A Look at One Foundation's Plan to Use the Arts to "Create a New Neighborhood"

While recently expounding on how foundations can assist artists in rapidly gentrifying cities, we called attention to one obvious strategy, employed by the S&R Foundation in the Washington, D.C. region: buy a building and make it available to artists. 

The foundation purchased a piece of property in Georgetown in June 2015 from George Washington University, which acquired it in the court-approved breakup of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Earlier this year, the foundation announced that it would offer 10 local artists six months of free space in the building under its new Studios Program. 

Now, anyone who has spent time in D.C. knows it's a competitive town. Many driven, ambitious people live there. Just tune into C-SPAN—the town runs on one-upmanship. So we weren't entirely surprised to see another D.C.-based foundation take S&R's model and scale it to monumental (pun intended) proportions.

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic entities in the Beltway region, has something big in the works. It's called the Art Place at Fort Totten. And it represents a case study of how arts philanthropy can—to quote Jane Cafritz, the wife of Calvin Cafritz and a member of the foundation board—"create a new neighborhood" from scratch.

Art Place at Fort Totten will ultimately cover 16.5 acres, replacing a 60-year-old complex of apartment homes developed by Morris Cafritz and his son Calvin, in addition to three small warehouses. The first phase of Art Place is the construction of a three-wing, 520-unit apartment building with 105,000 square feet of retail space. It should be completed by mid-2017.

The overall multiphase project is approved for roughly two million square feet of development, including more than 900 apartments, a new children’s museum in the second phase, and 300,000-plus square feet of retail including 170,000 square feet of cultural and art spaces.

This latter part is critical, because as we noted in our piece on the S&R Foundation, the city, despite its many world-class museums, lacks affordable space for artists. Case in point: Earlier this year, a developer purchased the home of Union Arts, the last collective art space of its kind in the city, and announced the property would be converted into a boutique hotel. (Faced with public backlash, developers said the space would "keep supporting local arts and culture" through a partnership with the nonprofit CulturalDC.)

And so the $64,000 question is this: Will they come? Time, of course, will tell. But in the meantime, the project has a few things going in its favor. First and foremost, Art Place will be accessible. The property is within walking distance from the Fort Totten Metro station. The parcel is also adjacent to that other critical component of any arts-based urban revitalization effort: the fabled anchor institution.

In this case, the anchor business in question isn't particularly artsy—it's Walmart and its surrounding Fort Totten Square. (Hey, we never said this was Florence.) 

Perhaps most importantly, the project will include the most valuable draw for any struggling urban artist: affordable rent. According to plans, 141 of the 520 units in the apartment building are classified as "affordable." Is it a relative term? Sure. But you can bet rents will be far cheaper than in other parts in the city (we're looking at you, U-Street Corridor.)

The work of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation in the arts and humanities space includes gifts to theater, dance, music, visual arts, film and other multidisciplinary arts organizations, mostly based in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Recent recipients include the Clarice Smith Performance Arts Center at Maryland, which received a combined $250,000 for general support and production equipment, $30,000 to the DC Jazz Festival, and $35,000 for the Arlington Arts Center. 

IP readers may also recall that we looked at foundation's efforts to curb sex trafficking here.