I got my start in development by buying and renovating real estate in Corn Hill. After six years in Corn Hill, I decided to move to another neighborhood in need of development. In 1982 I bought the Flatiron building at 696-712 University Avenue.
As I thought about how to contribute to and help improve the University/Atlantic Avenue neighborhood, a couple of things were of prime importance. I felt that although the neighborhood was depressed, it was important not to displace the people who already lived there. It was also important to create a diverse, safe neighborhood where all could live and prosper. In my mind, the best way to do that was through the arts. I believe art crosses all socio-economic boundaries more easily than any other form of engagement. I am an artist myself, and I know first-hand how art unites people.
My first idea for the Flatiron building was to renovate the upper floors for residential space. In some ways, this is the opposite of the way other developers work, who bring in the commercial tenants first. But I feel residences maintain neighborhoods and create a group of committed stakeholders. When I was ready to look for 1st floor commercial tenants, I took my time and looked for anchor businesses that would draw professionals and non-transient tenants.
I also bought several homes in the neighborhood, kept the 1st floor tenants and renovated the 2nd floor apartments to entice renters who were willing to live in risky neighborhoods. Again the principle was to mix socio-economic groups; keep people intersecting who don’t normally cross paths and eventually the neighborhood strengthens.
In 2004 the building at 714-730 University became available after the city police department closed the Highland section offices there. This building could have been immediately rentable as offices, but I felt that there was a bigger opportunity for our neighborhood if we rented to small, arts-related businesses. Businesses that are arts-related don’t close their doors at 5 p.m. and often have evening and weekend events that create a destination value for the neighborhood. Varying hours of use would increase community-friendly activity in the evenings that in turn would give us a better neighborhood.
I’ve been involved in the development of this neighborhood for a long time, and I’ve been part of many exciting moments, but one of my favorites was a few years ago, during an event called “Artwalk Live…Dancing in the Street.” That day there were tons of people in the streets, dancing, laughing, having a great time. It was my dream: to see art strengthen and unite a neighborhood and to make people happy to be there.