Art / News

Rent hikes drive artists from BankNote building

Sculptor Albert Bensusen, flanked by rows of his own sculptures, is leaving his studio in the Bank Note building after 10 years.

In search for cheaper studios, many are leaving Hunts Point

By Jeanmarie Evelly

When sculptor Albert Bensusen lost his studio in downtown Manhattan 10 years ago, a friend showed him pictures of a studio he’d just rented.

“I said, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful. Where is it?’” the spry 79 year-old Bensusen recalled. To his surprise, the loft—with its high, airy ceilings and huge windows through which sunlight poured—was in the South Bronx, hidden away in the historic American Bank Note Building.

Bensusen made the move, setting up a studio in the sprawling brick building on Lafayette Street, where he’s sculpted now for a decade.

But he won’t be there much longer. Come September, Bensusen will pack up his chisels and head to a cheaper space in Mott Haven. He’s one of several tenants in the renamed BankNote who can’t afford the sharp rent hikes that have been imposed since developers bought the building in late 2007.

Denham Wolf Real Estate Services and Taconic Investment Partners purchased the 400,000-square-foot building for $32 million, telling Community Board 2 and local residents they aimed to keep its creative spirit intact, turning it into a center for arts organizations, design firms and nonprofits.

In a December 2007 press release, the firm said it planned to offer artist-tenants discounted rents. But the new owners raised the rent gradually from the rock bottom rates tenants had been paying for many years—imposing increases every six months.

“As soon as they bought the building, the rent went up by $200,” said Bensusen, who paid $600 a month for his 20 x 30 foot space before the hikes began.

When he learned earlier this year that his rent would nearly triple by 2011, he said he knew it was time to go.

“Artists don’t make a whole lot of money, and the mere idea of it going up to $1,700 a month, I couldn’t even contemplate,” he said.

Denham Wolf declined to comment for this article, but the Bank Note’s website advertises “SoHo-style commercial lofts,” and boasts plans for a specialty food market, an on-site café and a landscaped plaza with outdoor seating.

“Every business has a number that they need to make in order to do business,” said Gail Blauner, who owns a commercial building next door, and who along with her family owned the BankNote for over two decades.

“Taconic paid a lot of money, and they’re spending a lot of money on the renovations,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s pushing the artists out, and unfortunately, that was the focus of the building—to be an art-focused building.”

Built in 1911, the BankNote was home to the American Bank Note Company, which printed foreign currency until Blauner’s father purchased the building in 1985.

The space became a haven for artists seeking refuge from Manhattan’s high commercial rents shortly after.

Renowned dancer and choreographer Arthur Aviles and founder of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, has been in the BankNote since 1998.

“It was very affordable compared to art studios in Manhattan. So it had sculptors and painters. Just a bunch of art situations that really did well,” Aviles said.

Aviles hopes the developers will do more to keep the artists local. He and others think the BankNote’s eclectic community spirit helped energize its bleak setting, adding value to the property.

“We credit ourselves for attracting this huge multimillion dollar development organization, and from doing that we do wonder if they will honor their inspiration, to occupy this part of the Bronx,” Aviles said.

The situation is indicative of a larger trend, according to William Aguado, who for 30 years served as director of the Bronx Council of the Arts before retiring last May.

“It’s happening wherever artists are,” Aguado said. “Places get converted and landlords think this is going to become a new SoHo and a new Williamsburg.”

Developers should work with artists rather than isolate them, he added.

Some artists question whether Denham Wolf is as committed to maintaining the creative spirit of the building as it told the community board it was when it bought the building in 2007.

“Every time those guys come through with another bunch of suits, they knock on my door, so it’s an attraction of some sort,” Bensusen said.

“I don’t mind showing off,” he added. “I just like to be compensated for it.”

Last fall, when the recession was throttling the real estate market, Paul Wolf of Denham Wolf approached several tenants and offered to freeze their rent for several months, delaying the next round of hikes, some artists recall.

Yet some say the prices are unaffordable, even with the additional time they’ve been granted to adjust.

“From his perspective, they’re still giving us a break and they’ve extended the break,” said Carey Clark, who runs an art-framing studio in the BankNote.

“But to tell you the truth, it’s just too much for me,” said Clark, who plans to go on a month-to-month lease.

“I think there’s going to be a definite loss to the community because the people that are coming in to pay $1,700 are not going to be artists. They’re going to be lawyers’ offices,” Clark predicted.

“It’s just tragic that with this kind of future vision, it’s not built in that you protect the existing forces in the neighborhood,” she added.

Some artists say they’re frustrated they haven’t been given a better deal, since much of the property remains vacant.

“It’s disappointing that with as much space that’s available, the rents have been increased,” said painter Robert Seyffert, who has a studio in the building.

“People that have been in the space for a long time should really be given some kind of opportunity,” Seyffert said.

Despite the changes, several organizations still call the Bank Note home. The environmental group Sustainable South Bronx and Wildcat Academy charter school recently renewed their leases. Photography and film studio LightBox-NY also plans to remain.

The Living Room, a drop-in center for the homeless, however, is planning a move to Gail Blauner’s building next door in the fall. Officials from the Living Room and its parent organization, Citizens Advice Bureau, declined to comment about the motive for their move for this story.

However, when they bought the building, the new owners made it clear that the homeless program was incompatible with their vision of the building as “major cultural focal point for New York and the region, with emphasis on the visual and performing arts.”

With his move on the horizon, Albert Bensusen is worried about having to transport a decade’s worth of his work across town. His paintings adorn the walls of his studio, and its shelves and tables are crowded with hundreds of his terracotta and clay figurines. He worries the wood floors in his new Mott Haven space won’t be strong enough to support the weight of the sculptures.

But he’s upset by more than just the physical hassle of having to move.

“All the people here are wonderful,” Bensusen said. “It pains me not only to pack up and leave, but I really like this place.”

A version of this story appeared in the September edition of the Hunts Point Express.

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