It's a Monday afternoon in Houston’s First Ward. Sunlight and the sound of passing traffic streams through the windows of an empty warehouse on Sawyer Street. Inside is a typical corrugated metal roof, exposing reddish-brown steel beams. The concrete floor is smooth and cool and there's a little grit under your shoes when you walk.
In the middle of the building stand 34 concrete grain silos, each 83 feet tall. There's still a faint, sweet smell of rice inside. That's why it may be surprising to know that this 79,000 square foot industrial space will eventually embody a culture of creativity.
Hard to visualize? Not for Jon Deal. He's turning the warehouse space around the silos into nearly 100 artist studios. The area within the silos will be used for art exhibits. Deal has already done the same thing to a few other empty warehouses in the First Ward.
"I do think that Jon has had a really clear vision and hasn't backed off. There are a lot of opportunities that Jon has probably passed up in favor of trying to really continue to invest in this sort of artistic endeavor," says Jenni Rebecca Stephenson from Fresh Arts, a nonprofit based in Winter Street Studios.
That was Deal's first experiment in repurposing. He said he fell in love with the old building and wanted to preserve it. A few years later, he bought a warehouse on Spring Street and did the same thing. Over the past decade, Deal says he's invested a substantial amount of money in the First Ward and the success caught the attention of other developers with property near his.
"Certainly Winter Street was a transition point not only for me but the area. It was a transition in my career from investing in multi-family (units) and actually working a day job ... to a full-time developer or re-developer I guess is what I am," Deal says.
Many credit Deal as being a major component in the development of the First Ward's Washington Avenue Arts District. It's believed the area is home to the highest concentration of working artists in Texas. When the silos are filled, it'll be nearly 400.
The First Ward was established during the mid-19th century and served as a business hub for the city. The two rail lines running through it played a major role in transporting cargo. More activity led to more warehouses. But mostly since the early 2000s, some of the older buildings have been flattened to make room for town homes and retail, like the Super Target shopping center that was built a few years ago. That's why preserving the warehouses that are left is like preserving a piece of Houston's history.
Mary Lawler is with Houston's Avenue Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit responsible for developing affordable housing in the First Ward. She's seen the transition of the area over the past couple of decades.
"What we've seen in the First Ward is a really great collaboration between developers like Jon Deal and the civic club there, who have really been working hand in hand," she says.
And Deal works hard. He's trim and clean cut, but his denim jeans and work boots indicate that he's not afraid to get his hands dirty when the opportunity arises. He hasn't always been a developer. When he graduated from UT in the 80s, the Houston native returned to his hometown and started working as a commercial real estate appraiser.
Deal grins and admits that, back in the day, he probably would've been voted least likely to own art studios. But life is full of surprises.
"Prior to purchasing Winter Street, I would've never imagined. But I love every moment of it. I really, really enjoy coming to work every day," he says
The area's revitalization is similar to that of the Wynwood Arts District in Miami. In that case, however, the popularity brought more development, which raised the property values and priced out the artists.
But Deal says things don't always have to wind up that way if the neighborhood and developers establish a common interest of improving the area. It's not just building real estate. It's about building a community.
"It truly is Houston's working arts district. And I think they've all benefited from that. The neighborhood has embraced us. We're actively involved with them and them with us," he says.
Sounds like a pretty fair deal.