Landlord cultivates creative workplace in Bushwick

Luis Martin wears many hats at Brooklyn Brush, from curator to interior designer to art engineer. Here he is in front of his latest work, a series of large, colorful collages.

— In one of Bushwick’s gritty industrial nooks, a former textile and tortellini factory has transitioned into a reliable haven for hard-working creative entrepreneurs. Brooklyn Brush Studios at 203 Harrison Place opened in December 2013 and is the third workspace venture for landlord Rafael Alvarez, 41, a Cuban immigrant and former civil engineer.

Brooklyn Brush
The Brooklyn Brush warehouse is located at the intersection of Harrison Place and Stewart Avenue about two blocks from the Jefferson Street L subway station.

“I was looking for an office for myself and I thought I could do it better,” said Alvarez, who was shocked at the conditions of many Brooklyn-based workspaces, which often weren’t up to code, had tiny hallways and were missing some of life’s essentials.

“How could you not have toilet paper?” said Alvarez.

Rafael Alvarez
Landlord Rafael Alvarez, center, stops in one of Iris MediaWorks’s four units in his Brooklyn Brush building. Alvarez makes a habit of checking in with tenants to make sure they have what they need.

So he’s built the new Brooklyn Brush space with the proper permits, large hallways, ample lighting and has people on staff to deal with mail and keep the bathrooms stocked with all of the necessities.

Because the building is up to code and strictly a commercial space, tenants don’t need to worry about the Department of Buildings throwing everyone out for violations. A mass eviction occurred at a competing space a few blocks away several years ago at 1717 Troutman Street because artists were living in the commercially-zoned space.

Good lighting, proper heating and cooling systems, to-code hallway width and a fresh paint job were just some of the things Alvarez did to help Brooklyn Brush stand above competing spaces.

The tenants in the space, who range from photographers and graphic designers to jewelers and sound mixers, have noticed Alvarez’s attention to detail and commitment to creating a productive work environment.

“He’s the opposite of a slumlord. He’s a guy trying to do it and is very concerned with community,” said Chris Botta, 29, a musician and audio engineer who rents a custom-built, sound-treated unit in the new building. Alvarez put in the work and money, he even went $25,000 over budget on the room, using it as a trial to see what can be done to soundproof a space.

Tenant Alexander Overington mixes a track in the studio space he shares with Chris Botta. They’re able to record and listen to relatively loud music without co-tenants hearing or complaining, something that was extremely important to Alvarez in constructing the space.

To further cultivate a hard-working and creative community at Brooklyn Brush, Alvarez hired one of his renters to curate exhibitions of tenant artwork in a large open gallery space called Parentheses.

“We’re looking for artists who are really serious about becoming outstanding and talking about how art is a business and how art can really feed you,” said Luis Martin, 32, who is the director of programming and artist affairs at the building. He also rents a unit to create his own vibrant, large-scale collages and paintings.

Luis Martin Meeting
Rafael Alvarez, left, and Luis Martin, center, meet with an artist tenant about plans for use of the Parentheses gallery in the coming months.

Martin has used his role to help push tenants to share their work, whether in the Parentheses gallery or during Bushwick Open Studios, an annual event where artists are encouraged to show their spaces to the public.

“I wasn’t planning on showing any work for three years. I was just going to hole myself in until I was ready,” said Annesta Le, 33, a visual artist and daughter of Vietnamese refugees. “Martin was so sweet, he took me and said ‘this is what you need to do’ and we did it, I think like 1,500 people came through and it gave me more confidence.”

Annesta Le
Annesta Le in her natural light-drenched studio, where she feels she can be as creative and messy as she needs to be.

Beyond helping show and sell her artwork, Le also had help from Alvarez in making optimal use of her 250-square-foot unit.

“Rafael is really encouraging to grow. I would tell him I need storage for my glasswork and need a desk for my computer so he built shelves, a desk and a storage loft,” said Le, pointing to all of the custom-built handiwork in her cozy little room.

Annesta Le Storage
Annesta Le pulls down a neon heart light she crafted from a storage loft Alvarez built her to make better use of her unit.

A multimedia production and consulting company called Iris MediaWorks has also been able to grow with Alvarez, literally.

“There’s the opportunity as we grow to add space as we need it and not bite off more than we can chew,” said Colin Holmes, 30, creative director at Iris MediaWorks. The group has expanded to four units at Brooklyn Brush, including space for servers, gear, post production and green screen filming.

Noah Workman
Noah Workman in one of Iris MediaWorks’s four units at Brooklyn Brush.

Noah Workman, 32, a founder at Iris MediaWorks, touched on the productivity of the building.

“This isn’t a luxury office, it’s a built-out warehouse space. You can always rent fancy spaces, but this is a space for getting work done and we like that,” Workman said.

Iris Media Lox
Workman introducing Alvarez to smoked salmon during one of Alvarez’s usual pop-ins.

Co-founder Patrick Rousseau, 33, agreed.

“These spaces are filled with people that are trying to make something happen without a million dollars sitting in a bank account somewhere,” said Rousseau.

The Parentheses gallery at Brooklyn Brush, between programs. Annesta Le will have a solo show on display in the summer.

The building is currently about 50 percent occupied and units run from $350-per-month for 70-square-feet to $775-per-month for 200-square-feet in units without windows and $495-per-month for 90-square-feet to $830-per-month for 215-square-feet for units with windows. Prices include utilities, wireless internet, a package receiving concierge, conference room and other perks.

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