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Since the days of Socrates, people have dreamed of an artist’s utopia, a community where those enlightened few who speak to us through their artwork could be free to collaborate, pursue their craft and — hopefully — push us all up to a higher plane. While there were once those in Little Rock who aspired to create a place that might live up to that heavenly ideal, the tenants in the development they created now say that things are being allowed to go to hell.
Completed in 1997, the $3.25 million renovation of Kramer School into low-cost lofts for artists was heralded as a victory in the ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Little Rock. The project was conceived by young developers Paul Esterer and Todd Rice — who went on to develop more loft properties. The school was renovated as a Section 42 property, meaning the development company received tax credits in exchange for creating housing space for those on low or fixed incomes. By the time Kramer School Artists Cooperative was ready for its first tenants to move in, the 38,000-square-foot building had been converted into 22 loft-style apartments, each with expansive windows, an environmentally friendly geothermal heating and cooling system, and double-high ceilings. Even more important for the artists in residence was the development’s art-friendly attitude. With a set of bylaws enforced by a co-op board, tenants were encouraged to live and work in their apartments, hold gallery shows and rehearsals in the hallways and in the school’s former auditorium, and create outreach programs. The development won several awards and was featured on national television.
Since then, however, many residents say that Kramer has been allowed to go steadily downhill, both physically and idealistically. S’cie Ward has been a resident since 1997. Problems with what she called unresponsive and constantly changing management, lax maintenance and confusion about the rules caused Ward and other tenants to recently re-form the co-op board, with Ward elected chairperson.
Ward — a photographer and writer — said she remembers the early years at Kramer. She said that since management began allowing non-artist tenants, the artistic climate has waned.
“In the process of moving so many people in who were not involved in the arts, it was kind of lost in the shuffle as far as people using the space and taking advantage of the building as a co-op,” Ward said.
Recently, notes from management began appearing on tenants’ doors, saying that “the only thing they could do in their apartments is live,” which seems to preclude the live/work space allowed under the original bylaws. A few years back, Ward said, managers began telling people that if they wanted to use the auditorium for gallery space, rehearsal or to hold a class, the tenant would have to secure a $1 million liability insurance policy. Since then, the auditorium hasn’t seen much use.
If that wasn’t enough, Ward said that the building has been rife with maintenance problems. This spring, she said, the lawn was allowed to get knee-high before someone came to cut it. Though it was finally fixed last week, Ward said that the air conditioning had been broken for a full year.
“I’ve had the heat reach 112 degrees in my apartment and melt candles in a place where sunlight never reaches,” she said.
Pete Petrash has lived in apartment No. 6 at Kramer for two years, and is the secretary of the new tenant board. While the problems with the air conditioning were bad enough that he bought a window unit, he is frustrated with management’s anonymity and attitude. Last year, when he was forced to toss his bagged trash over a wooden enclosure around the dumpster because of a new padlock on the gate, management sent a letter to all tenants, saying that they had opened the garbage, knew who had done it, and would take action if it happened again. He said he doesn’t even know who the manager is right now.
Erin Lorenzen has lived on the third floor, across from Ward, for two years. The wax and resin she uses in her sculpture all went bad last summer, when temperatures regularly topped 100 in her apartment. Soon after she arrived, Lorenzen offered to teach a class on yoga for residents, but was told she’d have to get the million-dollar insurance policy to hold the class in the auditorium.
Rosemary Epperson has been the manager of Kramer School for a little less than three months. She said that she doesn’t know of any maintenance problems that haven’t been repaired.
“We did have a couple of people who were having to wait for a compressor for an air conditioner, but there’s nothing we can do about that,” she said. “I’m really new here. I’ve seen pictures of when it used to be Kramer School. It’s really unique. However, I don’t know anything about [an] artists’ co-op.”
Epperson referred all further questions to First Capital Management, which manages the building. John Shiver, who oversees the Kramer School property for First Capital Management, said, “You’ve got some nutcases over there,” but wouldn’t comment further on complaints by residents.
Ward said the problems have prompted speculation that lax maintenance is meant to encourage low-income tenants to move out so the building can be turned into condominiums. She’s sticking, however. She said she just wants management to be square about the rules. Is Kramer governed by the original co-op rules, or some set of new rules written since then?
“We want something more than you to just come out from one week to another and say ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ Validate it. Show us what rules you’re going by.”