Credit: Enterprise Group

Residents of Jackson, Mich., initially accepted the news that the local National Guard would be vacating its 19-acre armory complex in the heart of the city with a bit of dismay.

It was another blow to a community that had endured many setbacks. Once a thriving manufacturing town, the city, located about 40 miles west of Ann Arbor, had witnessed factories close and jobs disappear over the years.

But discontent turned to optimism when a few far-sighted business leaders saw an opportunity: The city had launched a plan in 2000 to develop a new arts-based economy. Local businesses realized they could turn the loss of the armory into a gain for the city and a catalyst for growth in Jackson.

FROM CONFINED TO CARTE BLANCHE

If an armory sounds like a strange place for a residential project, consider that it was originally a state prison. The prison complex, completed in 1839, included brick-and-stone cell blocks, iron bars on the windows, and 25-foot-tall granite walls topped by guard towers. It was closed in the 1930s when the state required a larger detention facility. flat's when the National Guard moved in.

The following years were hard on the community as manufacturing facilities such as a major Goodyear tire plant went out of business or left town. By the time the Guard decided to vacate the armory in 2006, downtown Jackson was filled with empty and abandoned buildings. Community leaders realized the city needed a new economic development strategy. Their solution: a “village” concept that incorporated affordable housing and an appreciation of the arts.

“We recognized that talent and creativity are the real assets,” says Jane Robinson, director of creative industries with the Enterprise Group of Jackson, the city's economic development agency. By supporting artists, the city could attract tourists interested both in the arts on display and the creative vibe of an artist's colony. Affordable housing would attract a mix of residents as well as allow the use of tax credits necessary to finance the project, Robinson says.

The Enterprise Group partnered with Peter Jobson of Shaker Heights, Ohio-based Excel Realty Investments, an experienced multifamily developer working primarily in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The next challenge was obtaining funding. State Brownfield tax credits were used for environmental cleanup of the site, including asbestos removal. Michigan's low-income housing tax credits provided a major source of funds supplemented by additional financing from a variety of private lenders.

Now, to turn a former prison into an attractive place to live.

Michigan State Prison Guard Tower is now part of the Armory Arts Village in Jackson, Mich., where the village's Drill Hall is used to display art.

Michigan State Prison Guard Tower is now part of the Armory Arts Village in Jackson, Mich., where the village's Drill Hall is used to display art.

Credit: Enterprise Group

FROM PRISON TO PALACE

A former prison presents a bit of an aesthetics quandary, so the solution was to “respond to the building and let it do what it wants to do,” says Lis Knibbe, project architect and principal with Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Quinn Evans Architects. The renovation, which cost $12.5 million, incorporated original features such as exposed stone walls and ornate bowed iron bars on the windows. The effect is “like a castle,” Knibbe says.

Armory Artswalk Apartments' two buildings house 62 one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. Knibbe's team incorporated the first building into two-story loft apartments. The second, a former warehouse, became 19 two-story, townhome-style apartments.

The Armory Artswalk affordable housing development takes the starving artist idea to heart: Light maple cabinets in the kitchens and baths and stainless steel contemporary light fixtures were intended to be cost-effective, not luxurious. However, the units provide a great luxury for working artists: space. Many have two-story-high studios flooded with natural light. Numerous classrooms are available for free, as are a ceramic studio with a kiln and a sculpture studio with a garage door to allow movement of oversized pieces. Units range from 800 square feet to 1,300 square feet. Rent is on a sliding scale, averaging $550 per month for a 1,100-square-foot unit. Residents must earn less than 60 percent of the area median income; they don't have to be artists, although to date all are, drawn by the project's unique amenities. Doors opened in February, and more than half of the units are leased.

ENCORE PERFORMANCE

Jobson is currently at work on plans for Phase two of the Armory Arts Village, which is set to begin construction by the end of 2008 and will include new market-rate apartments and retail space. Preliminary plans have been made for commercial space and a conference center in Phase three, though a construction start date has not been set.

Already observers are applauding the Armory Arts Village, named Neighborhood in Progress Project of the Year by the Michigan Cool Cities program in 2007. The project also won the Governor's Award for Historic Preservation this year.

“This is the tipping point for Jackson,” says Steve Czarnecki, president of the Enterprise Group of Jackson who was one of the city's early promoters of the arts. “We're transforming this economy,” he adds.

Elizabeth Lunday is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.

PROJECT: Armory Artswalk Apartments

DEVELOPER: Excel Realty Investments, Enterprise Group of Jackson

ARCHITECT: Quinn Evans Architects

LOCATION: Jackson, Mich.

RENOVATION COST: $12.5 million