Noodling Around 

After nine years of financial wrangling, Oakland's Noodle Factory may finally have an enduring future as an art space.

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In 2005, she bequeathed the Noodle Factory to Northern California Land Trust by taking a subordinated mortgage behind the construction loan, which she said basically means that she won't recoup any money until all the units sell and they figure out what to do with the cafe and theater. The land trust then planned for what would be not only the second iteration of Harrisons' artistic vision, but also the second iteration of the building proper.

There was nearly a $1 million difference between Harrison's construction plans of $1.2 million and the land trust's redesign of about $2.1 million. The new, more meticulous version included radiant heating, laundry hookups in every unit, an elevator, double sound walls, a reconfiguration of the units, solar panels, and changes in the roofline, which was raised five feet to create a public theater in the Noodle Factory's south wing. "Basically our version was essentially the existing building made legal, so just the very, very minimum amount of change that had to do with earthquake retrofitting," said Harrison. "We were gonna have to make it affordable by doing a cheap, crappy job. They're making it affordable by doing a beautiful job and getting grants."

By the time she deeded the Noodle Factory to the land trust, the building was worth substantially less than what she put into it. Still, she saw the land trust model as something akin to what she'd originally intended. "I really didn't have a good model for the building going forward. I didn't have any way to condoize the units. My vision was this affordable art space but I didn't have any way of making it an affordable art space on my own other than continuing to rent the units for not very much money."

And, she said, entering a traditional landlord-tenant relationship was not part of her original plan at all. "Maybe I would have a reputation of being a cool and understanding landlord, but in terms of people having any genuine security, the bottom-line truth is I would be the owner of the building and they would be the renter of the building at my discretion," she said. "And that would not be my sustainable long-term vision."

On August 14, Harrison rolled up to the Noodle Factory in a green Chevy Suburban, braids streaming from her head like tassels on a lantern. Glimpsed from outside, the place was still a maze of rebar and plastic tarp, though it's apparently well on the way to completion. "In about ten days we'll have a sidewalk and new street trees," said land trust Executive Director Ian Winters, who greeted Harrison at the southeast entrance of the building, where they hope to open a cafe in early 2009. Winters is also an artist, and will commandeer the 2008 MilkBar Film Festival, slated to screen at the Noodle Factory from September 12 to 14. "We have water as of yesterday," Winters added. "We're currently just waiting on gas."

The Noodle Factory now comprises eleven work-live spaces ranging from $225,000 — with the possibility of $120,000 to $140,000 in down-payment assistance — to about $559,000 for one of the large market-rate units. A large theater that abuts the residences will open September 4, with the premiere of Richard Talavera's Richard Wright Centennial Project. Winters said the cafe should follow a few months thereafter, hopefully under the auspices of a local restaurateur. Nine units are priced below market rate and require prospective residents to qualify as low-income — which, in Oakland, means earning $46,350 as a single person or up to $66,250 for a four-person household. Several will be allocated as rentals for the time being, though Winters ultimately envisions a more traditional condominium arrangement where everyone owns his own unit on a shared piece of land.

As of the third week of August, no Noodle Factory units have sold. Three of four were "on a positive trajectory," and waiting to get the banks' approval, Harrison said. Winters said the Land Trust couldn't officially close any sales until its occupancy certificate was in place, which should happen in a matter of days. He expects to sell two to four units in the next few months, then lease the remaining units to buyers who intend to purchase once the mortgage market improves. The land trust has set an internal deadline of mid-September to see how many deals it can close — or, for that matter, to see how many people can actually get a mortgage. Once that deadline arrives, they will put the remaining units up for rent, and offer tenants the opportunity to purchase as the mortgage market changes. According to Winters, there's actually been a tremendous amount of interest in the units, but most qualified buyers have been stymied by the current market.

"It's the worst time to get a mortgage that anyone that I know has ever seen," Winters said. "We have no shortage of people who want to buy the spaces and would have gotten mortgages very easily eighteen months ago." But taking the reality of credit markets into consideration, and then factoring in that most prospective Noodle Factory residents are self-employed or low-income, it's no surprise that the units aren't selling that fast. Moreover, the Noodle Factory requires that applicants have at least one working artisan in their household. That extra wrinkle is essential to Harrison's vision, but she's the first to admit that it makes the process infinitely more complicated. "If you're a low-income working artist, by definition you can't get a mortgage right now," she said.


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