A young couple is hoping that artists' lofts will save their neighborhood.
by Bruce Schimmel
Haile Johnston was yanking another rotten timber out of his front porch when he heard the news. The old Eastern Electric factory around the corner—an abandoned hulk occupying the block between 30th and 31st along Cecil B. Moore—might return to life.
"I was thinking, "Anything but a club.' The last thing I wanted was them pissing on my flowers," says Johnston. But club it would be, and that did not bode well for Johnston and his fiancee, Tatiana Granados.
Johnston, 31, grew up in Germantown; Granados, 29, is from Guatemala. They met in a sculpture class at Penn. As Granados finished her MBA at Wharton, renting in Center City became too pricey. They also wanted to live near a park.
While cycling on Kelly Drive, the couple found an inhabited but rough row home for $30,000 in East Park, along Fairmount Park in southern Strawberry Mansion. They have spent two years renovating their first home and organizing their neighborhood. And now this new club would be a noisy monster in the area.
"It's huge," says Granados, of the 60,000-square-foot former factory. And since the fate of their neighborhood would follow this building, the young couple saw little choice. They drained their savings, squeezed their equity and bought the two-story, red brick neo-art deco behemoth for $80,000.
And a fine behemoth is it, says Johnston. "It has windows big enough to throw a car out." With lots of light, open interiors and a location near the park, the couple saw its potential as commercial space for artists, artisans and nonprofits.
The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) agreed and put up $150,000 in seed money for the project. The old factory bridges other TRF initiatives in Brewerytown and Lower Strawberry Mansion. Johnston expects about 50 tenants in the renamed Eastern Loft Building, which will cost an estimated $2 million for completion. Woodcock Design has been hired as architects.
Now Granados and Johnston's hunt for tenants begins. "We're looking for cottage industries, like soap-makers, furniture-makers, frame shops, art stores, galleries. We're pitching the Mural Arts Program to put in a satellite workshop. We want a farmer's market and have met with Bob Pearson of Farm to City."
They've had nibbles, says Johnston, but he admits that his nightmare is for potential tenants to survey the neighborhood "and say that there's no way I'm coming over here." Still he's hopeful. "One of the great things about artists is that they're fearless."