Peekskill Lofts Less of Sparkplug Than Hoped


PEEKSKILL, N.Y.—During better times, this city in the Hudson Valley hoped the construction of combination living-and-work loft space for middle-income artists would give a boost to its commercial center and help bring back the shoppers lost to nearby suburban malls.

A decade later, Peekskill’s experiment—one tried also elsewhere around the country—hasn’t turned out to be the economic engine some had hoped. Local officials recently eased rules for occupying the lofts in an effort to attract more artists.

“It’s harder to fill the units,” says Thomas Leigh, president of the 28-apartment project called Peekskill Art Lofts. Three units are now for sale, although two potential tenants have submitted applications, he said.

The lofts, all featuring large open spaces with tall windows, are intended for people with steady but relatively modest incomes. The two-bedroom lofts have 16-foot-high ceilings, with the bedrooms, closets and a bathroom above the kitchen and living room. One-bedroom units don’t have a second floor.

Artists like Carol Wax think the lofts have proved a clear success. Ms. Wax, an expert in a fine-art printing technique called Mezzotint whose work is included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says her income was so small that she could only afford a small Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment in Brooklyn where she sometimes found mice in her bed.

Several years ago, she traded the city for a Peekskill loft.

“I’ve always had this pull—city, country, city, country,” she said. In Peekskill, she feels like she has both. She’s an hour train ride from Manhattan, and can run with her pet Weimaraner in the nearby Blue Mountain Reservation. Financially, “I could not have gotten a mortgage because as an artist, my income is so varied,” said Ms. Wax, who now occupies a two-bedroom unit.

The lofts opened in 2002, but efforts to bring more artists to Peekskill started much earlier. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peekskill’s downtown business owners wanted to encourage more people to shop there, said Larry D’Amico, president of the Peekskill Arts Council.

Officials and residents realized that the local Paramount Center for the Arts—which opened as a movie theater in 1930 and has been largely renovated as a performing-arts center in recent years—was downtown’s biggest draw. They hoped that drawing more artists to the area could help revitalize the city center.

In addition to the lofts, the city also created a new zoning category allowing live-work rental properties for artists downtown. Today, artists in Peekskill shop around downtown, and sometimes show their work there.

It’s difficult to quantify what downtown might look like without artists living there, and business owners say that in this economy, any boost to their clientele is welcome. But on an average weekday, foot traffic through the downtown blocks is light, and there remain fewer bars and restaurants than in other arts-centric cities, such as Beacon, farther north.

Mr. D’Amico, an artist himself, says the lofts and the rental zoning for artists aren’t a cure-all. Some taxpayers had to tamp down their expectations.

“Artists are more or less private people,” he said. “Most of us are doing our work and keeping busy. I think they had some idea that this was going to bring in tourists and stuff like that.”

The lofts, which range from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet, according to listings for the lofts, are organized as a co-op. Owners buy shares—between $16,000 and $28,000, depending on the size of the apartment—and then pay a maintenance fee into a pool that covers all mortgages, taxes and fees, which run between $1,050 and $1,600 a month.

Westchester County funds helped build the lofts, and so artists’ applications must receive county approval. To make it easier to keep the lofts occupied, Peekskill and the county recently agreed to cut the percentage of income that loft occupants must derive from the arts to 20% from 50%.

But the city and county have been locked in a tug-of-war over calculating income requirements for living in the lofts. While showing they can cover the monthly payments, they must also qualify as middle income, earning no more than 95% of the county’s median income. That currently means they have to earn at least $44,000 or so but a single person can’t earn more than $69,600, or a couple more than $79,600.

The county has final say on what counts as income, and that has caused frustration, according to the city. Mayor Mary Foster said that county officials have disqualified a potential tenant for as little as $300 over the income limit.

Deborah DeLong, director of housing for Westchester County, said county officials are well aware of those complaints. “The county has adopted standards, and we want to make sure that we treat everybody fairly,” she said. “We can’t make exceptions because that’s not fair.”


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