Artist Renters & Developers Changing the Urban Landscape

The Rainier Brewery in Seattle is now home to artists looking for industrial space to live and work. Source: Seattle PI

The Rainier Brewery in Seattle is now home to artists looking for industrial space to live and work. Source: Seattle PI

Offering artist housing can help cities cultivate an arts community and spur urban renewal, but retaining creative-sector residents means finding suitable space and keeping rents affordable. While many subsidized artist residency programs exist across the country, these typically last for only a few months. Here’s what some renters and developers are willing to do to find a permanent place for creativity and culture in the urban landscape.

Rentals no one else wants

Historically, artists have been rental market pioneers, willing to move into underused industrial areas in exchange for low rent and room to produce their art. These revitalized areas often attract non-artist renters who compete for space and drive up rents, pricing artists out of the rental market they helped create.

Scott Dodson is one artist who believes the benefits of live-work spaces outweigh the gentrification risks. He rents a 1,300-square-foot artist loft in Seattle, with 14-foot ceilings, ample space for his photography studio and a breathtaking cityscape view. His rent falls significantly below the Seattle metro area’s median rent list price. And when guests visit, consider them impressed: Dodson’s digs look a lot like the former home of Rainier Brewing Co. — at least from the outside.

Inside is an artist’s dream loft; six years ago it was full of abandoned brewery equipment and covered in graffiti. After a century of beer manufacturing, the iconic brewery closed in 1999 and was purchased four years later by Rainier Commons LLC with the help of tenant leases like the one held by Dodson’s artist co-op, Sabaki.

Creative renovation

Source: Seattle Globe Blog

Source: Seattle Globe Blog

“Developers stripped everything out and left a shell,” Dodson said of the construction that took place from 2005-2007. Part of Sabaki’s lease paid for the installation of demising walls and gas lines for furnaces and hot water. Then the tenants’ work began: making their units livable. If someone wanted a gas stove, for example, they had to pay for the plumbing and permits. Renters’ time, money and sweat equity went into home improvements that will become a de facto “gift” to future renters in 10 years when Sabaki’s long-term lease is up.

“There’s a certain mystique around living in these industrial spaces, but actually they can be kind of hard,” Dodson said. “There are a lot of niceties built into normal homes that just aren’t there. Like cupboards. Or light switches where they need to be.”

But some like the trade-offs. Because Dodson’s floors are concrete, he could do light welding if he was so inclined. And his downstairs neighbors — painters — “can spill turpentine on the floor, and there’s no damage deposit.”

The SoDo district, where the Old Rainier Brewery complex is located, is a light industrial zone with an exception allowing for artists’ dwellings. While calling it the “next big neighborhood” may be premature, the area has begun to attract an eclectic community. The mixed-use complex itself includes artist co-ops, a capoeira school, a lighting production company, a recording studio and Tully’s Coffee headquarters.

Unique artist spaces across the U.S.

Los Angeles boasts a large artists colony at the former Pabst Brewery. Source: The Brewery

Los Angeles boasts a large artists colony at the former Pabst Brewery. Source: The Brewery

Dodson isn’t the first artist to call a brewery home. Artists have been living and working in The Brewery, the site of the Los Angeles-based Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery, since 1982, and in The Distillery, a 19th-century brewery-to-rum distillery-to artist space conversion in Boston, since 1984.

But when you think of the quintessential artist loft, the New York sweatshop districts of the 1970s may come to mind. And while the lofts that developers tend to build in New York these days look more like new, luxury homes than industrial live-work spaces, unique and affordable artist housing can still be found in the city. One such facility currently under construction is Barrio El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, a former public school in East Harlem.

Helping to reclaim this historic building for mixed-use development is Artspace Projects Inc., a Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer for the arts, which is partnering on the project with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, a nonprofit community development organization. Shuttered in 1995, the building will provide 90 units of affordable live-work housing for artists and their families as well as 12,000 square feet of non-residential space for local arts, culture and community organizations.

