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Studio Space in Rivewest

by Mark Lawson In last month’s issue of the Riverwest Currents, this column outlined some of the original reasons that many artists decided to make Riverwest their home and studio location. Primarily, they were attracted by the abundance of storefronts and other relatively inexpensive spaces that were usable as studios and galleries. Originally these spaces were bakeries, butcher shops, small stores, taverns, etc. The more prevalent use of the automobile, the rise of large chain stores, and the decline of the manufacturing economy which supported many Riverwest households caused many of the original small businesses to close. During the 1960s and 1970s many of these spaces were vacant, only gradually being rented to artists and other non-commercial enterprises. Very gradually, economic pressures caused many building owners to convert many store fronts and other former commercial spaces to apartments. Mark Thomas, who owns a multi-family building with a storefront on the corner of Hadley and Weil, converted his raw storefront space to living quarters with more rooms and amenities. Unlike many other landlords that have made this sort of conversion, he maintained some of the open character of the original space in the entry area. Recently he has done away with the original large picture windows because of the price of repairing large panes of glass broken by vandals. When asked about his reason for the conversion of the space, he cited the economics of receiving higher rent for an apartment as opposed to a studio. John Ruebartsch, who owns a multi-family building on East Center Street, continues to preserve his storefront space although it is currently being rented as a residence. He hopes that the climate for business on Center Street will improve, so he will eventually be able to rent to a locally-owned business that would enhance the character and life of the neighborhood. As usable and affordable space continues to disappear in Riverwest, John’s rental approach seems to be increasingly rare. One Riverwest property owner who remains committed to renting his property as studio space is Joe Fix from Joe’s East Coast Auto. When asked about his motivations, he replied that the cost of converting his large, warehouse-like building on Center Street into apartments would be very considerable and possibly not profitable, and that apartments and his auto repair business would not be very compatible. He conceded that perhaps some day someone might buy his building and convert it to apartments or perhaps even condos. With the current real estate boom in Riverwest, perhaps that possibility is not that far off.