HUNTS POINT — Every year, some of the city's best female graffiti artists would gather outside an old currency and stamp factory in Hunts Point and paint one wall.
The group, which began meeting outside the American Bank Note building in 2002 and continued to do so for the next few years, was led by Lady Pink, a pioneering graffiti artist who went from painting subway cars in the 1980s to showing canvasses in the Whitney and the Met and designing a limited-edition Levi’s jacket.
One year, a member of the renowned Bronx graffiti team, Tats Cru, passed by and asked to join, according to Lady Pink. One of the women told the famous — but male — artist he could only watch.
“It was a real nice vibe,” said Lady Pink, who painted an anti-war mural called "Pink Tank" on the Barretto Street wall.
Last weekend, construction crews tore down Lady Pink’s mural.
Eventually, they are expected to demolish the rest of the women’s-graffiti wall.
The workers are clearing the way for the city’s Human Resources Administration — the agency that manages food stamps and other public assistance — which signed a 20-year lease this January to occupy half of the vast 400,000-square-foot complex beginning in 2015.
Meanwhile, one of the building’s last remaining arts groups is preparing to leave — driven out, it says, by rising rents since developers bought the century-old building in 2007 and spent millions upgrading it into high-end offices.
These latest changes, some say, reflect a turn away from an inclusive, creative vision for the historic building to a business-as-usual plan that puts profits first.
“They promised us art and culture and to be a cultural hub,” said Charles Rice-González, co-founder of BAAD! The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, which will soon depart the building after more than a decade there.
“But what they did was make it into the world’s largest welfare center.”
Soon after the developers, Taconic Investment Partners and Denham Wolf Real Estate Services, purchased the now-landmarked building on Garrison Avenue for $32 million and rebranded it the BankNote, they poured $20 million into renovations.
They aimed to attract creative professionals and firms from Manhattan — but they also vowed to keep the building affordable for nonprofits and artists, who had long been drawn to the building’s light-soaked lofts.
As the developers laid out a vision of a “creative and economic ‘ecosystem’” inside the BankNote, they even floated the idea of a food hub modeled after the Chelsea Market.
“It was intended to be the same as the Village [in Manhattan]: to bring in more artists and to make it trendy,” said Sotero “BG 183” Ortiz, a member of the Tats Cru, whose offices are down the street from the BankNote.
But then the real estate market crashed and the developers had to change course.
They had already secured some tenants — including two charter schools, some nonprofits, a small-business incubator and others — but most of the building was still empty.
So they entered talks with the HRA.
“Has [the building] gone where we intended? No,” Taconic Vice President Peter Febo told the Daily News in 2011. “But the goal with any commercial building is to occupy it.”
Paul Wolf, principal of Denham Wolf, noted in an email Tuesday that the complex is now more than 90 percent occupied.
“As was Denham Wolf’s initial vision, BankNote’s tenants include a diverse mix of nonprofits, creative and entrepreneurial enterprises, schools, and government,” he said.
“The path to achieving this result was not always as linear or timely as everyone wanted,” he added, “but we are pleased with the tenants and that they are integral to the community.”
As the developers found new occupants and made building improvements, they also raised rents, prompting many of the original artist tenants to leave, according to Rice-González.
BAAD!, which helped convert an abandoned wing of the BankNote into a theater and artist studios more than a decade ago, managed to remain in the building because of an affordable long-term lease.
But as that lease nears its end, Rice-González said, the developer has not agreed to another long-term lease and plans to double BAAD!’s rent to about $20 per square foot — still below market rate, but more than the nonprofit’s $300,000 annual budget can cover.
Soon, BAAD!, which was co-founded by Arthur Aviles, will abandon the BankNote space where it staged its first performance in 1998 and move to a venue in Westchester Square.
A Taconic spokeswoman said BAAD!’s rent was simply being updated to reflect the current market and is still less than the going rate. She added that the developer had declined to enter into a new lease until the tenant fixed “code violations” in the theater, though she would not specify what those are.
She disputed the notion that the developer's vision for the BankNote has fundamentally changed, noting that the building is home to a large photography studio and at least one of the original artist tenants. Studios in the building’s “creative wing” are still available to artists below the $30-per-square-foot market rate, she added.
But some in the community doubt whether the complex is still affordable for up-and-coming artists or local arts groups.
“I don’t think it’s feasible for any cultural program to be housed in the BankNote Building because of rising rents,” said Joyce Campbell-Culler, a Community Board 2 member.
Meanwhile, the developer’s construction crews are set to tear down the women’s-graffiti wall as they build entrances for the future HRA offices.
The BankNote’s previous owner had permitted the painting, which was dreamed up by Cassandra, a BAAD!-affiliated sculptor, along with Lady Pink.
The Taconic spokeswoman said the wall’s demolition is unavoidable since the new HRA offices require multiple entrances. She also said the construction plans were presented to the community board, adding that if the fate of the murals was not explicitly stated, it was “implied” by the plans for the new entrances.
Maria Torres, a CB2 member and president of the Point CDC, a community center next door to the BankNote, recalled helping BAAD! set up its theater years ago and her hope, when the new owners arrived, that they would preserve the BankNote as an “arts center.”
But she also acknowledged that the developers need to earn a return on their investment and she noted that the board had voted in favor of the HRA lease.
Still, she wished the developers had better communicated their evolving plans for the building — including the removal of the graffiti wall.
“I’m not sure if they fully realize the power they have with that building,” Torres said. “It’s such a big part of the community.”