At a special meeting of the Waterfront Commission Monday, City staff members presented three possible scenarios for reinvigorating the Torpedo Factory Art Center — and voted to make a recommendation to City Council for a ‘custom’ revitalization program.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center, located at 105 N. Union St., along the city’s waterfront, is a former munitions factory that was converted to an art center in the 1970s. Almost half of the building is currently divided into publicly accessible private studios for working artists, which are heavily subsidized by the City.
There have been years of studies, reports and plans to revitalize the art center, which has undergone only very minor upgrades since the 1980s. After releasing an Action Plan for Vibrancy & Sustainability at Torpedo Factory Art Center last October, work to make changes has been gaining steam.
City staff laid out three scenarios to implement changes to the Torpedo Factory in response to City Council’s direction to provide options for a more vibrant and financially sustainable art center in June:
- The first scenario is for Incremental Revitalization which would be funded by the City. Improvements would be made slowly, over time as funding becomes available and would not amount to more than modest changes to the space like electrical upgrades, renovated restrooms and maintenance. In this scenario, the City would retain control of the building and current rent subsidies for artists would continue.
- In the next scenario, the Custom Program, the City would retain ownership of the building and would look to community and private sector input for a revitalization of the space on a quicker timeline. The creation of more revenue-generating uses would help offset the cost of rehabilitation to the City. Artist rent subsidies would be tiered based on space type and location in the building, with ground floor spaces having higher rates.
- The third scenario is a Ground Lease to a private sector lessee who would develop, operate and maintain the facility for a 40-year term. Rents would be based on market rates ranging from $30 – $50 per square foot (versus the current $16.39 per square foot rate), although subsidies from the lessee or the City could be available. The City would have some say in the building’s use.
The commission voted in favor of the Custom Program scenario and will be making that recommendation to City Council soon.
In both the Custom Program and Ground Lease scenarios, there could be significant changes to the current use of space in the art center. Individual artist studios would decrease from 43 percent of the space to 27 percent. Space for The Art League, galleries, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, and events would remain roughly the same. Overall art use space would stay just under 60 percent, just in a different format.
The additional space left from reconfiguring the building and the individual studios could be used for a new community-focused and collective art space to introduce new art forms to the center like a tech workshop, glass blowing and common area public art as well as well as retail and demonstration space. Performing arts space was also mentioned, but additional renovations would be needed to improve acoustics and flooring in the building. A restaurant or café could help generate revenue and provide an opportunity to feature culinary arts in the center.
Incremental Revitalization would cost the City approximately $16 million over the next decade. Costs for the City owned Custom Program and Ground Lease scenarios would total approximately $41.5 million to include building and utility costs, waterfront access and tenant improvements/enhancements. This cost does not include the construction of a roof/deck which would cost $21.4 million due to the need for a building foundation and structural upgrades to support the roof/deck and exterior elevator and stairs. A restaurant build-out on the roof would cost an additional $6.4 million and its feasibility is uncertain.
Some members of the committee echoed concerns from artists, who are worried about losing space and have started a petition against the proposed changes to the center.
City staff stressed that the center will retain its arts focus just, with a different look. “At the end of the day, all the scenarios present the artists being there. This is going to be an arts-focused building… This is not artists being moved out of the Torpedo Art Factory. This is to make sure we can plan for the Torpedo Art Factory in the 21st century,” said Julian Gonsalves, Assistant City Manager for public/private partnerships.
Other members of the committee stressed the need to improve the center to make it more of a draw for tourists and locals alike and bring in additional art forms and artists to bolster Alexandria’s image as an arts destination. They also discussed a need to make the center more economically viable.
“If you think about what we did on the waterfront with Waterfront park. We still have the old waterfront park that’s there but we added to it and we made it more of an attraction…. I think that’s a good parallel for what we need to do with the Torpedo Factory so that it can be an attractive place for us. It has elements of it that we want to preserve. There’s a lot that we can bring to it to make it even more attractive than it has been,” said Waterfront Commission member Nathan Macek.
In a motion led by Macek, the commission voted in favor of the Custom Program scenario with one abstention, and will send a letter to City Council with their recommendations in time for the council’s meeting later this month.
Members of the public can learn more about the scenarios at the following upcoming meetings: