For a few lucky Wash. U. alumni, home is where the art is

Lee has developed a novel approach to giving money. He seeks ways to construct bridges between academic institutions and the communities they have historically failed to serve — or have ill served in many cases. Schuchard's endowed professorship came with the stipulation that his activities would venture beyond Skinker and find ways to utilize Wash. U.'s significant resources in the community.

Schuchard began looking into a downtown property that he knew the university owned at 1627 Washington Ave. and began thinking of it as a home for graduates of the school's art department where they could remain in St. Louis to work and live rather than making the exit for those aforementioned visible cities.

Schuchard sent a letter to Wash. U. executive vice chancellor Dick Roloff, and, says Schuchard, with the "Des" Lee title attached to his name, "every door opened." Schuchard says two major factors got the project moving: "There was enough profit motive for development and enough motive for Washington University to get rid of the property."

The renovation of 1627 Washington Ave. is progressing visibly.
Jennifer Silverberg
The renovation of 1627 Washington Ave. is progressing visibly.

Enter the Regional Housing Community Development Alliance (RHCDA) and deputy director Barbara Geisman. RHCDA is a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to other nonprofits doing physical revitalization in urban neighborhoods. "Pat Schuchard became excited about loft buildings on Washington Avenue," says Geisman, "and he knew the university had owned a lot of them and only had one left. He was interested that the last one had a university role related to it. He talked to one of our board of directors, who talked to Roloff. That's how we got involved. We worked with the university and brought NationsBank in as a co-developer for a lot of reasons — not the least of which has to do with money," she laughs.

Washington University donated the building (which has an appraised cost of some $600,000) to a partnership between RHCDA and NationsBank (which will be Bank of America by the time this goes to press). RHCDA was an important part of the mix because of its nonprofit status, which meant it could access tax credits toward historic redevelopment. NationsBank could provide capital. "We are partners in the ownership entity," says Mary Campbell, who is both a senior vice president at NationsBank (Bank of America) and the market executive for community-development banking. "The bank funded all the predevelopment costs. We paid everybody we needed to keep the project moving until we were able to close on conventional financing.

"We put in cash equity. We're doing the construction financing. We're doing the permanent financing, and the CDC (Community Development Corp.) is actually buying all the tax credits. So at the end of the day, through four different financing tools, we're 100 percent of the money in.

"The partnership with the bank and the RHCDA is unique and good," Campbell continues. "It gives RHCDA the financial capacity to do what they do, which is to do projects and provide assistance and go into emerging markets just like we can. As far as we're concerned, we are one of, if not the only, bank in the country that actually buys, owns and develops real estate on purpose — aggressively does community development from the perspective of ownership and being a developer. For our market, that's never been done by a financial institution."

Campbell is a promoter for community development, but NationsBank wouldn't be investing $5 million-$5.6 million if it didn't believe a profit would be made. "NationsBank commits to downtowns all over the country. This is a great place to start," she says. "The bank liked the presence of Wash. U. It wasn't a hard sell."

With a scheduled completion date of Dec. 15, the renovation of the building is taking shape. Schuchard is proudly taking people on tours. A large, high-ceilinged basement space will provide storage facilities, as well as a space for community workshops run by the Forum for Contemporary Art. "We're not reinventing the wheel," says Schuchard. "We'll work with existing programs and bring in our students." The basement space will also serve as exhibition space for tenants and "any sort of guerilla-art activity."

The ground floor will have gallery space for student exhibitions (no more shows in dreary Bixby Hall), curated exhibitions, lectures, performances and rehearsals. The idea is to make the building a locus for downtown activity, in proximity to ArtLoft and the nightclub scene. A restaurant and courtyard (perhaps with a sculpture garden) on 16th Street is also being considered.

Sixteen units are designated for low-income rentals, with recent graduates from the Washington University art school receiving first priority (Wash. U. holds a 15-year lease and donated the property, so it has first dibs). A review board at the school will confer with the building's management on applicants (who must meet income requirements of $20,000-$23,000 per year). The artist units, which will rent for $350-$400 per month, are 1,200-1,800 square feet, with generous natural light from windows facing north and south. Ten larger units will rent at what has been deemed market rate, $650-$1,250 per month.

Schuchard goes to the sixth floor, which is the closest to completion. The drywall is up, the various entryways to each unit have been constructed. Schuchard points to the hardwood floors — maple, he says. It's all palpable, real, visible.

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