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The unofficial vision for the neighborhood – a plan crafted by a group of developers – is to grow East Village into the IDEA District, a place filled with tech startups, design firms, architects, educational institutions, artists and other creative people.
The new IDEA1 project in East Village – a building developed in part by the architects of the IDEA District plan – has invited local arts nonprofit Vanguard Culture to host artsy events there that help attract the cool crowd to the growing neighborhood. A big art- and music-filled block party is happening at the building Saturday evening.
Yet while the IDEA District is starting to take shape, the new development is also continuing to push out the very people the plan hopes to attract.
Many artists have already been priced out of the neighborhood. The process is playing out right across the street from IDEA1, in a building at the corner of Park Boulevard and G Street called Art Center Lofts. It’s home to the NewSchool of Architecture and dozens of quirky studios that house artists and other small businesses.
Last year, La Jolla real estate investment firm Paragon bought the property. Shortly after, tenants whose leases expired got new lease offers with significantly higher rents. A handful of artists with studio space in the building have already moved out. NewSchool and Paragon are in the middle of lease negotiations, but the increased rent could mean the architecture school that’s been in East Village for 30 years could be on its way out, too.
Some of the artists who signed new leases with Paragon say the new owner and its property management company have not made staying easy.
David Fokos and Gary Singer, two artists who’ve rented studios in the building for years, said after they signed their new leases with Paragon and accepted the rent hike, they were later hit with huge, unexpected increases in monthly maintenance fees called CAMs, or common area maintenance fees. They both got bills for higher maintenance fees going back to the start of the year.
“Those backdated fees, they were never upfront with us about the costs,” Singer said. “Eight months into our new lease that we signed, they sent us a letter with no option for a conversation or discussion with these outrageous backdated CAM charges. Going forward with the CAM charges will increase costs by 30 percent.”
The type of lease both Fokos and Singer signed does allow for the backdated and higher maintenance fees. Fokos monthly fee went from about $50 a month to over $300 a month, and the backdated charges amounted to thousands of dollars he said he can’t afford.
“Even if it is legal what they did, it’s still wrong,” Fokos said. “I would have preferred them to be upfront and build that CAM fee into the rent, or they should have at least made it clear that the fees would be going up significantly when I signed the new lease.”
Ellen Salk, Barbara Sexton and Pat McNabb Martin are all artists who lease studios at the Arts Lofts building. They, too, said the new management company has been challenging to work with. All three expect that the skyrocketing costs will soon force them to find new studio spaces.
Sexton, whose rent was nearly doubled, said she’s having a hard time finding any affordable studio space in San Diego. She’d like to stay downtown, but said she can’t find a space she can afford.
“There’s nothing left for artists,” she said. “East Village is touted as this arts district, but there’s no artists who can afford to live and work here anymore. It’s really a shame.”
Tanya Cravero, who works for Paragon, said the company is doing a lot of work to improve the building. She said the company is hoping to attract small creative offices, designers, architects and artists. She said the company did significantly increase rent and maintenance fees for tenants because the previous owner had kept the prices “oddly low” for years. Even with the increases, Cravero said the rent is between $1.10 $2.50 a square foot, significantly lower than the going rate for similar spaces in East Village.
Cravero said the backdated maintenance fees were increased by so much because it appeared the building’s former owner had left the fees essentially untouched, in many cases, for more than a decade.
“So we weren’t surprised that there was surprise from tenants, unfortunately,” she said.
The building is about 80 percent occupied, with NewSchool taking up about half of the entire building. Cravero said Paragon is hopeful it can keep the architecture school as the anchor tenant, especially since it’s such a perfect fit for where they see the neighborhood heading.
“The IDEA District really sort of embodies and speaks to what our vision is for the building – innovation, design, education and the arts,” Cravero said.
Salk, one of the tenant artists, said she understands the building’s new owners need to make money. She said cities can’t depend on developers to help ensure the continued presence of artists. City leaders should try to step in come up with creative programs to keep artists in the urban core, she said.
It’s not a completely off-base suggestion. Through its redevelopment arm, the city did once reach a deal with a developer that resulted in dedicated cultural space in a downtown project. The result: L Street Fine Art, a small gallery attached to the parking garage of a boutique hotel near Petco Park. The gallery used to support local curators and artists, but earlier this year it became a commercial gallery that only shows National Geographic photography.
“Most major cities have some consciousness of the value of working artists in their community and in one way or another find spaces that artists can afford,” Salk said.
You’re reading the Culture Report, Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Vanguard Culture’s relationship with the IDEA1 building’s developers.
Kinsee Morlan is engagement editor at Voice of San Diego. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with arts and culture news and tips, or submit your question about San Diego arts and culture here. Want to recommend the Culture Report to someone? Share this sign-up link. Subscribe to Voice of San Diego podcasts.