THE SHIRT FACTORY: THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

POSTED: 05 Nov 2013 | BY: KATHLEEN WILLCOX
Paint thrown in fits of passion, toxic work supplies, reclined nudes eating grapes; many colorful images and phrases come to mind when discussing artists. “Good tenants?” Generally not.

But there is nothing typical about Mike Piazza, the building he owns (called the Shirt Factory), or the town — Kingston — in which it is situated.

“The first thing I ask when people pull up to the Shirt Factory looking for space is if they’re an artist,” Mr. Piazza. “I have found that they make the best, the most responsible tenants.” And after 35 years in the real estate industry, Mr. Piazza has seen his share of renters.

“I’m telling you, from a business perspective alone, artists are the kind of tenants you want,” he asserts. “They’re not just poor schlubs showing up because they gotta be there. Artists want to go to work, they love what they do. They pay their bills on time.”

Mr. Piazza admits he is not just in it for the bottom line, however. When he first saw the Shirt Factory, it was a wreck. “You should have seen it,” he exclaims. “Blacked-out windows, roll-up doors in the entry, leaky roof, no heat.”

But Mr. Piazza peered beneath the shoddy top coat of paint and saw a masterpiece. Like many other buildings in Kingston, the Shirt Factory began its life as a factory in 1917, when companies poured in to manufacture goods along the Hudson River (great for shipping) without unions (great for cheap labor), Mr. Piazza explains.

Rents plummeted. Landlords, no longer flush with renters’ cash, were unable to keep up with basic maintenance, nevermind upgrades. Flash forward a few decades, and Mr. Piazza enters the picture with a revolutionary plan.
Shirt-Factory-Exterior Shirt Factory exterior.
“When I saw the bones of the building, the high ceilings, the huge windows, I realized that I had an opportunity to create the kind of space I’ve always wanted,” he said. “It was clear from the get-go that this would be the perfect spot for artists and I realized I could market it as a built-in community for creative people.” Like the creaking tenements that have turned into the art spaces of hipster Manhattan, Mr. Piazza has helped transform what was once a hub of overcrowded commercial activity in Kingston into an airy enclave of avant-garde ingenuity.
Wishbone_PrintingBlocks wp Wishbone Letterpress' printing blocks, in their Shirt Factory studio. © Peter Demuth.
After a complete revamp of the building, he carved 50 units out of four floors and 64,000 square feet.  Each studio boasts 12-14 foot tall ceilings and large windows (some units even have skylights). He also hired a building coordinator to keep tenants in touch with each other, to spearhead events, and generally help quarterback community relations.
Studio-Space Studio space. © Stephen Blauweiss.
Since 2001, Mr. Piazza has rented out spaces to every form of creative endeavor, from vegan cheese makers to painters. Rents currently start at $400 a unit, a pittance next to the thousands shelled out for comparable spaces in New York City. But at just 90 minutes’ distance from Manhattan, the building is a good bet for anyone seeking to break into the gallery scene downtown.

In 2007, BusinessWeek declared Kingston one of the top 10 places for artists in America to live and work, based on cost of living, access to cultural institutions, and diversity of the local population. It’s impossible to say if Mr. Piazza was directly responsible for the cultural renaissance currently taking Kingston by storm, but at the very least, he tapped into the zeitgeist, to his own and dozens of artists’ benefit.

Some current Shirt Factory tenants moved sight unseen to the building from as far away as California on the strength of its reputation alone.

“It’s the best place I’ve ever worked,” said Janus Adams, an Emmy-Award winning writer, producer and historian. “It is so nice just riding in the elevator with other people who are working on creative projects they’re passionate about, and what I can only describe as the vibe, is overwhelmingly supportive, friendly and inspiring.”

Wishbone Wishbone Letterpress, a NYSOM Marketplace merchant, in their Shirt Factory studio. © Peter Demuth.
Mr. Piazza actively promotes his tenants’ work on his website, yet another example of the regenerative symbiosis of the Shirt Factory. “I let my tenants host openings and happenings here,” Mr. Piazza said. “If they’re happy, they’ll stay, and that helps me in the end.” The Shirt Factory experiment inspired Mr. Piazza to construct an artists’ real estate empire of sorts. He has rehabilitated two other Kingston buildings — the Media Factory (a former brush factory) and the Pajama Factory — with spaces for both residents and creative commercial space, and now, he says he has his eye on Saugerties.