San Francisco artists and arts groups face an uncertain future in the city. Rents continue to outpace artist earnings, securing longterm space commitments remains difficult, and there is a pervasive sense that artists are here in San Francisco only until the next economic boom. But there is now an opportunity to provide a secure and protected haven for artists to live and work. This would require creating a Mid-Market Arts and Entertainment District, with affordable artist housing and gallery space funded by private developments planned for the neighborhood. This District will not only ensure the flourishing of the arts in the Central City, but it is the best strategy for the area's revitalization.
San Francisco's arts community faces difficult times. Despite the widespread displacement of artists and arts groups during the dot-com boom, the city has not undertaken the new initiatives necessary for the longterm protection of community-oriented artists and performance/gallery space. For example, city law requires private developers to create affordable housing, but does not mandate that any of this housing be designed to the needs of low-income working artists.
Similarly, a disproportionate share of city arts funding continues to go to arts organizations with annual budgets over $5million. These are the groups who can best leverage private donations, yet they are being publicly funded at the expense of smaller arts groups working feverishly to just scrape by.
During the 1980's there was a long struggle to save artist housing on Geary Street known as the Goodman Building. The Goodman Building was more like an SRO than a private apartment building, and the shared living space made the area more affordable. Although
the Goodman Building was not saved, it spawned the Goodman II project in Potrero Hill and there were other artist cooperatives formed in buildings around the city.
But city encouragement of artist housing soon subsided. When the city passed legislation in the early 1990's allowing the construction of live-work lofts, the hope was that these units would be affordable to working artists. But loft construction coincided with the city's real estate boom, and prices soon exceeded what most working artists could afford.
In retrospect, artist advocates supporting the live-work law should have avoided the construction of what were essentially private apartments with tall ceilings. Keeping units affordable required a Goodman Building type of design, with shared kitchens and some shared baths.
In addition to lacking housing and work areas, artists in San Francisco need gallery and performance space. While artists have long flocked to marginal communities with lower rents-such as the proliferation of artists at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard--- such neighborhoods do not attract many visitors and their peripheral location fails to fully integrate arts uses into the fabric of the city.
San Francisco can return the arts to the heart of the city by framing the current debate over the future of the Mid-Market neighborhood around the goal of creating an Arts and Entertainment District (hereafter "the A and E District"). Until the 1970's, Market Street between 5th and 9th was a hub of theater, live entertainment (non-porn) and of after-performance bars, cafes and restaurants. There are no insurmountable legal or political obstacles to returning Mid-Market to its historic use.
Here's how it could work. The Board of Supervisors creates a Mid-Market Arts and Entertainment Special Use District that would do at least four things.
First, the District would mandate that a certain percentage of currently unoccupied space in the area would be devoted to gallery and/or performance space. In contrast, the proposed Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan fails to mandate a single square foot of space for the arts.
Second, the District will require that the inclusionary housing fee that private developers pay shall be allocated exclusively for housing working artists who meet the income guidelines (which 99% of artists can likely meet). This will ensure artists are a major part of the Mid-Market community, and they are protected from eviction by the affordability restrictions attached to these projects.
The Mid-Market Redevelopment Plan provides the lowest possible inclusionary housing benefit (12%) with no allocation for artist housing.
Third, the District will mandate the construction of a Goodman Building-style artists cooperative, governed by the affordability restrictions noted above. The building could be owned privately, by a nonprofit group, or by a community land trust.
Funding for the renovation or new construction of artist housing would come from the private developer's inclusionary housing requirement. Since we are talking about the construction of between 2000- 3000 new units, this funding stream will create from 250 - 500 affordable artist units along Market Street.
Some might argue that artists should not get most of the affordable housing created by Mid-Market development. But San Francisco is spending millions on supportive housing for homeless people, and also has affordable housing programs targeted to seniors, disabled persons and families.
The Mid-Market Arts and Entertainment District would be include the first, and the only, city housing program for artists. This should not strike anyone as unfair.
Finally, the fourth essential component of the A and E district is an additional developer contribution for arts uses on top of the housing fee. This contribution could go for a variety of uses, such as the renovation of existing arts spaces, creating new performance spaces, or a rental subsidy fund.
Why would developers not fight such a requirement tooth and nail? Because they recognize it is in their own economic interest. In other words, the condos they are selling will be worth more if the surrounding area is more interesting, and an A and E district furthers this goal. The neighborhood impact is the same whether condos sell for $700,000 or $800,000, but this difference means a great deal to developers.
Having represented artists in the Grant Building at 7th and Market during their successful struggle to avoid eviction, I know how the fear of displacement did not end with the dot-com bust. Artist migration from San Francisco has been so steady in the past decade that the prospect of reversing this trend will strike many as pie-in-the-sky.
But transforming Mid-Market into an A and E District with ironclad guarantees of artist housing and gallery/performance space is no pipedream. Development of Mid-Market has begun and will soon intensify, so the money to reverse the out-migration of artists from San Francisco is there.
If both the arts community and the Central City neighborhood want to create an A and E District, the political will is there.
Artists know well that life is about following one's dreams.
A community meeting to discuss plans for Mid-Market will be held tomorrow (Wed) at 6:00 pm at the Seneca Hotel, 34 6th St.