Hamilton, OH: Artspace Hamilton Lofts

Architect rendering of musicians in playing upstairs windows of a large warehouse

Photo by Scott Merrill Photography

How can the development of artist live/work space help a post- industrial city revitalize its downtown?

Hamilton, Ohio, has an impressive stock of historic architecture in its downtown area which was originally built in the midst of a surging 19th- and early 20th-century industrial economy. As the economy lagged, though, the area became a flourishing neighborhood for artists. Now, the city is intent on balancing two objectives: preserving the historic buildings that have fallen into disrepair and supporting the continued vitality of the arts community downtown. As part of this broader goal, Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace identified two internally connected buildings in need of preservation, and is now devising plans to restore the property and adapt it into affordable housing for artists.


A suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, the municipality of Hamilton has a population of 62,000 and its own historic downtown area. The Great Miami River, which cuts through the city and its downtown, once provided a robust economic engine for shipping and manufacturing. Ornate 19th- and early 20th-century architecture serves as a marker of these industrial boom times. Two iconic examples of this architectural history are found on High Street. The Mehrum Building, with a sculptural French Renaissance revival facade, was built in 1900, and the adjacent Lindley building, a red brick structure, was built ten years later. In 1922, a department store bought the two buildings, internally connecting them to create one building. In the 1970s, the building’s facade was covered over by panels of metal louvers, completely masking the historic structures. In April 2013, an Artspace-controlled limited partnership acquired the property.


Since the 1970’s, Hamilton has seen decreasing populations, yet at the same time the area has seen an increasing median family income, reaching $49,104 in Hamilton County as of 2012. Known as the “City of Sculpture,” artists have long helped define Hamilton’s downtown area by living and working in what has been a relatively low-rent district. Adapting its stock of historic buildings, artists have made use of the historic and, in some cases, loft-like spaces. Because Hamilton is a relatively affordable community with a high quality of life, many artists originally from the area are choosing to remain close to their family roots, in lieu of heading to larger cities like Cincinnati or Columbus, or metropolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Having a distinct “do-it-yourself” culture, Hamilton has become known for its relative affordability, which allows artists to live and work in the city while raising families.


Back in 2000, Hamilton implemented their comprehensive planning process called “Vision 20/20,” which created a framework for city planning and policy- making. Although the vision did not specifically identify affordable housing as a target, part of it included a focus on the development and historic preservation of its downtown. As it planned to carry out those improvements, though, the city needed to ensure that artists could remain an integral part of the neighborhood, and help neutralize the risk that gentrification pressures might force the artists out of the neighborhood they so long had helped to define. According to city manager Joshua Smith, “better defining our arts identity helps improve our competitive edge as a community.” Core members of the Vision 20/20 Commission invited Artspace to the neighborhood in 2008 to conduct a feasibility study to determine the needs for affordable artist housing in downtown Hamilton. That study eventually lead to a formal Arts Market Study, a proprietary study conducted by Artspace to quantify the need for artist live/work and non-residential space. The study indicated strong demand for live/work affordable housing for artists and supported the development of 40-50 live/work units.


At its core, the vision for the project prioritized support for the creative community through the creation of affordable housing and the preservation of historic structures in the downtown area. In addition and consistent with their non-profit mission, Artspace knew that the creation of artist spaces could help to catalyze an area “to become more than the sum of its parts.” They will bring vacant and/or underutilized spaces back on the tax rolls, foster the safety and livability of neighborhoods (without evidence of gentrification-led displacement), expand public access to the arts, and attract other supporting non-arts businesses to the area.


Headquartered outside of the community, Artspace also understood the importance of local partnerships to ensure long-term success. As the primary partner, the City of Hamilton worked to ensure the project plans were consistent with the city’s vision. Councilman Timothy Naab, former mayor Don Ryan, and current mayor Pat Moeller, were instrumental to the success of the project, and offered the key political and financial assistance needed to realize the project. The Hamilton Community Foundation was also on board and provided significant support by way of philanthropic contributions to the project during the predevelopment and property acquisition phases of the project. The Neighborhood Housing Services of Hamilton was instrumental with project development issues like finance, predevelopment, leasing, and management. Establishing relationships with people from the arts community was also essential to the project's success. One such organization was the downtown-based arts organization Fitton Center for the Creative Arts, who provided critical on-the-ground communication with the downtown arts community. As Greg Handberg, Senior Vice President of Artspace, said, “having local liaisons in the arts community in Hamilton has kept our project foremost in the minds of the community. The events we have participated in have brought increased visibility to the arts community, our project, and how our project will serve that community.”


Artspace began the process with a feasibility study and market survey that examined the proposed project site and quantified the need for artist housing in Hamilton. The survey yielded valuable data on the breadth and depth of artists’ space needs. This information helped to support the design concepts done by architect Michael Dingeldein of SHP Leading Design who produced conceptual designs meant to represent possible ways forward. Artspace also conducted two community charrettes, which were attended by approximately 60 artists. During these events, artists and community members could respond to the plans and designs. To maximize community engagement, organizers exhibited the designs in a vacant storefront nearby and distributed flyers throughout the community with the assistance of its local partners. The meetings were also posted on city and partner websites. With architectural designs and budget information in hand, Artspace applied for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a competitive annual process that yielded an award for the project in June 2013, on their third try. The project has also received Community Development Block Grants, HOME Federal Funds, Federal Historic Tax Credits, and State of Ohio Historic Tax Credits. The Hamilton Community Foundation raised funds from local individuals.


With funding in hand, Artspace is expected to complete construction on the project in 2014 and move into stable operation in the first five years. The project will provide permanent, stable affordable housing to artists, stabilize a portion of the local arts community, and preserve historic structure. “We must be especially mindful of maintaining the historic integrity of the building, and we must continue with strong outreach efforts to ensure that the building can be fully leased by qualified artists, ” said Handberg. The market study that was completed also helped to identify over 5,000 local artists, a roster of local media, and a mailing list of interested community members. By holding multiple charrettes during the design and development process, Artspace was able to gain critical insight into community priorities and culture.


Artspace was able to develop an integrated network of local stakeholders who became committed to the project. One example was a “pop-up” gallery show that provided local artists with gallery space to do a temporary exhibition, calling attention to the Artspace project and foreshadowing the types of events that the renovated space would house in the future. “When we held the pop-up gallery opening celebration, we were surprised and gratified at the huge turnout and support for our project from all walks of the Hamilton area community,” said Handberg. “It showed us that the members of the community at all levels - artists, city officials and the general public - are looking forward to having this project in their community. We've also been thrilled by the enthusiasm of local residents interested in establishing creative, commercial businesses at Artspace Hamilton Lofts, and be a part of the downtown.” The age demographics were also noteworthy, with the project attracting the commitment of young Hamiltonians. “They’re determined to make their town great and committed to creating the vitality and life that comes with a great arts community,” said Handberg. “They could leave Hamilton and go to a city where that already exists, but they want it in their own community.”

A live / work housing unit combines workspace for a home-based business with the living quarters of an individual or family. The workspace is designed for flexibile use and is typically located on the bottom floor of the unit. Professional artists are common residents, as the open work area provides convenient and affordable space for both visual and performing arts.

  • Community Development Block Grants
  • HOME Federal Funds
  • Federal Historic Tax Credits
  • State of Ohio Historic Tax Credits
  • The Hamilton Community Foundation (raised funds from local individuals)

A charrette is an intense and / or quick collaborative session of planning or design activity. Charrettes are commonly part of community-based projects, as they bring together diverse stakeholders and built environment professionals to brainstorm and work through design ideas.