Art and Activism -- Divide and Conquer?
Developer Nick Podell was scheduled to go before the San Francisco Planning Commission today seeking approval to demolish the InnerMission (formerly CELLspace) art and community space and the surrounding block of buildings along Bryant Street between 18th and 19th streets, and to build a few hundred mostly market-rate apartments in their place. That hearing is set to be postponed to Sept. 10 — giving this newly wised-up developer a chance to deflect some of the activist opposition that has been roiling the Mission District these days.
[Note: An updated and edited version of this article appears at 48Hills.org.]
Just this week, InnerMission owners Eric Reid and Mike Gaines — who went from quietly accepting their imminent eviction a few months ago to making a stand against the landlord/developer and helping facilitate an opposition movement called the Cultural Action Network — cut a deal with Podell to have him pay for the relocation of InnerMission to a new space (as yet unidentified), renovations on that space, and a substantial five-year operating subsidy.
“This gives us hope as artists,” Gaines said. “It’s a huge fucking win for art. It’s unprecedented what he’s done.”
“It saves our business and keeps us in the neighborhood,” Reid said. “The collective action of everyone has helped bring a developer to his senses.”
Yet given the nature of that collective action — which has been about art and community spaces, but also about gentrification, housing affordability and the changing character of the Mission District — not everyone is going to follow the lead of Reid and Gaines and support a project they've dubbed "The Beast on Bryant."
“Art and culture is the cornerstone of this, at least for us. There are definitely other issues at play, but I have the obligation to the 120 artists who use that space on a weekly basis,” Gaines said. “This felt like a ‘holy shit’ win on our side. But [the project] needs to go through for us to be relocated.”
When I interviewed Podell back in March for an article on his project , he was focused on his housing entitlements and dismissive of policies from the Mission Area Plan that call for the preservation of art, community, and light industrial (aka Production, Distribution and Repair, or PDR) spaces like the ones he’s proposing to demolition, even after planners had raised the issue in their staff report.
“This site was rezoned to allow for 100 percent housing,” said Podell, who initially proposed for just 44 of his 276 apartments to be offered at below market rates, the bare minimum required by the city’s inclusionary housing laws.
But since then, the simmering populist anger over the city’s gentrification, eviction and housing affordability crisis has boiled over, particularly in the Mission District, from which hundreds of activists have twice invaded City Hall recently and almost got the Board of Supervisors to approve an emergency measure creating a temporary moratorium on building market-rate housing in Mission.
The push for that moratorium, which would have stopped Podell’s project in its tracks, dovetailed with the creation of the Cultural Action Network during weekly meetings in InnerMission that started in April, with the goal of making developers responsible for their impacts to the city’s art and culture.
The group created a change.org petition that has garnered 500 signatures to oppose a project it characterizes as “the demolition of 50,000 square feet of light industrial and artists’ spaces in the Mission so that a private developer with out-of-town financial backers can build luxury housing and a huge street-level parking lot.”
Podell seems to have woken up to the fact that his housing entitlements aren’t the end of the story, and he’s gotten some professional help and started cutting some deals. When I called Podell for comment, he had political consultant Boe Hayward — a former City Hall staffer well acquainted with the city’s volatile populist politics — call me back on his behalf.
“We’re working very well with our tenants now,” Hayward told me, confirming the deal with InnerMission, but saying the negotiations with tenants and other interested parties was ongoing and he couldn’t discuss details yet.
Reid and Gaines told us that Podell has also agreed to relocate another displaced tenant, San Francisco Auto Repair, and that he’s been negotiating with affordable housing advocates to increase the percentage of affordable housing in the project. But it’s going to take a large increase to satisfy many affordable housing advocates, who don’t want any more luxury housing in the Mission.
“We don’t want the artists and businesses displaced for market-rate condos. The Mission needs affordable housing, not luxury pied-a-terres for the rich,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the San Francisco Housing Rights Coalition, which is organizing in opposition to the project for the meeting on July 2. “We want a moratorium on luxury housing and the building of 3,000 deeply affordable units in the Mission.”
But these artists feel like they’re gotten the best deal they’re going to get, one that allows them to remain in San Francisco. Gaines also runs the Vau de Vire Society, a circus-inspired dance and performance art crew that has been headquartered in this space for at least seven years, when Gaines began taking over for the failing CELLspace, which had operated here since the ‘90s an an underground and somewhat illegal art space.
Gaines and Reid, who also runs Theater MadCap and is one of just a handful of African-American business owners in the Mission, founded InnerMission here three years ago and have been pouring money into renovations and permitting issues and hosting a wide variety of art and community events.
They were devastated when Podell bought the building and moved toward evicting them, but they’re feeling hopeful now that they have the financial backing of Podell to find a new space. They’ve also been working with city officials from the Entertainment Commission and other departments to expedite the opening of a new space once they can secure a lease.
“We feel like we struck a landmark compromise between developers and artists,” Reid said. “This is a fantastic deal for the artist’s community. There are other issues that have come up, such as housing, but we can’t really address that…Originally, it was ‘save the art spaces,’ but now it’s drifted and they want 100 percent affordable housing and saving of the PDR spaces.”
But Gaines said the activism and subsequent negotiations that secured their deal could become a model for other projects. He said that he’s learned a lot about development politics since this process began and he’d like the city to approve cultural preservation legislation that creates formal mechanisms for assessing what developers are displacing and having them ensure it doesn’t disappear from the city.
Even on this project, Gaines said that Podell has now seen the light and he believes that even the affordable housing community can still secure gains from this project: “There are still bigger wins that could happen on all sides.”