Big potential for new arts district

By Lauren Kelly

In a city-supported initiative to develop a Creative Industries District in East Pilsen, four landmarked industrial buildings were recently rezoned for creative uses in an effort to provide work and gallery space for local artists. Currently, Chicago does not have a centralized arts district, and the proposed location at Cermak Road and the Chicago River near Jefferson Street would provide a place for people in many different types of creative industries to connect and collaborate.

A central hub would also encourage collaboration between the bordering neighborhoods of Bronzeville, Chinatown, Bridgeport and the South Loop, all historically known for having active arts communities which in recent years have been gentrified out of existence as the price of rent and the number of high rises have increased.

The four buildings, previously warehouses and factories that are no longer used for for modern industrial purposes, are located in an underused part of the city that, if revitalized, could become a hot spot for Chicago artists. East Pilsen is the perfect backdrop for such an arts district, as it has been widely recognized as having a vibrant culture that is rich in cultural diversity.

According to a 2007 study by the Urban Land Institute that details the logistical plan of creating an urban arts district in the proposed area, the total monetary cost to renovate the four existing buildings would be $103 million, $66 million of which would be covered by developers and rental payments.

The remaining cost could be covered by TIF funding, a historic tax credit and state grants, leaving an unfunded gap of $1.5 million. Projects like these are exactly what Tax Increment Financing (TIF) was created for and should be funding.

Though $103 million may seem like a large cost, the city has managed its money in far more irresponsible ways, such as the 2016 Olympic bid and the recent parking meter debacle. The money involved in making a creative arts district would go toward creating art partnerships and fostering creative expression, causing the long-term benefits to far outweigh the immediate cost.

The Creative Industries District is a worthwhile investment for the city if the money is spent intelligently and responsibly. Although the benefits of the project may not be seen immediately, a centralized arts region would prove its worth over the course of several years, creating innumerable opportunities for emerging artists.

The open arts community that results would also be an outlet for Columbia students of all disciplines, providing opportunities for internships, apprenticeships and collaboration, as well as a possible springboard for recent graduates to get their footing in the Chicago arts community. The district’s proximity to Columbia’s campus could prove to be a valuable link for the college, possibly resulting in a partnership in the future.