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As Artspace’s first project in New York City, El Barrio’s Artspace (PS109) will transform East Harlem’s historic and long-vacant P.S. 109 into a mixed-use facility containing 90 affordable live/work units for artists and their families, plus 10,000 square feet for arts and culture organizations.

The project is a partnership with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback (EBOF), an organization that provides the East Harlem neighborhood with vital housing and social services. When completed, the project will contribute to many local community development goals, including historic preservation, affordable housing, economic development, green design and food equity – further underscoring El Barrio’s reputation as a Latino cultural capital.

Of the $52 million project’s development budget, 6 percent came from charitable gifts, and ArtPlace’s generous $1 million grant allowed Artspace to close the gap and move the project forward.

Shawn McLearen, director of properties for Artspace, looks back at what’s been accomplished and what’s been learned thus far regarding this ground-breaking project.

“We’ve accomplished a great deal this year in getting the PS109 project through a financial closing and into construction. This happened because of effective partnerships and a shared vision for how a real estate development project can also serve as a community development platform. Now, with a two year construction period ahead of us, there is a whole new set of challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

“Through PS109′s “predevelopment” years—by which we mean prior to construction—we’ve learned a good deal about the critical roles that patience, perseverance, and stakeholdership play in making an initiative sustainable.

“We’ve also learned that quick fixes don’t impact the key issues that motivated our collective efforts in the first place. 30 years ago, Artspace was started as a kind of list-serve linking together those who had space with those who needed it. When artists continued to return for additional listings after being displaced or priced out again, the organization quickly realized that it was facilitating the problems that artists and their families were facing, rather than addressing and changing them—namely, the capacity to be respected partners and participants in meaningful, long-term community development. Artspace restructured, became the nation’s first non-profit developer for the arts, and set a mission to create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and arts organizations. Oh, these many years later, we still learn similar lessons through each of our projects and local partners across the country. The communities that invite us to work with them on the unique challenges and opportunities they face are doing so out of a desire to address key issues, and ensure long lasting, sustainable changes. In turn, we invite them to work through a process that will result in a product rather than the other way around.

“How does this translate to potential lessons that others practicing creative placemaking can take away? We’ve learned over and over again that we have to constantly manage expectations—including our own—in order to meet and surpass them. Well-intentioned communities and/or partners often have very specific visions about an end result, or a destination. Our job is often to collectively unpack those visions, contemplate what about them are answers to something, eventually identify the something that demands answers, and with that the additional partners that share a vision for making lasting changes on behalf of the community they all care about. The real product then is the process of consensus building. The end result may or may not be the facility that they originally envisioned. But it will, through a journey that often takes longer than most wish it to, result in a facility that has a greater level of stakeholdership, of collective stewardship—of sustainability. The potential lessons that we learn over and over again revolve somewhere around the critical roles that patience, perseverance and stakeholdership play in impacting the key issues that motivated our collective efforts in the first place.”

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