Entrenched in the urban landscape of Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood, an area that borders the downtown section of the city and is known for poverty and crime, stands a beacon of hope. It is a four-story residential and commercial building at the corner of North Swan Street and Second Street called the Albany Barn, offering a new destination for art, creativity and collaboration. The Albany Barn opened its doors to artists and the community in December 2013. Comprised of 22 low-cost apartment units (11 studio apartments and 11 one-bedroom apartments), as well as a recording studio, a gallery, a multimedia lab with a dozen workstations, a café, administrative offices and a performance stage with a capacity of 150, the Albany Barn is fully occupied in its first month. There are also individual studios (ranging from 100 sq. feet to 400 sq. feet) where non-tenants can rent space on a six-month basis and have 24/7 access to the building.
Albany Barn is a product of founder and president of the board of directors Jeff Mirel. In February 2005, Mr. Mirel’s Rock2Rebuild concert harnessed the power of Capital-Saratoga Region musicians and raised $25,000 for the Asian tsunami relief effort. Rock2Rebuild was intended to be a single event, but it brought the realization of Albany’s abundant, local talent, Mr. Mirel said. The idea for the Albany Barn came at the perfect time. In 2003, the city created a 10-year strategic plan for urban development in Arbor Hill with four initiatives: 1) homeownership and rental housing, 2) arts, culture and heritage, 3) business and job development, and 4) quality of life. Mr. Mirel and Darren Scott, director of planning and development for the Albany Housing Authority, teamed up to convert the former St. Joseph’s Academy in Arbor Hill into a live/work building for artists. The school was built in 1906 and closed in 1978, said Noel Olsen, director of real property for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. The building was last operated as a boxing gym in 1996 and has sat vacant ever since, continuing to deteriorate, Mr. Scott said. “This building was like the 800-pound gorilla in the neighborhood,” said Kristen Holler, executive director of the Albany Barn, standing in a fourth floor apartment on a tour of the building. The Albany Housing Authority developed the $10 million renovation project and found funding in the form of a $4.5 million grant from Restore New York, and low-income housing and historical tax credits. In 15 years, the Albany Barn will become eligible to own the property as it will be transferred from the Albany Housing Authority for no cash, Mr. Scott said. The renovation began in February 2012, apartments were finished this past December and the commercial space on the first two floors is being completed in January. Each apartment in this converted space has its own unique feel with an open kitchen, living room, a loft, high ceilings and large windows providing panoramic views of the capital city. “I’m looking forward to just being able to focus on my work,” said Michael Ortega, a 24-year-old photographer and cinematographer who moved into a one-bedroom apartment in December. He wants to build his portfolio and apply to an MFA program.
Emily Dorr, a 26-year-old visual artist who creates collages, just graduated from SUNY New Paltz in December. She moved in because it was an opportunity to live in a place with direct access to studio space.
The Albany Barn’s first goal is to provide affordable living space for aspiring artists from all disciplines. Tenants cannot earn more than 50% of Albany County’s median income: $27,200 annually for a household of one and $31,100 for a household of two, Ms. Holler said. Rent costs $605 for a studio and $613 for a one-bedroom, but tenants are only responsible for putting 30% of their monthly income towards it. Federal subsidies make up the difference. Rents are calculated based on an applicant’s current income and they are responsible for reporting significant changes to it. There is no income qualification for the commercial space.
The second goal is to have a positive impact on the neighborhood. Everyone involved in the Albany Barn hopes that it becomes a catalyst for change in Arbor Hill. Prospective tenants are interviewed and need to show a body of work, career plans and an interest in engaging the community. Community service will be required of every tenant, which may include teaching classes, creating exhibits or mentoring members of the neighborhood, Ms. Holler said. Tenants will also staff Albany Barn’s storefront gallery, Stage 1, which is a short walk down the street. In addition to the artists living and honing their crafts in the Albany Barn, the commercial space will provide opportunities for collaboration and growth. Bryan Brundige has relocated his business, Grandma's Recording Studio, from his grandmother’s house to the Albany Barn’s second floor. He plans to offer hourly rates for rehearsals and multi-track recordings as well as three consecutive full-day recording packages. “[I’m] super excited,” Mr. Brundige said. “2014 is shaping up to be a big year.” Mel eMedia, operated by Jamel Mosely, will also set up shop in the Albany Barn. Mr. Mosely, now an Albany Barn board member, has come full circle in Arbor Hill. He grew up in Albany and recalls playing basketball in the St. Joseph’s Academy gymnasium. As the construction crews move out and the photographers, painters and performers move in, the neighborhood’s vibrancy is on the rise. “To see that building come back to life, that’s a marvelous thing. It was an eyesore. It had become blight on the neighborhood,” said Arlene Way, former president of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Association and current executive director of Arbor Hill Development Corporation. She said that this program “gives folks a positive thing to say yes to.” The Albany Barn will be one of five organizations to benefit from the Albany Wine Fest, Jan. 16-18. The food and wine festival features eight different events and 70 participating chefs and restaurants. Nearly 10 years after tossing ideas around, Mr. Mirel is finally seeing his plan come together. “The best thing that could happen is that an artist is so successful that they no longer qualify to live at the barn,” Mr. Mirel said. “We want it to be a jump off for artists.”