What’s past is prologue

FOR SALE: Longtime owners Jolene and Mitch Mechanic have placed this artist haven on the market but hope to find a buyer who will honor its heritage. photo by Alicia Funderburk
FOR SALE: Longtime owners Jolene and Mitch Mechanic have placed this artist haven on the market but hope to find a buyer who will honor its heritage. photo by Alicia Funderburk

For more than a decade, Phil Mechanic Studios has been a pillar of the River Arts District and a key player in the greater Asheville arts scene. But while that legacy may be secure, the building’s future is now very much in question.

The five-story, 20,800-square-foot structure and adjacent parking lot at 109 Roberts St. went on the market Feb. 3, with a listing price of $1,995,000.

The announcement drew immediate reaction in the district and beyond. Artists, RAD residents and other community members expressed concern, confusion and even anger via phone calls, emails and social-media posts. Much of that concern was for the building’s current tenants, including The Asheville Dark Room, Blue Ridge Biofuels and 17 artist studios and educational spaces. But there were also broader fears of gentrification and the potential for drastic redevelopment plans.

Jolene and Mitch Mechanic, who’ve owned the building since 1998, understand the uncertainty their decision creates for both their tenants and the neighborhood. “It’s hard to think about,” Jolene concedes, “but this isn’t to say the building is going anywhere anytime soon. Realistically, it may be two years before we get a good offer.”

And in this case, “good offer” doesn’t simply mean top dollar. “I don’t want people to think this is about the money,” she reveals. “We want to maintain what we’ve built. We’re going to protect these people.”

The Mechanics consider this a pre-emptive move to get a jump on what they see as inevitable. “At a certain point, it won’t be financially feasible for Mitch and I to go on,” Jolene explains, citing several factors: the steady rise (and near doubling, in some cases) of property values and rents in the district; rapid redevelopment; and the rise of a fertile, non-arts-based business sector.

By putting the building up for sale now, rather than a few years down the road, the couple hopes to allow enough time to find a buyer with an artistic, community-oriented vision similar to their own. Any sale, they say, will include a contractual agreement that protects their tenants against either immediate or short-term eviction. Ideally, they hope to find a buyer who’ll agree to continue the current leases.

“It’s important to find somebody good to take this building and protect that legacy,” says Jolene, adding, “We have the hearts of philanthropists, but we don’t have the pocketbook.”

Market value

The building’s listing comes on the heels of a rapid succession of high-profile developments and property transfers in the RAD. In 2012, the city of Asheville bought and demolished the former icehouse on Riverside Drive; that same year, the nearby Wedge Studios sold for $1.5 million; and, late in 2013, 97 Roberts St. — a largely vacant building that houses a few artists’ studios — was sold for $2 million. Meanwhile, the major New Belgium Brewing facility, now under development, looms large over the district. Each such transaction enhances the neighborhood’s cumulative value, thus driving up prices. Against that backdrop, Phil Mechanic Studios’ $1.99 million listing appears to be in line with recent sales.

On the other hand, Buncombe County’s January 2013 property revaluation set the combined value of the building and parking lot at $608,000. “The assessment value is the market value at that specific moment,” based on both the building itself and the surrounding neighborhood, Tax Director Gary Roberts told Xpress.

The listing price, however, also factors in the value of any currently unused space, as well as recent and projected neighborhood development, says the listing agent, Luiz Leonetti of Town and Mountain Realty.

“We generated a value that would be suitable to the current market,” he maintains, noting the selling points that buildings such as 97 Roberts St. didn’t offer. These include a working freight elevator, three-phase power on all five floors, and a parking lot. In addition, Leonetti notes, the Phil Mechanic building is completely up to code and all 17 artists’ studios are rented.

Evolution of a neighborhood

Built in 1928, what is now Phil Mechanic Studios originally housed Pearce-Young-Angel Co., a South Carolina-based food distribution business. In the early 1970s, the company relocated to Greenville, S.C., and soon after, Mitch’s father, Phil Mechanic, bought the warehouse to store materials for his siding and construction company.

“Back then, the whole neighborhood was empty and really cheap,” says Mitch. “It stayed that way for decades.”

