman unique. The design team needed to take input from the many stakeholders to develop a community-oriented project that would succeed.

Pullman Artspace Lofts is the culmination of a partnership between the community development organization Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, local arts programmer PullmanArts, and Artspace, a nonprofit developer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The project included oversight and regulation from the National Park Service (NPS), the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, State of Illinois Historic Preservation Division, recommendations outlined by the Beman Committee of the Pullman Civic Organization and the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

The planning process for Pullman Artspace Lofts began more than 10 years ago, included 80 public meetings and events, and culminated with the design contest which Stantec participated in. Thus, there was a wealth of thoughtful information from the community on what it wanted from the project. It wanted safe and affordable work/live residences for artists.

The developer team surveyed more than 380 artists and residents to confirm the need and enthusiasm for the development of artist live/workspace.

The developer team surveyed more than 380 artists and residents to confirm the need and enthusiasm for the development of artist live/workspace.

Today, Pullman Artspace Lofts features a mix of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. Priority is given to low-income artists and their families, with eight units reserved for individuals with supportive-services needs through the state referral network.

3. Preserve and restore when appropriate

We used modern technology and clues from history in the design concept. Our design restores the exteriors of buildings A and C to their original appearances and carefully adapts the interiors to retain original, historically protected millwork.

The brick on both structures was carefully stripped of non-historic paint and repaired where necessary. The restoration project replaced non-historic windows on both buildings with period-correct type wood windows and replaced non-historic porches with wood porches.

All exterior elements—window frames and trim, exterior doors, and exterior porches—were painted to match the original colors selected by Pullman architect Beman in 1881.

Importantly, we reconstructed the prominent mansard roof and brick parapet on Block House A’s roof, which had been removed. Inside the buildings, the preservation effort focused on saving what historic elements remained including original staircases with wood newel posts and beadboard railings.

The new construction portion of the building is inspired by Pullman’s aesthetic, which is largely Beman’s eclectic picturesque blend of historic styles. However, we made the new building easily distinguishable from the historic structures, in keeping with the NPS’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The new construction building complements the block houses and honors the craftsmanship of late 19th century Pullman without trying to look historic.

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Pullman Artspace Lofts is a combination of new construction and the restoration of two 1870s historic buildings.

4. Balance affordability with quality and amenities

This is truly affordable housing. An agreement with the Chicago Housing Authority ensures that apartments are reserved for residents making 30% to 60% of average median income for 30 years.

The project receives low-income housing tax credits from the State of Illinois. But it’s also quality housing with art space and attractive amenities. Along with the 38 affordable live/work units for artists and their families, there is also on-site exhibition space, and ample community space.

Our team designed the units themselves with artist-friendly features such as high ceilings, wide doorways, and large windows that are conducive to a wide array of disciplines allowing for creation and transportation of large-scale artwork. The resident can shape the space in multiple ways as each unit features an open plan with moveable storage units and partitions that allow for maximum flexibility.

Our design leaves the hallways as impromptu gallery space where residents can display their work and interact with neighbors.

5. Tap into local culture

Pullman Artspace Lofts connects to the neighborhood’s energetic creative community. Not only does it support an array of artists with affordable, flexible housing and workspace, it creates a mini hub for the arts in its public spaces.

The Lofts reserve 2,000 square feet of community space for use as a gallery, meeting place, and community room to host classes and cultural programs. PullmanArts—an organization which programs neighborhood gallery space, events, studios, and arts education—is on the building’s ground floor.

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The Lofts reserve 2,000 square feet of community space for use as a gallery, meeting place, and community room to host classes and cultural programs.

6. Work locally

The project also successfully engaged the workforce in the community—20% of the construction contracts went to minority and disadvantaged contractors, 47% of the labor was local to the community, and the design team had participation from minority and disadvantaged consultants.

7. Gain recognition

By any measure, it’s been a smashing success.

A Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation case study at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business cites the Pullman Artspace Lofts and the revitalization of Pullman as national models for community renewal. Awards are a tool for recognition and inspiration, showing other communities, developers, and designers what’s possible.

Pullman Artspace Lofts has won a host of awards including:

  • 2021 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Rehabilitation
  • Chicago Building Congress Merit Award, Renovation, and Adaptive Reuse Under $15 Million
  • Landmarks Commission, Chicago’s Best Preservation Projects of 2020
  • 2021 Real Estate Journal Award for Affordable Housing
  • 2021 Real Estate Journal Award for Multi-family/Mixed-Use Redevelopment

Recognizing context and history

Pullman Artspace Lofts may be modest in scale, but it is emblematic of creative approaches to housing that recognize context and history.

But the most significant marker of success is that the apartments are 100% leased and fully occupied by multimedia artists, painters, photographers, musicians, and their families. And there’s a long waiting list to live at Pullman Artspace Lofts.

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