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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Up-and-coming neighborhoods: Great buying opportunities

ORLANDO, Fla. – Oct. 7, 2008 – Soho was once one. So were Tribeca; Venice, Calif.; and Philadelphia’s Old City. These former gritty neighborhoods once offered low-cost housing for artists.

Over time, these neighborhoods flourished, adding art galleries, coffee shops, hip little boutiques, and cool restaurants. Property values in turn increased to the point where many of the original artists found themselves priced out. Eventually the artists moved on in search of new bohemian blocks, but for the savvy home buyer, keeping an eye on where artists live can be a great way to get in early before a market takes off.

The reason is that artists are happy to move where real estate investors aren’t prepared to go – crime-ridden inner cities with trashed-out apartments, inside rat-infested buildings that seem destined for the wrecking ball.

Artists aren’t looking for the next hot neighborhood, just large, affordable spaces where they can grind, hammer, saw, and generally make a racket in the name of creativity. But they often set the stage for redevelopment, and home buyers who follow their lead can sometimes get in while real estate prices are affordable.

Urban areas in transition

Over time, the abandoned warehouses artists occupy become gorgeous lofts and studios, and gritty neighborhoods transform into trendy communities with an edge. That’s when the investors, developers, and wealthy buyers arrive, pushing up rents and displacing the artists who are then forced to set out for the next undesirable neighborhood. It’s a cycle that has repeated itself for decades, in cities across the nation.

“When artists go to a certain neighborhood, that’s a really strong sign for investors to come in,” said John Villani, author of Art Towns California, a book that will be published next month by The Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton. “They’re the ones who were there first and tend to be first to be pushed out also. It’s really kind of a discouraging cycle for a lot of artists. They feel used and manipulated by forces bigger than them.”

Artists turned around Soho and the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and then Brooklyn’s Williamsburg in the 1990s. Now you’ll find them in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Astoria in Queens. Similar trends are occurring in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Miami, and Austin, Tex. BusinessWeek.com selected 15 urban neighborhoods that artists have discovered and where homeowners could see returns in coming decades.

Of course, these transitional neighborhoods, such as Castleberry Hill in Atlanta, Wynwood in Miami, and Northeast Capitol Hill in Washington, aren’t for everybody. The neighborhoods typically aren’t known for their great public schools and are in early stages of gentrification.

“It depends on how tolerant people are of nontraditional lifestyles,” Villani said of transitional neighborhoods. “You have to have a capacity to overlook the presence of homeless people, to not be intimidated by street life. You need to have a sense of inner security that’s not going to be upset that life will be kind of chaotic at times.”

Downturn creates new opportunities

Andrew Cray, 36, began buying houses in Bushwick in 2003 after noticing that the neighborhood had great subway connections and was the next neighborhood over from Williamsburg, an artist enclave where home prices were increasingly expensive.

Cray bought a three-family house for $350,000, a property that today is worth about double as much. He now lives in Bushwick where he owns five houses, which he rents to artists and other young people with low-paying jobs who are often living in New York City for the first time. Crime has dropped dramatically and activity is buzzing around the Morgan Avenue subway stop, the closest stop to Manhattan on the L train. A natural foods store, a brick-oven pizza place, cafes, and art studios have popped up to serve the changing community.

The yuppies haven’t arrived yet, but they will, Cray said. “It’s becoming a beautiful place if you want a lot of space and have a young family and like the Soho-style loft living arrangement,” he said.

Cray says the real estate downturn has created new buying opportunities. Bushwick has an increasing number of foreclosures, which are rare in Manhattan and more gentrified Brooklyn communities.

Greg Esser, an artist who also rehabs spaces for artists in Phoenix, said Arizona’s real estate slowdown is welcome news for artists there. He said Phoenix artists have learned from the mistake they’ve made in the past of renting their space. More and more of them are buying houses and studios as a way to protect their investment and avoid the possibility of displacement.

Artists during the past decade have helped to revitalize downtown Phoenix, particularly Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue, which are now lined with galleries.

“From my perspective the downturn creates new opportunities for artist ownership,” said Esser. “We were on a path of dramatically escalating real estate costs.”

Early adopters

The lack of affordable space is the main problem in many large cities. Young artists have been priced out of most neighborhoods in Washington, which doesn’t really have the kind of warehouse districts that artists tend to gravitate toward, said Anne Corbett, executive director of the Cultural Development Corp., which is working to develop affordable space for D.C. artists.

Some artists have moved to Baltimore, a much less expensive city with many warehouses that’s only about 45 minutes away. Others have moved to art-friendly suburbs such as Mount Rainier, Md., just outside the city.

Corbett said some artists have begun moving to the Atlas District, a mile north of Union Station, a neighborhood that developed a nightlife scene in recent years after decades of crime and blight.

“Artists send the signal,” said Corbett. “The artists are the early adopters. They do it in real estate the same way they do it in fashion, furniture design, and graphic design.”

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