Chris Kidd: Finding “Flex Space”

Chris Kidd here, letting our beloved Vsmoothe take the day off from ABO. You should recognize me as the pragmatic, socialist-leaning planning enthusiast and Eucalyptus hater from comments. I’m going to take my first stab at writing for ABO, so take it easy on me, huh? I know the swan song of Deborah Edgerley is the topic du jour, but let’s take a break from all the doom ‘n’ gloom surrounding our fair city and throw on our thinking caps.

As part of the Industrial Land Preservation Proposal, the city council directed the city planners’ office to come up with something better than a 300 foot “buffer zone” of industrial areas in which work/live spaces would be allowed. On June 11, the city planners’ office had a stakeholders’ meeting to gain input for their plans to create work/live (or “flex space” as they call it) in the industrial areas of West Oakland. For the previous posts Vsmoothe has made on the matter, refer here:

March 6: Nancy Nadel to Artists: Move

March 12: CED holds onto industrial zoning, for now

*disclaimer* I’m going to use the term “artist” as a catch-all for high-impact entrepeneurs. This isn’t as much about creating space for those who make “art” (because what IS art anyways?). This is more about creating space for those who need to live and work in the same place for financial reasons whose work is not at all compatible with a residential neighborhood.

In a lot of ways, artists and the industrial community can and should consider themselves allies. They both need inexpensive spaces with few strictures placed upon their activities, and they both suffer from the encroachment of residential development. As Max Allstadt likes to say, “People accuse artists of being the shock troops of gentrification, but what they often don’t realize is that we don’t want to be”. Artists can be displaced because residential development in their neighborhoods causes rent inflation. They can be forced to live in sub-human living conditions because illegal spaces are the only spaces available. When something would go horribly wrong in a building, they wouldn’t have recourse because the landlord could just report them as squatters if they complained. The Industrial Land Preservation Proposal offers a unique chance to preserve the type of land that is exactly suited to the needs of this artist/entrepeneur group. It also should hopefully offer artists a path to legalization in West Oakland spaces that currently violate zoning. And while city commissioners aren’t exactly going to break down the doors of artists living illegally, these artists are still off the grid for the city. They don’t feel included, involved or acknowledged. And for those of you with a more practical eye, bringing these artists out from the shadows will add to the city’s tax base. If you don’t think that the artist/entrepenuer community provides a sizable business tax base, please refer to my colleague Max Allstadt; he will quickly disabuse you of that notion. If you want more reasons to support such a group, they hire locally, purchase locally and their work/live spaces leave a smaller carbon footprint (combination takes up less land than two spaces and they don’t have to commute anywhere).

So how do you create work/live space in an industrial area of the city without risking residential development? Even more difficult is preventing what’s called “residential reversion”, which is when an area that was designated for a purpose (work/live, commercial, etc.) is taken over at a later date by residents and effectively is converted to a residential area. For an example close to home, you can see residential reversion in action with the “luxury lofts” on Potrero Hill across the bay. If residential reversion were to occur, it would mitigate the intent of the ILPP and price people out of their work/live spaces.

The city planner’s office first looked to the examples that other cities have set in their work/live spaces. The cities of Boston, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco and Denver have all created zoning for work/live(“flex space”) artist spaces. Most of the specifications set down by these cities fall into a few categories.

-The floor space must have a certain percentage dedicated to the “work” half of work/live, or a minimum of square feet for the space itself.

-Zoning code is somewhat ramped down on residential requirements and is sometimes ramped up for commercial/industrial requirements.

-Some of the cities require submission for judgement of an artist’s portfolio to be considered eligible for work/live housing. **I have a problem with this one because, as Max pointed out to me, it shouldn’t be about “art”. It should be about entrepenuers who need space to make a mess and make noise without the complaints of neighbors. Also, could you imagine what an absolute trainwreck a city-appointed commission for judging the worthiness of “art” would be? I’m getting chills as we speak…**

At the stakeholder’s meeting was Tom Dolan, a local architect and owner of the very useful website . He stressed the point that, when creating zoning and building specifications for artists, less is more. You can’t have too many requirements in the building code because the more details required, the more expensive the construction will be, passing higher rents on to the artists. One of the best ways to accommodate work/live is to make cost of living as inexpensive as possible (after all, they live and work in the same place to save money, right?).

While I think that this solves one side of the problem, it leaves the other wide open. A perfect example is the earlier referenced residential reversion of Potrero Hill. It was only after years of work between the city and local artists to legalize the loft space that artists had created for themselves that developers bought up their buildings and used the lowered building requirements to develop the “luxury lofts” that you see today. (It’s quite ironic that artists were so involved in a process that led to their expulsion from the area. Well, that or really, really sad.) Lowering building requirements will make it possible to create inexpensive housing, but it won’t preclude expensive housing from being built.

Now, the $64,000 question: how does the city require developers to create work/live space that will stay that way? The artists who did attend the stakeholder’s meeting had the ingenious idea of using the spaces currently inhabited by West Oakland artists as a template for work/live spaces in the future. How do artists prefer to live in their spaces and how is it different from regular residential units? What building requirements could you mandate that would both appeal to artists and repel regular residents? Some of the ideas listed were:

-create very small work/live spaces that can only accommodate one person or create very large work/live spaces. Discourage the 2-4 person range of living arrangements that is more common with regular residents.

-create communal living arrangements. Center a block of bedrooms around a single common room/kitchen.

-require industrial fixtures and appliances

-create small living spaces with a separate street entrance to work spaces, discouraging the use of work space for living.