In 1987, Lewis and Porge Buck opened Warehouse Studios (170 Lyman St.), bringing the first artists to the neighborhood. That building is now owned by RiverLink. But the neighborhood’s artistic transformation didn’t really get going until the mid-1990s. At that time, Asheville’s arts scene was still centered around downtown, but studio rents there, which had been as low as $50 or $60 a month, were beginning a rapid rise.

When Jolene and Mitch inherited their building in 1998, downtown’s arts scene was dissolving even as the River Arts District was taking shape. “Artists were coming to us to rent space, and here we had this big, empty building,” remembers Mitch. Opening it up to artists, he says, was just common sense.

Painter and kinetic sculptor Sean Pace, better known as Jinx, was the first artist to set up a studio in the Phil Mechanic building; he also helped overhaul and reconstruct the space. “It’s undergone a lot of evolution,” he recalls.

Studios became available in 2000, but the project didn’t really gain traction until 2002. In 2005, Blue Ridge Biofuels launched its co-op-turned-worker-owned-business in the basement. That same year, Jinx and Jolene incorporated the nonprofit Flood Gallery Fine Art Center, the building’s primary gallery and arts space. The Pump Gallery soon followed.

Since then, Jolene has made both the building and Flood Gallery educational as well as artistic vehicles. Since the mid-2000s, she’s spearheaded programming promoting the arts, humanities and critical thinking, while forging partnerships with Green Opportunities, the W.C. Reid Center, Eliada Homes and the Burton Street community, among others.

But without the artists, she maintains, it wouldn’t have been possible.

“People so underestimate what artists do for communities,” Jolene exclaims. “Artists will go into these shells and warehouses and make them beautiful,” enlivening cities and developing neglected areas. “They’re culture creators,” laying the groundwork for broader community opportunities.

Building community

Many of the Phil Mechanic tenants have been renting space there since the early 2000s, thanks in part to Jolene and Mitch’s system of in-house rent control. Studio rents are fixed the day a tenant moves in; they won’t increase until a new tenant claims the space. So while the neighborhood’s typical price per square foot has crept up from as little as $6 to the current $10 to $15, rents at Phil Mechanic Studios have mostly stayed below $5 per square foot.

“Jolene was one of the proponents of keeping the artists’ rents as low as possible,” says Roberts, “and she did that really well.” But now, he says, the economic landscape is shifting, making it harder to keep such spaces both thriving and cheap. New businesses are moving into the neighborhood and new owners with new goals and directions are moving in. And so for some, growth is simultaneously met with economic hardship.

“Rents will go up in this community,” Roberts predicts. “The city will continue to develop, and the building prices will continue to go up.” And at a certain point, those prices will be beyond what many of the neighborhood’s original residents can afford. “Now, it’s a matter of how bad does somebody want it,” he observes.

On Feb. 3, Leonetti reports, the listing had more than 3,000 hits, and there were phone calls not only from Raleigh, Charlotte and Fayetteville but also from Georgia, Florida and even Michigan. Ironically, the very process that drove many artists from downtown 15 years ago may now be beginning to happen in the RAD.

After putting more than a decade’s worth of blood, sweat and tears into the Phil Mechanic building, one might imagine that the owners would be conflicted about putting it up for sale. But in fact, neither they nor others connected with the space appear to be profoundly upset about the move.

“The building’s just an asset,” says former longtime tenant Jinx. “The character of the building is the character of the people.”

All current tenants received an email from Jolene in early January explaining the Mechanics’ intention to sell the building while protecting their renters. Many say it’s still too soon for them to have formulated any course of action. “Obviously, we’re a little nervous about the building going up,” says Woodrow Eaton, general manager of Blue Ridge Biofuels, “but Jolene has assured us that we’ll be taken care of.”

Bridget Conn of The Asheville Darkroom echoes that sentiment, saying, “It might feel a little jarring at first, but I know Jolene will do the right thing.”

Jolene herself, meanwhile, says that while old warehouses and factories can be repurposed as exciting, functional and even experimental spaces, the real ideas always reside in the people, not the bricks and concrete.

“I’m not attached to the district,” she declares. “I’m attached to community, and community is people, not structures.”

— Kyle Sherard can be reached at kyle.sherard@gmail.com.

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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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