One of the Last Vestiges of East Village Art Is on Its Way Out - Voice of San Diego

Land Use UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

One of the Last Vestiges of East Village Art Is on Its Way Out

Space 4 Art sits in the shadow of a construction crane, one of several towering over the East Village right now.

“We’re surrounded on three sides by developers putting up high rises,” said Bob Leathers, one of the Space 4 Art founders. “It’s cranes galore down here.”

Space 4 Art is in a brick and wood warehouse at the corner of 15th and K streets. The nonprofit runs arts and education programs and houses art galleries, classrooms, an outdoor stage and studio spaces for artists to live and work.

It’s the last significant arts center in the East Village, a neighborhood once home to an active arts district thanks to all its old, cheap warehouses. But Space 4 Art can’t make it work there much longer.

Last week, commercial real estate company HP Investors purchased the building. It’s not a surprise – Leathers and his wife, Space 4 Art cofounder Cheryl Nickel, have known the building was on the market for years. They’ve watched as properties all around them have been bought and developed.

They’ve been preparing for this. Two years ago, Space 4 Art bought land in Sherman Heights. Leathers, an architect, and Nickel have been raising money to build their organization a permanent home since they conceived of Space 4 Art a decade ago as a nonprofit that would provide affordable live and work spaces for artists. They realized early on the only way to offer cheap rents for artists was to own land.

A scale model of group’s future permanent space sits in the middle of the current office. Leathers, who designed the building, makes little tweaks often. He said they need to raise $1 million more before they can break ground, which he expects to happen in the next three to four years.

Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

“What we’re doing with this half acre in Sherman Heights, we’re going to have 55 artists who are going to be there – 30 who live and work there, 25 that work only,” he said. “And that means we’re going to be a permanent presence for the arts. We’re one of the only organizations I know of that is working to keep emerging artists in town.”

And when Space 4 Art finally moves, it will leave behind a nearly artless East Village.

That’s something David Malmuth doesn’t want to see happen. Malmuth is one of the developers behind an under-construction, mixed-use project on 13th Street called IDEA1, and he’s an architect of the IDEA District plan that proposes turning the East Village into a hub for design and tech businesses.

Malmuth said he’s including public art in his project and he hopes other developers are thinking about incorporating art or attracting artists and arts organizations back to East Village.

“We need to create places for art and we need to figure out a way for it to be part of the urban landscape of the East Village,” he said. “We’re doing what we can do to say this is an important part of what makes East Village distinctive – it’s an important part of its heritage.”

What artists and arts organizations need, though, is cheap rent. That’s not easy to offer downtown anymore, where commercial real estate prices are high and getting higher.

Space 4 Art thrived in its East Village warehouse for the last six years because the building’s former owner, Bob Sinclair, gave the organization a good deal on rent and didn’t want to sell the building.

Sinclair was the founder of Pannikin coffee and he became well known locally for his work buying, refurbishing and preserving old buildings throughout the East Village.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

At one point, Sinclair was the largest single property owner in the East Village, but he died in a motorcycle accident in 2011.

Now his wife and children manage the properties. His wife Gay said she cares about the future of one of the buildings they own – the iconic Wonder Bread Factory building that’s currently home to Mission Brewery and other businesses – but doesn’t have the energy to care about the other buildings the same way her husband did. That’s why they’re selling the Space 4 Art building.

“Honestly, I’m 75 and I’ve been property managing for so many years, I’m just tired,” she said.

Bill Keller, who ran a travel store in downtown San Diego for decades and has become an outspoken urbanist over the years, said he’s a big fan of the work Sinclair did in the East Village, and the neighborhood is suffering without him.

“We need more people like Bob,” he said. “I’m worried about the East Village without him because all these new buildings are under construction and the neighborhood’s losing touch with all the funky artistic history it has. I want to see some of that preserved. The future of the East Village would be greatly benefited by building on what Bob did.”

There are plans to include a small tribute to Bob Sinclair and the East Village’s artsy past in the proposed 14th Street Promenade, a Civic San Diego redevelopment project that would create a pedestrian walkway running through the East Village from City College to Barrio Logan.

Keller said it’s a nice gesture, but it’s not nearly enough.

“It would be an effort to capture some of that funky, edgy, artistic history of the East Village,” Keller said. “But no, I’m not really happy with the process of artists getting pushed out like that.”

Leathers and Nickel said they’re not sure how much longer they’ll be in East Village. They said HP Investors, which declined to comment, wants to get tenants on a five- to seven-year lease, but Space 4 Art’s new home will likely be ready years before then. They don’t want to sign a lease longer than they need, but also don’t want Space 4 Art to be homeless for any amount of time – since that would necessarily mean leaving some artists without a place to reside, too.

They’re in the middle of negotiations with the new property owners, and are asking if Space 4 Art can condense and lease less space inside the building until they’re ready to move out.

Leather and Nickel, though, said they think HP Investors will work with them since it’s one of the company’s developing the Makers Quarter, a large development in the East Village that’s made arts and culture a big part of the pitch for the project.

“They seem to really truly care about what happens to the arts and the poor emerging artists,” Leathers said. “But are we a little nervous? Let’s just say I lose about two to three hours of sleep every night when I think about this move.”

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