Some people have a preternatural ability to look at a blank canvas, or a cracked wall or an empty room, and see what it will look like once a creative hand has been applied.
Kara Behar is one of those people.
The executive director of Behar + Peteranecz Architecture and her husband, architect Jordan Behar, are the proud new co-owners of 6.5 acres of industrial buildings, just a short walk from their office inside the Warehouse Arts District.
Behar can stroll through the eight nondescript white warehouses, until recently occupied by Madico Window Films, which had been manufacturing there since the 1970s, and see the future of the arts in St. Petersburg.
It’s the ultimate in repurposing.
After extensive renovations, all 91,000 square feet will be occupied by The Factory, envisioned as a centralized cultural hub – a working compound – for fast-growing St. Pete. With Behar and her husband as landlords, The Factory is already 65 percent leased.
Madico swept up its last scraps of sawdust March 6; the Behars took control of the property Monday. There’s lot of work to be done – The Factory, in a perfect world scenario, will open by the end of 2020.
Behar, who manages all business and operations for the architecture firm, has a successful background in internet development and strategy. During that time in her life, she learned to trust her instincts.
And everything about the Madico property told her to push ahead. Still, she laughs, “My husband is going grey. He’s checking his heart and pulse rate all the time.”
The list of confirmed tenants is a combination of not-for-profit arts organizations and Millennial buzzworthies, from the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance and Keep St. Pete Lit to Daddy Kool Records. Black Crow Coffee will move its roasting operations to The Factory (in keeping with the site’s partially-for-manufacturing zoning categorization) and open its third café location. Six micro-breweries (Barley Common brewery collective) will take over Building One.
Approximately 15,000 square feet will be the dedicated home of Fairgrounds, an immersive, interactive art experience created by Liz Dimmitt, a longtime Behar family friend with a rich history of such things. Liz and Kara sit on several art boards together.
“She was looking for a warehouse,” Behar recalls, “and we’re a little bit like a homeowner’s association in the Warehouse Arts District – very quirky, but we all know our neighbors and talk.
“So we went around knocking on doors, to see who had property for sale and what was going on. We knocked on Madico’s door and they said ‘Yeah, we’re putting it on the market tonight.’”
Behar made an offer, it was accepted, and that was that. The buildings never even went on the market.
“I told Liz ‘We have 91,000 square feet.’
“She said ‘I wanted 5,000.’
“I said ‘We’ll make it work.’”
Once Dimmitt got a good look at the warehouses, she saw the potential, and now the Factory is owned, 50/50, by the Behar and Dimmitt families.
The mandate, Behar says, was to avoid simulacra – it’s a design term meaning, pretty much, everything’s the same.
“Jordan and I travel a lot. You can go to New York or Beijing or Paris or Dehli and find a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, a Nike store, an Anthropologie store,” she explains. “Everything’s the same.
“What makes things unique is not being the same. And arts are unique. And this is a unique collection – not changing the zoning, fitting in what works and making sure that my hometown has something unique, innovative, exciting. And it’s here. And if we don’t do it, it will become simulacra.”
The warehouses, she adds, have “good bones,” with cinderblock walls, concrete floors, air conditioning that works well and an overhead sprinkler system. Minor roof repairs have already been done on the two buildings that needed it.
The Factory will also include numerous artist studios, several dance studios (with sprung wood flooring), a rehearsal space and more.
“WeWork spaces are going like mad,” Behar says. “But you can’t take an artist into a heavy business environment – it’s non-creative. It’s non-thoughtful. So we knew that a creative, collaborative WeWork-type space would work. We knew the nonprofits that needed space.”
Rents are being charged on a case-by-case basis, with the nonprofits paying less than others.
“And the people that work with the nonprofits: If there are 70 performers coming in to work, they can support a coffee shop.”
Daddy Kool, which found a home in the Behar + Peteranecz Architecture complex after high rents drove it out of downtown St. Petersburg, is another story.
“Record stores don’t make money, but they make cities. And they bring in people that buy coffee. We said ‘OK, if we all work together, then it works.’ It’s a little micro-economy. And the rent is as cheap as we can do it and get a mortgage.”
The City has promised a pair of CRA grants for site redevelopment; Jordan Behar is drawing up the new plans; everyone involved is in the process of choosing lighting, plumbing and other fixtures. And the demo – tearing apart walls and putting up new ones – begins next week.
Kara Behar is giving something grand to her beloved arts community. But there’s another reason she and her partners are going to all this trouble.
“Life’s for living,” she explains. “It’s fun. What’s that old saying – if not me, who? If not now, when?”