Painted into a Corner 

To what degree should Berkeley subsidize creative diversity? With another art space set to close, that's the conundrum.

The 96-year-old Berkeley warehouse at the corner of Adeline Avenue and Stuart Street is a labyrinth of lofts, ladders, and paint-splattered workspaces. Iridescent canvases are just about everywhere, commingling with vintage toys left over from a defunct children's store run by a former resident.

Despite its mildly Seuss-like interior, the warehouse's roof leaks, it's drafty, and you wouldn't want to be anywhere near it during an earthquake. Still, to the artists who have lived and worked for decades in the dilapidated historic building, it's home, or at least it was.

The four remaining members of the once-thriving artist commune are facing an Ellis Act eviction. They have until Tuesday to scrap together a deal to buy the space that has been home to dozens of artists since the mid-1970s. Otherwise they're out. "It's really scary," says graphic artist Rozita Fogelman, a single mom. "I might find myself in two weeks on the street with my boy."

The impending eviction, and other recent shutdowns of local art spaces, have created a Berkeley conundrum: The city would like to think of itself as a haven for full-time creative types, but its housing is unaffordable to most. So who, if anyone, should pay to subsidize artistic diversity?

The building's owner, Oakland architect, developer, and businessman Sasha Shamszad, doesn't feel it should be him. When he bought the warehouse in May 2001, he invoked the Ellis Act -- a law that lets landlords evict renters in order to convert property to commercial use. About a hundred Berkeley residents have recently been displaced by such actions, according to city councilman Kriss Worthington.

Six of the artists have already been forced out of the Adeline warehouse, but the law required Shamszad to give Fogelman and fellow artist Natasha Shawver a one-year reprieve because each lives there with a disabled family member. Shamszad says he has postponed renovations so as to "not disturb [the artists'] habitat," a delay he claims has cost him tens of thousands of dollars in taxes, insurance, and other fees.

The artists, meanwhile, are trying to convince the landlord to back out of his investment. With advice from city officials and financing from the Northern California Land Trust, they made a bid on August 30 to buy the building for $475,000 -- about $40,000 more than Shamszad paid.

The owner dismissed the unsolicited initial offer, calling it "a joke -- almost an insult." Shamszad contends the property is worth about $1.5 million. He notes that the tenants had years to buy the building from previous owner Tim Baker, but instead they let it languish on the market while paying minimum rent.

Shawver, a painter, says that until the evictions she had no idea low-income housing subsidies existed. In a show of support, the city has promised the artists help in dealing with a long-overdue $750,000 seismic retrofit by waiving some requirements and fees. The Housing Advisory Commission also voted on September 5 to give them a $25,000 loan. Shawver estimates that a nonprofit art co-op of six to eight members should be able to handle the remaining costs.

Shamszad is disappointed that the artists are turning to the taxpayers. "Why are they entitled to extra perks while I had to work so hard as an artist and pay my dues?" he says. (The landlord is also a photographer who owns Ziba Color Lab downtown.)

It's not only about personal survival, Shawver claims, "it's about providing something for the community." Yet both landlord and tenant have similar plans for the building. Shawver envisions a community gallery and workspaces; Shamszad wants roughly the same thing, but without residences.

A vocal group of Berkeley residents and city officials, including Worthington, complain that landlords too often evict valuable low-income residents that give the city character. "Some landlords couldn't care less who they are kicking out," says Worthington. "It doesn't matter if they're teachers or artists. They're just in the way."

Shamszad doesn't buy this artist-as-victim notion. "It's absolute nonsense," he says. "This town is nothing but filled with artists."

Yet two major local art centers have recently shut down. The Blake Street Hawkeyes Theatre, the improv house in South Berkeley where Whoopi Goldberg got her start, had its last bash in July. Last month the Crucible, a West Berkeley art facility that offered classes in metalworking, sculpture, and drawing, announced that it would close in October. "There was a time when Berkeley was full of artists, but not lately," said Don Donahue, founder of Zap Comics and a 26-year warehouse resident evicted in July.

Mac McDonald, a welder at the skylight factory that took over the Hawkeyes' building, says he feels for the artists. "I don't know where they go from here," he says. "Pinole? What's left?"

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