SALISBURY — Good news for Salisbury’s starving artists — the City Council made the first signs of support this week for a proposed “Apartments and Studio for the Arts” complex on Fitzwater Street.
“I think it’s thinking outside of the box for Salisbury,” said Council President Terry Cohen.
The project, currently under the working title of “River’s Edge,” would consist of 106 new apartment units and a 2,284-square-foot artist studio. The apartments would be considered “affordable housing” in that only tenants making between 30 to 60 percent of the area median income, or $16,350 to $45,330, would qualify.
Besides income, applicants would also be given a preference if they were artists or disabled. Spokesman Brian Lopez of Osprey Property Company LLC, the firm behind the project, stressed to the council that “artist” has a variety of definitions.
“The idea of artist housing came up and we started to explore that option,” said Lopez.
The application’s definition of an artist is a broad one and encompasses fields such as paint, sculpture, media, literature, acting, cinematography, and music, among many others. To qualify as an artist, Lopez explained that one doesn’t have to be a full-time professional in their field. Instead a potential tenant includes something like a portfolio of their work with their apartment application just to prove that they have been active creatively.
Though the idea drew interest from the majority of the council, not all saw the concept as fitting for Salisbury.
“I have a problem strictly limiting this to artists,” said Councilwoman Shanie Shields.
Shields, who said that she lives near the proposed location, told Lopez that she would have a difficult time explaining to people living in that neighborhood why an average citizen, such as a nurse or janitor, wouldn’t be allowed to rent in the complex.
“That’s not going to sit well,” said Shields. “I want to see other people live there besides artists.”
Shields proposed looking into a “half-and-half” set-up that would allowed mixed housing between artists and non-artists. Otherwise, Shields admitted that she would struggle to support the idea and told Lopez that Osprey’s previous proposal, which wasn’t artist restricted and covered a much wider income field, was more desirable to her.
“I really do not like the change,” she said. “It’s disturbing to me.”
The rest of the council, however, was much more enthusiastic. Cohen noted that, while she understood Shields’ concerns, the fact is that average citizens often are artists, even if not professionally.
“I also think there’s a stereotype about who artists are … the janitor that Mrs. Shields mentioned may also be an artist,” said Cohen.
Cohen called the apartments a “well-rounded, inclusive opportunity” and said that she was interested in seeing what happens when so many creative individuals are put in the same space.
Councilwoman Debbie Cohen called River’s Edge a possible “rising tide phenomenon” that she believes could help boost economic development in adjacent areas and the city as a whole.
“This parcel has the potential to drive economic development in Salisbury,” she said.
Councilman Tim Spies agreed, saying, “I think this is an incubator for jobs and commerce and education, certainly.”
One final, and unexpected, vote of support came from Dr. Jose Balea, Director of Public Relations for the Epilepsy Association of the Eastern Shore (EAES).
While not taking a side on housing for artists versus non-artists, Balea did point out that art in general has well-documented medical applications, especially with art therapy.
“I’ve been trying really hard to get an artist in residency program for us,” he said.
With River’s Edge nurturing a community of artists within Salisbury, Balea said that he was optimistic about all of the potential applications, including wellness programs.
Lopez made sure to reiterate that being an artist wasn’t the only way to qualify for an apartment.
“We can’t make it exclusive for artists; we give a preference,” he said.
Even if someone doesn’t fall into the broad definition of “artist” being used, Lopez pointed out those disabled would still receive preference and that the plan is to make 12 fully handicap accessible units.
Though still critical of the concept, Shields joined her colleagues in voting 4-0, with Councilwoman Laura Mitchell absent, to move forward with placing River’s Edge on the agenda for discussion during the next legislative meeting. Lopez confirmed that Osprey hopes to eventually get a “local resolution of support” from the council, which is critical in qualifying for state tax credits.
“The one thing we must have is a local resolution of support,” he said.
Even with that in hand the process for securing an expected $14 million worth of tax credits is competitive, with Lopez expecting roughly 30 applications from companies around Maryland to go out along with Osprey’s. He predicted that probably between five and eight of those applications would be accepted.