San Jose art studio squeezed out amid downtown growth
Artist Alex Hernandez prepares a screen print for client in his makeshift studio, which used to be a loading area for Ross Dress for Less. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

Moving was inevitable.

That’s what Exhibition District executive director Erin Salazar kept in mind when securing a vacant building space for Local Color, a spot for budding artists to produce their work.

After city officials in February approved the demolition of the building on 27 South First Street to make way for a mixed-use residential and retail high-rise, the trio that runs Exhibition District, a nonprofit that operates Local Color, scrambled to find another vacant space.

The artists secured a spot less than a mile away on 300 South First Street, but it’s not a permanent solution. They could be forced to move again.

“This was supposed to only be a two month pop-up — we hoped obviously it would be more — and now we’re two-and-a-half years in,” Salazar said. “I think sometimes the development takes a lot longer than the developers anticipate.”

While vacancies can be detrimental to landlords and an eyesore for residents, empty spaces such as the one transformed by Exhibition District into Local Color can be a haven for artists in need of an affordable studio.

Exhibition District charges about $300 a month to rent out a 225 square foot space for artists who qualify for a residence, and $150 if artists only use the space 15 hours per month. The nonprofit also rents out co-working space they call “drop-in” studios for $50-$100 a month.

Salazar works with the San Jose Downtown Association to connect with property owners and use their vacant space as an affordable workspace for local artists. Exhibition District pays for operational costs and insurance for the building in exchange for using the space.

“This is kind of our bread and butter of how we found a way to kind of get in, hold space for artists and retain the artists here in San Jose,” said Ellina Yin, the operations director of Exhibition District.

Art studios don’t pencil out

However, property owners have different plans for permanently filling the abundance of vacant space in downtown San Jose.

Developer Alterra Worldwide plans to replace the Local Color building with a towering high-rise that includes 374 residential units and 35,712 square feet of retail space, according to city records.

Developing vibrant retail concepts, including art studios, doesn’t pencil out in most cases, according to industry experts.

“The biggest problem is that there simply are not enough people on the streets of San Jose to support typical retail businesses,” said Erik Schoennauer, a land use consultant working for Alterra Worldwide. “So we need to add a significant amount of residential development and a significant amount of office development to support retail.”

Schoennauer said the new development will help expand San Jose’s tax revenue base.

“All that business activity adds to the bucket of the city and allows the city to add more services,” Schoennauer said.

The building would be 22 stories, according to the city records, which would be an ambitious project to pursue, said land use consultant Bob Staedler.

“That’s part of the challenge of this is how are you going to build something so tall on a really confined footprint,” said Staedler. “It’s not impossible, but it’s not simple.”

Schoennauer said the property owners have not decided on the type of retail to fill the ground floor, though it’ll likely be restaurants. Staedler warned that’ll be a noisy environment for people living upstairs.

“You’re almost building your own kind of noise complaints.” he said. “It’s part of the joys and pains of living in the urban environment.”

Despite the increase in housing units the project will provide, none of them will be “affordable.” San Jose has carved out exceptions to building affordable housing or paying fees for developers constructing downtown high-rises with residential units more than 150 feet tall.

“The city has an exemption for downtown for building affordable units as an incentive to get high rises built,” Schoennauer said. “Construction costs are very high so to make the projects pencil, the city had provided incentives.”

Jim Fonseca stands in front of his painting in a popup during the 12th annual SubZERO Festival in downtown San Jose. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

Will Local Color find a permanent home?

Exhibition District secured its new location after working with the owners of the building to create a mural earlier this year.

However, despite the push for more vibrancy in downtown San Jose, a permanent space for Local Color is up in the air and it’s destined to move from one vacant space to another.

“We want to have a permanent space eventually,” Salazar said.

One artist in residence with Local Color says the high cost of housing and pinch to get permanent space makes it difficult to stay in San Jose.

“All these vacant spaces… they’re just waiting to be sold to developers to turn into apartments, condos, expensive (stuff) that I can’t afford,” said Jim Fonseca, an artist who does graphic design and silk screening.

Fonseca is a San Jose native, and despite the constraints, he continues to live and work in the city.

“This city created the artist within me, so I want to stay here and represent as much as I can,” Fonseca said.

In addition to the difficulties of finding a permanent home for Local Color, Salazar worries that the skyrocketing housing costs in San Jose are driving out artists.

“We still are losing artists,” Salazar said. “Maybe one or two a year.”

But the directors see the temporary workspace as a first step for artists to make a profit when entering the professional field.

“Not all of them are classically trained or went to school,” Yin said. “A lot of them are self-taught and for them this is their first time working in their own studio. It’s their office, they come here everyday. This is their job, they show up to work like everybody else, they go out and they hustle.”

As Local Color scrambles to find a permanent home, murals that artists from Local Color have painted adorn San Jose.

“For us, we really believe that the success of artists directly contribute to the success of a city,” Yin said. “I think for Local Color, we’ve been able to show how the neighborhood was impacted by us being here.”

Contact San José Spotlight intern Mauricio La Plante at mslaplante19@gmail.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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