This week, when Houstonians get their first peek at Sabine Street Studios at Sawyer Yards, the latest addition to the 55 contiguous acres that more than 400 local creatives call home, it’s worth noting that it was never Jon Deal’s intention to create one of the nation’s largest artistic communities.
It just so happened that in 2004, Deal, one of the principal developers of Sawyer Yards, fell in love with a massive concrete structure on Winter Street, a former furniture factory with a long history of housing “underground” art studios, i.e. places not recognized by the city and not code compliant.
“I don’t think [my interest] was as much art as it was a fascination with old structure,” says Deal.
Thoroughly smitten, Deal purchased the building, on the verge of being razed and turned into a parking lot, and approached the city to legitimize its working art studio use, making Winter Street the first of its kind in Houston.
“Not to say that there weren’t other art studios in Houston,” adds Deal. “They just weren’t recognized as being working art studios by the city.”
Around the time Deal started work on Winter Street, he caught the attention of Western General’s Steve Gibson, new owner of the nearby Silver Eagle complex. Gibson asked Deal to partner with him on the property, which would eventually become Silver Street Studios. Then Lovett Commercial’s Frank Liu joined in, creating the Shops at Sawyer Yards and committing the rest of his area properties to further Sawyer Yards development.
“I think it was more out of amazement that Steve Gibson had committed to repurposing an old structure then anything, [but] Frank kind of caught the bug too,” says Deal.
Sabine, a 48,000-square-foot former Halliburton warehouse, is the third studio building to open at Sawyer Yards since 2015 and the first that all three men have partnered in.
“We really wanted and needed to purchase that building to complement Spring Street,” says Deal. “Spring Street was the only of the working art studio buildings that was disconnected from campus, so Sabine Street in my mind was needed to create the next level of energy for that little pocket over there.”
And, Deal adds, “I’m not sure anybody would have saved the building except for me.”
Deal admits that the Sabine project proved to be especially challenging, going so far as to say that in his 25 years in the business, he’s never had an experience quite like it. (The Silos, however, with their two distinct buildings – one with a 42-foot-high ceiling – attached to a silo holds the title for most difficult. “I rarely lose sleep, but I probably lost a night or two of sleep trying to figure that one out,” laughs Deal.) Still, it’s the challenge that keeps Deal and his partners going.
“It’s relatively easy to build something new, but repurposing old structure is challenging almost on a daily basis,” says Deal. “It’s rewarding to be able to make the acquisition, utilize existing improvements, and actually realize a financial return off the investment. It’s becoming more difficult to do, but we keep at it.”
There are still two or three hundred thousand square feet that have not yet been repurposed, along with several large parcels of undeveloped land, so Houstonians can expect yet another wave of development at Sawyer Yards, one which Deal hopes will strengthen its destination appeal to both locals and tourists.
“We’d like to see people show up in the morning and participate in the farmer’s market, maybe there’s an open studio event that day, maybe they go have a beer at Holler, or Buff Brew when it gets built, and maybe a performance over at Spring in the evening,” says Deal.
Though the goal is for visitors to park their car and have enough to keep them busy all day in the very mixed-use creative campus, Deal says they’ll never lose sight of what makes Sawyer Yards so special: the art community.
“Nobody on our team will ever forget the core and that’s the artists. The art community we’ve created here is the driving force behind what we’re doing,” says Deal, adding, “Without them, it wouldn’t be all that interesting.”
Get your first look at Sabine Street Studios during the Sawyer Yards Spring Biannual Art Stroll on April 28 from 4 to 9 p.m. at Sawyer Yards, 2101 Winter. For more information, visit sawyeryards.com. Free.
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