Shawn McLearen, project manager and international consulting director for Artspace, calls PS109 “an example of a unique non-profit, inter-sector real estate model that brings the arts’ capacity as an engine of community development into partnership with civic leaders and their respective agencies to address multiple agendas — including economic development, affordable housing, historic preservation and sustainable cultural infrastructure.” The leasing process for PS109 will begin in 2014.

Zoning changes in Chicago and San Francisco

Projects such as PS109 help support artists who live and work in culturally-rich urban centers. But zoning laws, ever subject to change, continue to pose new challenges and opportunities for artist renters. Two cities famous for their creative sectors — Chicago and San Francisco — currently offer different approaches to live-work spaces. The Windy City passed a zoning ordinance last year allowing up to 50 percent of storefront properties in select business and commercial districts to be zoned for live-work use for all renters, not just artists.

charles lindner

Charles Linder has been living and working in San Francisco loft space for decades. Source:

San Francisco, on the other hand, passed its own regulatory Artist Live Work Ordinance decades ago, setting off a loft-building boom in the late 1980s and 90s. But after the ordinance was repealed in 2002 to protect its industrial sector, an undetermined number of artists continued to reside in work spaces illegally. However, the city has not been aggressive in enforcing this rule, and some landlords practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach with commercial space tenants, according to visual and conceptual artist Charles Linder.

“The best spaces that I have found and fixed up have been the ones where the landlord is both understanding and tolerant and kind of turns a blind eye,” said Linder, who has lived and worked in warehouse spaces in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood for the past 20 years. “The down side can come when the owner decides to sell and tries to evict you or force you out so the space is delivered empty to the new owner.” Linder knows well what it’s like to forgo amenities such as heating, showers, parking and security in exchange for a live-work space that is itselfliterally a blank canvas upon which I create my artwork.”

Recent proposals to tackle San Francisco’s rental crisis have included changing city building codes to allow developers to build micro-unit apartments as small as 220 square feet, a contentious issue dividing the city. Some San Franciscans view this extreme density as a solution; others, such as Linder, see it as developers’ attempt “to get the most dollars per square foot as possible.” Apartments of this size appeal not to artists who need the space and freedom to use power tools, oil paints and epoxies for their art, but rather to “tech minions” who can afford to pay more for less, which can drive up rental prices.

Renters who enrich the community

The Mt. Baker Station Lofts will create another space for artists in Seattle. Source: The Transit Blog

The Mt. Baker Station Lofts will create another space for artists in Seattle. Source: The Transit Blog

Helping artists combat rising rents are national organizations such as Artspace, perhaps the biggest nonprofit developer for the arts with more than 40 affordable live-work spaces in 21 states, and local organizations, such as Four Point Arts in Boston.

Focusing on mixed-use development is one way to meet both artists’ need for suitable space and municipal growth management objectives of density and innovative land use, not to mention creative placemaking goals.

Currently, Artspace is breaking ground in Seattle on the energy-efficient, sustainably-designed and mixed-use Mt. Baker Station Lofts. Located adjacent to Rainier Valley’s Mt. Baker Light Rail Station, which inspired the concept design, the $18 million project is supported by Seattle’s housing levy and backed by the city of Seattle and Sound Transit as a Transit-Oriented Development. It will be the first mixed-use building within the urban village boundary, with 57 rental units of affordable live-work space for artists, a community room and 12 commercial spaces for non-profits and arts-related businesses.

Scheduled for completion in March 2014, the Mt. Baker Station Lofts could do for Rainier Valley what another Artspace project, the Tashiro Kaplan Lofts, did for Seattle’s Pioneer Square Historic District. The mixed-use building brought new economic and cultural life to an underused block, creating a place for dance rehearsals, music performances, nonprofit group board meetings, fundraisers and other events.

“All this activity and artistic critical mass secured Pioneer Square as an arts district,” said Cathryn Vandenbrink, vice president of properties for Artspace. “With the TK Lofts providing an ArtWalk destination, galleries moved to the surrounding blocks and new developments have followed.”


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