Now We All Want to See Safe, Affordable Arts Space Built

December 12, 2016

Dig if we will the picture, of safe and affordable arts spaces.

Or do we?  What about if it takes, gasp, development?  Building?  Rebuilding?  What if it is made affordable through a bump in a height limit established forty years ago?  Or capital dollars to underwrite construction?   Or leveraging private sector investment with, double gasp, tax dollars? Or dedicating city land?  Or all of the above?

Will we protest “giveaways” for “greedy” developers?  File specious CEQA appeals that blow-up the project’s affordability?  Threaten to put the height increase – which would buy permanent affordability – on a ballot measure?

Will we spar over who’s deserving of the space?  Visual arts vs. performing arts?   “Native” groups vs. “Outsiders?”

I’ve been working on stabilizing and building new, safe, purpose-designed, permanently affordable arts space in the Tenderloin and mid-Market for seven years and have experienced this resistance in all its forms.  In my former role as director of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project I helped facilitate and support the space needs of the Luggage Store Gallery, PianoFight, the Strand, CounterPulse, SF Camerawork, Women’s Audio Mission, and Hospitality House’s Community Arts Space.  And there were big heartbreaks – Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Lorraine Hansberry Theater and Intersection for the Arts – all of which had a chance, especially Intersection.  But those are all long stories I won’t get into here.

I’m now on the board of the Luggage Store Gallery/509 Cultural Center.  Thanks to its founders Darryl Smith and Laurie Lazer, this landmark Tenderloin/mid-Market cultural institution has been providing affordable space for emerging artists for thirty years.  Luggage Store’s gallery @ 1007 Market Street just underwent a major renovation as a part of the CAST initiative that acquired and also renovated 80 Turk Street, the new home of CounterPulse.  How was this achieved?  A combination of philanthropy, New Market Tax Credits and other proven real estate development methods.  The protected space represented by these two organizations are, in effect, a desired civic goal achieved through a creative use of real estate economics and tools.

The greatest local struggle for new arts space, as many know, was for the 950 Arts and Education facility.  Over 40,000 square feet of permanently protected space for the arts.  How were we going to achieve this?  Again, by deploying a number of proven real estate development tools to underwrite the space: tax-increment financing, New Market Tax Credits, height/density bonus, capital campaign. Through these tools the 950 project raised $24 million dollars before day one of a capital campaign.  Real estate economics and tools used creatively for social ends.

As the story now infamously goes, San Francisco shuns this proven real estate economics model.  Instead it takes the laissez-faire road and hides behind “community benefit agreements,” all of which leaves city hall completely off the hook and puts projects at the mercy of opportunistic politicians playing local groups with all manner of xenophobic, NIMBY sensibilities like: “Your housing is not for “our” people,” and “That arts organization is an ‘outsider.’”   In the end, larger public interests like socioeconomic diversity, affordability and cultural resources lose big, and we are all the poorer for it.

I’m pissed – aren’t we all?  We want our goodies, like affordable residential and commercial spaces, but we want them to come magically, or through vacuous “progressive” legislation that mandates, but doesn’t provide, a mechanism to achieve them.  Mandated social goals devoid of real world tools… that’s living in laissez-faire unicorn land, not to mention a sure formula – literally – for making space less affordable for everyone, or altogether nonexistent.

Here’s an excellent, more technical but plain English translation of what works and what doesn’t to make space affordable:  Inclusionary Zoning: The Most Promising – or Counter-Productive – Of All Housing Policies.   An excerpt: New York City allows a 33 percent increase in building size.   In contrast, San Francisco offers nothing at all to offset the financial encumbrance of its IZ requirements.    I.E. We don’t get what we don’t help pay for.  That holds true regardless of whether the developer is for-profit or non-profit.

We’ve been unwittingly undermining and fist-pumping against space affordability.  We don’t like building, developing, or capitalism (unless we’re engaged in an annual or capital campaign).  We don’t like “those people,” or more people of any kind, period.  Maybe the next four years of assault from the reality-tv White House will force us to grow up and learn the basics on how space works.  Otherwise our new POTUS will just kick up his heels and let us continue to do his destructive, polarizing us vs. them work for him.

Now, as a volunteer, I’m fighting alongside the developer of 950 Market Street project to protect its remaining affordable arts space committed to the venerable Magic Theatre.   Where the larger arts center was undermined by our laissez-faire city, a dysfunctional SF Foundation, and a no-extra-height-or-tax-increment-dollars-for-arts-space attack by the usual crusty Tenderloin pillars of parochialism, the new attack is from a couple of opportunistic liars using a deplorable misrepresentation of Tenderloin history and abuse of the CEQA process as tactics.

And they’re doing it using public money! so its free or charge for them while killing housing and arts space affordability for everyone else.  CEQA abuse is a wondrous thing.   Their initial message to the developer: “Give us the Magic Theatre space or we’ll appeal your project.”   Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called extortion.   Here the “greedy” developer is being threatened by a couple of “progressives” demanding the developer displace a small and much loved nonprofit arts organization even before the space is built.   (These guys are inventing a whole new kind of displacement!)  The developer, by the way, who is effectively a community partner given their extensive and strong relationships here in the Tenderloin, continues to honor its agreement with Magic for the arts space and is holding its ground.  Check that out.

Which leads to some good news: The 950 project just received its planning approval!  There were moving testimonies from Tenderloin youth, affordable housing advocates, members of the LGBTQ and arts communities, and labor.  There are enormous living-wage union jobs, housing, human and community development benefits involved, even with a totally absent city hall (our fault, really) contributing virtually nothing.  There’s also the first new construction permanently affordable arts space to be built in the Tenderloin for nearly twenty years.  That’s a big deal, and we’re going to fight to protect every last square foot of it while building more.

With respects to dear friends lost.