Developer hypes art; screws artists

Pub date January 31, 2013
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

It’s late afternoon in Building 101 of the Hunters Point Shipyard artists’ colony, and Richard Bolingbroke has his forehead in his hands. The studio complex, which began as a squat in the 1970s, has been an artists’ sanctuary for decades, drawing flocks of curious visitors and housing internationally acclaimed residents. Bolingbroke has been there 17 years. “It’s like a sacred space,” he says.

But now, he and 15 other artists have been snagged in a minor wrinkle of the massive Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment project—and they’re being told they’ll have to vacate. 

Lennar, the project developer, is using the artists’ presence as a selling point to market homes in the new neighborhood. Billboards touting art line the entrance to the site, where construction is expected to begin soon.

Lennar is obligated to relocate Eclectic Cookery, a commercial kitchen housed in a different shipyard building that’s slated for demolition. Under a scheme that caught many by surprise, the developer intends to demolish artist studios in one wing of Building 101 to make way for the kitchen.

Representatives of Lennar, the project developer, said at a Jan. 23 meeting that displacing 16 of the 150 artists now situated in Building 101 is the only workable solution.

Iconic poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti has a studio there. He won’t be impacted, but he emailed fellow artists expressing disapproval. “As a 32-year resident in Building 101, I am shocked by the way the city and Lennar are evidently willing to break their promise that 101 will be maintained solely as artists’ studios,” he wrote. “Allowing any commercial business to move into 101 opens the flood-gates to further evictions of artists. I hope this is not really the city’s long-range plan!”

The artists have been promised temporary spaces with subsidized rent, and eventual accommodations in newly constructed studios. But their rents are expected to increase in the long term. Beyond their tenancies, the move would trigger a permanent loss of affordable, highly sought-after studio space in Building 101.

Some have had studios in the World-War-II era complex for more than two decades, allowing them to continue practicing their craft in ever-pricier San Francisco.

“If I don’t leave this space, my rent won’t change,” said Travis Somerville, who was preparing for a show at the Crocker Art Museum when the Guardian stopped by his studio. Somerville has been there since 1989, and he’s dedicated himself to making art full-time. Lennar’s proposed arrangement “would not only force me off the shipyard,” he said. “It would force me out of San Francisco.”

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Lennar joined representatives of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in hashing out the unpopular plan.

Company representative Jack Robertson broke it down in economic terms. “We’re a profit-motivated company here,” he said. “The city negotiated, very shrewdly, to require us to spend a whole lot of money up front for a whole bunch of community benefits. … We’re not getting anything out of that at all. And we’re not trying to. What we’re trying to do is make it work.”

Stacey Carter, an artist whose work is on display in Sup. Malia Cohen’s City Hall office, alerted Cohen to the issue, since her district includes the shipyard.

“The artists have been at the table, in the discussions, for a very long time. They’re an asset to the community,” Cohen told the Guardian. “We have been in touch with them, and my staff is very aware of their concerns.”

The multi-billion dollar redevelopment project will transform the landscape with 20,000 new homes, parking, and shopping amenities. It’s being financed in part with a $1.7 billion loan from a Chinese bank. Plans to accommodate the artists and the kitchen have been in the works for years, but Lennar realized only recently that its original plan for relocating Eclectic Cookery was unrealistic.

Scott Madison, who runs the commercial kitchen, is a longtime ally of the artists. He serves small businesses that can’t afford their own industrial kitchens, such as a client who cranks out 1,200 empanadas a day.

“We really want to stay on the shipyard,” Madison told the Guardian. “It has been known for a good many years now that Eclectic Cookery would likely need to be relocated. But it seems to be the nature of Lennar’s process that they don’t consider something until it’s right in front of their face.”

When Lennar first approached him about Building 101, Madison said, “We told them that this was not our first choice, because we definitely did not want to [cause] anybody to lose their studio.”

Lennar has indicated that any other option would either be too costly, or would disrupt the construction schedule. Delays translate to lower profitability.

Bolingbroke views the whole snafu as a culture clash between businesspeople and artists, and links it to a broader problem facing San Francisco. “It’s a bit like a tree,” he said. “Artists are like the roots. You can’t see them — but if you cut the roots off, the tree will wither and die.”