Will Oakland Lose Its Artistic Soul? 

Members of The Town's vibrant arts community say they're at risk of displacement because of skyrocketing rents, and that Oakland isn't moving fast enough to protect its cultural identity.

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But she's also concerned with how the housing crisis crucially plays into the plight of Oakland's artists. She argues that without development impact fees to pay for more affordable housing — a program that the city has yet to approve — attempts at saving art spaces will be futile, because there won't be any artists left who can afford to live in Oakland.

"I understand that the mayor, her platform is 'Made in Oakland,' but she really needs to be able to say 'Stayed in Oakland,'" said Kurihara in a recent interview. "And I understand that right now, the city doesn't have the revenue [to build affordable housing], and there's a fear that if we don't create a transitional easing into what the impact fees are going to be that development will cease. But I think if you were to ask anybody — I mean anybody — if Oakland will remain dormant [if impact fees go into effect], it's just not gonna happen."

click to enlarge Hiroko Kurihara at the latest Downtown Specific Plan community meeting. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Hiroko Kurihara at the latest Downtown Specific Plan community meeting.

The city has been studying the idea of requiring market-rate developers to pay impact fees on new housing projects for more than a year. Earlier this month, a city council committee voted to move forward a plan to launch the fee program in September, but the full council is not expected to officially approve the proposal until sometime in March — at the earliest. Numerous other Bay Area cities, including both Berkeley and Emeryville, already have such fees in place to pay for affordable housing.

Kristi Holohan of RPSC said Schaaf recently assisted her in setting up a potential deal for RPSC to move into the bottom floor of a new condo project to be built by Signature Development Group on the parking lot directly behind the building that RPSC used to be in. Holohan said it would be a relief to finally find a space after months of being turned down by landlords all over the city, but she is also concerned that if there's no affordable housing in the area, it may no longer be an appropriate place for RPSC's programming.

"Are they going to have affordable housing?" Holohan asked, while painting a mural with youth in San Francisco. "Because we serve a demographic that is really diverse."

At the January 22 opening of the newly expanded San Francisco Arts Commission galleries, attendees could barely move through the three exhibitions. The main gallery, which featured work by recently deceased East Bay artist Susan O'Malley, was packed so densely that you could barely hear internationally celebrated performance artist Guillermo Goméz-Peña giving a monologue in the center. Housed in the War Memorial Veterans Building, the galleries are a gorgeous new addition to the city's arts landscape, yet the support that the galleries are meant to offer to local artists has arrived a few years too late. Most of the local artists who show there will likely be commuting from the East Bay.

Over the past few years, San Francisco has partnered with organizations like ArtSpan and The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) to preserve what's left of its arts community. ArtSpan organizes art exhibitions in underutilized or vacant spaces in San Francisco. CAST is a nonprofit that uses foundation money to purchase buildings that are already inhabited by important cultural hubs, then leases the buildings back to them at an affordable rate with the intention of eventually selling it to them at the same price that the nonprofit originally paid.

Joshua Simon — who is CAST's treasurer and is the executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (a nonprofit community development organization) and a member of Mayor Schaaf's task force on artist housing and workspace — described the problem that CAST addresses as a "space chase." That's when buying property is just financially out of reach for arts organizations, leaving them perpetually vulnerable. CAST attempts to close that gap by buying an artspace and helping the arts organization build itself financially until it's ready to purchase the space at the same price that CAST paid for it. In the last few years, CAST has acquired buildings for San Francisco's CounterPulse and Luggage Store Gallery.

The memorandum that Schaaf's task force submitted in December outlines the top strategies for preserving the arts in Oakland based on case studies from across the country. Most of them focus on ways for art spaces to achieve ownership and long-term affordability. One of the most promising strategies is to create an acquisition program for Oakland that's modeled like CAST. Other strategies include creating community land trusts through which artists could collectively own properties; leasing underutilized city-owned buildings to artists at affordable rates (until tenants are found); incentivizing private developers to offer affordable, long-term artists spaces by using zoning tools; and greatly increasing available technical assistance and educational resources for artists. According to Kelley Kahn of the mayor's task force, the city is currently devising programming for training artists and gallerists on topics such as how to negotiate a long-term protective lease, how to build a business plan, and how to get funding from foundations.

"Where Oakland is and where San Francisco is, I think there's a lot more hope for Oakland," Schaaf said in a recent interview. "I think we are intervening at a much earlier stage than San Francisco did. We are absolutely looking to learn lessons from San Francisco and avoid the displacement."


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