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Artists Are Clamoring for a Say in How a City-Owned Arts District Grows

Arts District Liberty Station has the potential to become a regional cultural destination for both residents and visitors. It’s a city-owned space, but city leaders, the public and the artists who rent space there have virtually no say over its direction.

San Diego artist David Krimmel’s public art installation is mounted atop a walkway at Liberty Station. / Photo by Kinsee Morlan

When the Naval Training Center was deeded to the city of San Diego in the late ‘90s, civic leaders tapped a private developer to carry the costs of renovating the historic site.

Many slammed the ensuing deal between the city and Corky McMillin Companies, calling it a public land grab by a private development company, which went on to make millions on homes built there. Others praised the deal, which gave the developer swaths of city-owned land for free, but required McMillin to pay for the costly rebuild and infrastructure renovations of the ragged old Navy buildings.

To help sweeten the deal and quell naysayers, the developer and city leaders made big civic promises. Alongside a bustling new entertainment and dining center, San Diegans would also get large public parks, plus a new arts and culture district inside the core of former Naval Training Center.

The parks were built. Restaurants and retail have moved in. And a cultural district is growing there, too, inside 26 city-owned buildings expressly set aside for that purpose. It’s been dubbed Arts District Liberty Station.

But several artists who rent studios at the former military center are frustrated with the NTC Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with growing the arts district. They say they want a bigger stake in the future of the space.

Even a former NTC Foundation board member said the tenants should be playing a bigger role.

“The board doesn’t really talk to the tenants,” said Richard Opper, a former NTC Foundation board member who recently resigned for personal reasons. “We’re asked to approve leases and then we generally don’t hear about tenants after that.”

The Next Big Cultural District?

Arts District Liberty Station has the potential to become a regional cultural destination for both residents and visitors. It’s a city-owned space, but city leaders and the public have virtually no say over its direction. Instead, the NTC Foundation is making the calls.

The development agreement between the city and Corky McMillin Companies set the parameters of the arts district. It called for the formation of a private community-based nonprofit to manage the 26 city buildings and build the arts district. The ultimate goal: to build a “sustainable, self-sufficient operation and a resource of regional significance to the San Diego community,” according to the agreement.

First, though, the NTC Foundation had to pay for the majority of the costly renovations of the historic barracks buildings. The costs skyrocketed, and the foundation took on a lot of debt early on. It’s still recouping costs by collecting rent, which many tenants consider to be too high. In the city-owned buildings in Balboa Park, for example, most tenants’ rent is nearly free, subsidized by the city.

Alan Ziter, the longtime executive director of the NTC Foundation, said the nonprofit has done a good job taking the challenging deal the city made with the developers and turning the public property into a self-sustaining cultural district.

To facilitate its growth, the NTC Foundation partially subsidizes nonprofit tenants’ rent, raises funds and uses city and county money to help fund marketing efforts to promote the arts district, plus it runs other programs, like commissioning public art installations to help brand the area as an exciting arts destination.

But a group of tenants has started meeting to discuss their growing dissatisfaction with the NTC Foundation’s management. Rent keeps increasing, they say. Foot traffic is virtually non-existent. The diversity of tenants isn’t great. And the art-buying crowd isn’t showing up at the monthly art walk events the foundation organizes.

The main point the artists keep coming back to: They want more access to the NTC Foundation. They want to attend board meetings – possibly even have representation on the board – and they want to be included in decisions that affect the future of the arts district.

Michelle Moore, an artist and jeweler with a studio at Arts District Liberty Station, said the foundation has “lost its way” and operates more like a “high-end leasing agency” than a nonprofit on a mission to build a cultural district.

“They’re telling everyone they’re an arts district supporting artists,” Moore said. “But the reality is, we’re not supported at all.”

Peggy Fishbeck, a painter who’s had an art studio at NTC for nine years, said the communication and collaboration between the foundation and its tenants has degraded over the years.

“When we were first setting up here, we had a series of collaborative meetings,” Fishbeck said. “We talked about what we were envisioning and ways we could make that happen and work together, because we all recognized that this whole project was much bigger than a single entity could handle.”  

Some tenants wonder whether the NTC Foundation should, in fact, be required by law to act more like a public agency. Since the nonprofit operates city buildings and was created through a city contract with the developer, they believe the foundation should be subject to the Brown Act, a state law that that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

Gerry Braun, chief of staff for the city attorney’s office, said it would take a “fact-intensive analysis” to officially determine whether the NTC Foundation is considered a local legislative body and subject to public access laws.

“Were the question posed to us by our client, we could dedicate public resources to answering it,” he wrote in an email.

Only a city official can ask the question and trigger the city attorney’s analysis. Braun provided an example of the type of analysis needed.

The artists say if the NTC Foundation acted more like an open public agency, the arts district would more quickly become a public destination. Residents would start to feel ownership of it and become stewards of the arts district.

Larry Baza, a longtime local arts advocate and vice chair of the California Arts Council, said he’s concerned about the kind of arts and culture district that’s been developing at the former military training center.

“It’s turning out to be a new version of a mall – it’s just another retail opportunity,” he said. “And I don’t think the city gives a shit.”

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