Developer plans Racine lofts for artists

A Madison developer proposes converting a downtown Racine warehouse into loft apartments for artists in a $14.5 million project.

Gorman & Company would create 100 units for the “creative class” in the Lakeshore building at Eighth and Washington avenues at the southwestern end of Racine’s downtown. The four-story, 220,000-square-foot building is 87 years old.

The project will be similar to Gorman’s $8.6 million conversion of the Kunzelmann-Esser building at 710 w. Historic Mitchell St. in Milwaukee, said Tom Capp, Gorman’s executive vice president. The four-story Milwaukee building, which was converted into 67 apartments and studios for artists, opened this fall and is already full.

Gorman is conducting preliminary design work and has a contract to buy the Racine building from Wisconsin Lakeshore Co., Racine, for an undisclosed price. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of the building is now used for warehousing. Its assessed value is $250,000.

The developer has received a conditional-use permit for the project form the city of Racine. The city’s Common Council still must approve rezoning the site from industrial to a downtown commercial district, but that approval is a formality, said Brian O’Connell, Racine’s director of city development.

The developer does not yet have financing for the project but plans to apply for historic and housing tax credits and use conventional mortgage financing, Capp said.

Construction will depend upon obtaining financing and completing design, engineering and environmental assessments, he said.

If the project proceeds, construction could begin next summer, with completion in late spring 2004.

The average two-bedroom unit would be about 1,850 square feet. Rents would range from a low of $675 per month for some of the one-bedroom units to a high of $1,175 for some of the three-bedroom units.

Second Racine project
This is Gorman’s second project in Racine. The company developed a 78-unit apartment building called Belle Harbor that is fully occupied and cost about $9.7 million to complete. The company spent the last two years converting the building, and it opened last summer.

Belle harbor is between First and Second avenues on Main Street and is in the northern part of downtown Racine.

Capp said Gorman has studied artists’ live/work communities across the country. The communities have been slower to develop in the Midwest, but there is a market for them, he said.

“Artists are drawn to unusual spaces to live in and also like space where they can do their work,” Capp said.

“Artists are willing to actually move to a community for that and to live with other artists,” he said. “That has proven true in development after development throughout the country.”

Like the Kunzelmann Esser building, the Lakeshore would be designed to accommodate artists with a special ventilation system to handle odors and refuse facilities for hazardous chemicals such as paint. The Kunzelmann-Esser building also has amenities including two galleries, a dark room, business center, potter’s wheel and kiln and a media production room.

Hard-surface floors are standard, allowing artists to easily clean up spills.

Some of the Racine apartments will be designated as affordable – for tenants with moderate incomes – to allow the company to qualify for federal housing tax credits, Capp said.

Fit the plan
Gorman’s project fits into the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for downtown to become a mixed-use district of retail, office and housing, O’Connell said.

City officials were delighted with Gorman’s first project.

“Not only does it look great, but also it leased up right away,” he said.

Like many other communities, Racine has many downtown buildings with upper stories that are well suited for residential or offices uses, O’Connell said.

“We’ve seen a number of those change hands and be renovated,” he said. “It’s a very positive time for downtown Racine.”

The city’s downtown area has had four major housing projects completed in the last 12 years, creating 293 housing units, O’Connell said.