NEWARK, NJ - The future of a grassroots art gallery that rents space at Market and Washington streets is unclear as a prominent developer plans to demolish the building for a 14-story mixed-use project.

The city planning board on Tuesday unanimously approved the 226 residential unit project by RBH Group, the same developer of Teachers Village. Index Art Center has been subleasing the space at 237 Washington St. since about 2013, providing space for art studios, galleries and musical acts.

About a dozen people came out in opposition to the project at the meeting.

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RBH Group CEO Ron Beit said it wasn’t lost on him how dear Index was to the community. He wasn't sure if the gallery would come back to the new project or if space was available for it somewhere else in the company's portfolio, but was willing to discuss the art space’s future with the current renter.

“We have time to try to figure this out,” Beit said. “I agree. There has to be a next step. I can't be the only answer in this community. There's got to be a city-wide answer. We're certainly willing to do the work with this group and push and try to figure out what that solution is.”

Lowell Craig rents out the space for Index Art Center. He said he’s been paying below market rate rent to RBH for years while the company has been trying to finalize the deal to purchase the building from Gambert Realty.

RBH has been leasing the property and subleasing to Craig. Beit said the sale finally went through this past week. Online property records do not yet indicate how much the property was sold for.

“It’s pretty difficult to recreate what we’ve got going on there with 10,000 square feet and three floors,” Craig told TAPinto Newark. “It’s pretty impossible. We’re always at the mercy of the developers ever since I started.”

Jean Pool in July 2018 performs at Index Art Center. 

Craig got his start with arts in Newark around 1998 in a gallery at 31 Central Ave. That property, once home to the Newark LGBTQ center, is now slated for demolition too.

Index grew out of Red Saw Gallery and was formerly based in 585 Broad St., but a fire there forced Craig to find a new space. He eventually settled on the Washington Street building and has been paying rent with the help of fundraising barbecues, a residency program that charges a fee and art auctions.

He said Index wouldn't be able to continue if it had to pay commercial-rate rent. He referred to several other art galleries that operate out of donated space.

Beit said Index is the only tenant on the property that was just purchased at Washington Street.

Gallery Aferro, located at 73 Market St., currently has an arrangement with RBH Group as well. Property records show that RBH owns that building. Beit said the space has been used as an art gallery since 2006.

“We as an organization have been donating and giving reduced rent spaces for our vacant spaces for the artist communities for a long time,” Beit noted. “We started in about 2006 and the value of our in-kind donations have exceeded five-and-a-half million dollars.”

People shared personal anecdotes about Index at the planning board meeting and implored the developer to build around the space - not demolish it. Some said Index needed to stay in the city’s downtown because its accessibility to public transportation makes it easier for people to get to.

Lillian Ribeiro, a Newark resident who works in the arts, called for a policy that requires art spaces to be saved and included in new developments. She noted the city oftentimes uses the arts as an economic driver to market the city as a vibrant community.

“Essentially, at the same time, they're wiping out the community without including them and making it mandatory that these art spaces get developed into these new developments taking place.”

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Newark Arts Executive Director Jeremy Johnson also spoke at last night’s planning board meeting, but he was not well received by those in the audience who came out to support Index. One person yelled out, “he doesn’t speak for us” as Johnson left the podium.

“We have to find ways where we can retain our heritage, our cultural heritage, our space for artists,” Johnson said. “I don't know that there are always going to be spaces right where the market is the hottest - right where we're talking about now. But there are spaces across our city.”

The RBH project sits near the historic four-corners section of the city, which is located at the intersection of Broad and Market streets. The project’s plan calls for the demolition of six buildings, including 241-251 Washington St., 233-237 Washington St., and 239 Washington St.

Buildings at 97-99 and 93-95 Market Street are also included in the application. The plan calls for ground floor retail space and a basement-level garage with 41 parking spaces, which is fewer than what the city requires. The project sits close to several public transportation options though.

Planning Board Chairman Wayne Richardson said he was not unsympathetic to the arts community. His mother-in-law is Gladys Barker Grauer, a Newark artist, gallery owner and educator.

“We can't dictate to the developer what he can and cannot and cannot do,” Richardson said. “[Beit] did say he was willing to have a meeting with you guys to discuss space - if it's not in the new structure, but somewhere else. He's willing to have those conversations.”

Beit said demolition could occur at the end of this year or early next year.