I think that artists are an essential part of Oakland. They contribute to the culture and vibrancy of our city and raise it from simply a “place to live” to be a “destination city”. It fills me with enormous pride to go out to First Friday or see people wandering the streets of Jingletown during East Bay Open Studios. Artists make huge contributions to our city—cultural, financial, and civic—and deserve to be recognized for it.

To look at it another way: work/live space is an enabler for small business. Every single working resident of work/live is his or her own small business. The people at city hall bitch and moan about encouraging small business owners while they sit on an absolute treasure-trove of entrepenuers that they are just beginning to notice. But just like any other small business, the inhabitants of work/live are in a precarious position. They have less wiggle room to absorb the blows of development and economy. Though I conisder them absolutely essential, they are also a weak link in our civic ecosystem, making them extremely easy to displace and to lose altogether.

But enough of my preachin’!! What do you guys think? How would you help make space for work/live?

6 thoughts on “Chris Kidd: Finding “Flex Space”

  1. the dude

    i’m an artist. i live in oakland. i make art. it pays the bills.

    in the food chain, we come after cockroaches on your road to gentrification. we fulfill a need.

    i’ve closed down cities before. SF, London, NYC, LA. easy to spot when its going to happen. first sign here: ruby room.

    oakland is slow. but as far as artists go, oakland is over. big time. suit up for trust fund babies who like to give themselves that name.

    and kids getting money from mommy and daddy for cannabis college degrees.


  2. Max Allstadt

    wow Dude. kinda pessimistic. One hipster bar downtown and it’s over?
    Resenting people with better financial fortunes won’t stop gentrification, Dude. We actually have to take some proactive steps.

    I prefer to think that Oakland has a chance to avoid the mistakes of other cities. We don’t have an artist exodus yet and we have time to stop it.

    The city won’t engage in any large scale displacement of artists any time soon. Large scale displacement of a demographic that is creative, educated, anti-authoritarian, and have flexible job schedules? You do the political math. We’re relatively safe. For now.

    It’s clear to me that in many cases, quasi-legal buildings have been able to negotiate with the city. As long as they’re making improvements and there’s no imminently horrible danger, code evictions seem relatively uncommon, particularly with larger artist communities. The danger we face is when economics force us out. It’ll be a while.

    What I’m trying to do is actually not about art. I don’t want special rules for artists, because I don’t want the government deciding who is an artist and who is not.

    When we talk about artist’s work/live in industrial areas, we really should be talking about all high-impact entrepreneurs. Work/live is a vehicle for entrepreneurship. High-impact entrepreneurs would include everything from glass and metal artists to carpenters and electricians. It might also include importers, who need a lot of truck traffic and want to live in their working warehouses.

    I believe this approach is better than providing artist-specific rules. When you have artist-specific rules, the only artists who can take advantage of them are usually already established. They’re also often the artists who are best at networking and paperwork, who in my experience, aren’t usually the best artists.

    Also, if the focus is on high impact entrepreneurs, I believe we can create rules that more effectively exclude the luxury condos that both business and artists fear.

    There are some in City Hall who think that artists aren’t real businesses. I disagree, quite a few local artists really are functioning businesses. But again, it’s not about the art. It’s about noisy entrepreneurship.

    I am a work/live entrepreneur. I maintain a carpentry shop in my warehouse space. This week I will be hiring 2 local laborers from a legal labor agency, one local master carpenter, and a local engineer. All of these people are Oaklanders. I also buy all my lumber in Oakland from a locally owned yard. Because I don’t commute from the sticks, I don’t drive by non-Oakland stores on the way to and from work. I also don’t jam up the freeways.

    I would love to see places created where contractor, metalworkers, artists, glassblowers and other noisy entrepreneurs can work, live, and incubate. If Oakland makes this possible, we can have real work/live that is green, promotes local businesses, promotes local business alliances, and has real potential to benefit the city. What’s not to like?

  3. Chris Kidd

    Hey dude,

    Who’s “road to gentrifcation” are we talking about? The whole point of ‘flex space’ and the stakeholder’s meeting with the city planners’ office was to help incorporate one group who suffers the effects of gentrification (artists/entrepenuers) into the protected land of another such effected group (industrial interests).

    That being said, I’m all for gentrification in some areas. It can do a lot of nice things for a city. But you can’t let it happen for an entire city because cities need balance and diversity.

    And as for Oakland being “over” for artists, I know a lot of artists that would lustily disagree with you. But even if that were so, I hardly see them being replaced by trust fund babies. I don’t see many Pac Heights’ers mingling with the “bridge and tunnel” crowd. With our current economy, I see artists being replaced by nothing. All the more reason to make them feel welcome and appreciated.

    also, love the lebowski referecne. I’ll have a white russian for you after work.

  4. dto510

    Chris Kidd – thanks for making it clear how dangerous it would be for the government to make strict guidelines about what constitutes “art.” That’s what our neighbor does in West Berkeley, and nobody outside of Berkeley considers that area a thriving arts community (those in Berkeley really do). Looking at design of living spaces makes more sense than looking at the residents themselves.

    But regarding the “residential reversion” you’re so concerned about – I think this is a false fear spread by the industrial-land zealots. The lofts in San Francisco were never occupied by artists: the live/work spaces in SOMA were built to escape the office-space cap and then quickly transformed to residences after the dot-bomb. Considering there are not high fees or absolute caps for housing in Oakland, and demand appears to be less than stellar, it is unlikely that residential developers are interested in industrial land. They certainly aren’t interested in the live/work process going on now.

  5. Chris Kidd

    thanks for the feedback, dto. The stuff you write rocks, so I appreciate you weighing in.

    But as for residential developers not being interested in industrial west oakland, I have to call BS. Up until city council approved the ILPP (provided the city planners’ office create flex space), there were developers and property owners championing residential development at every single meeting. Planning commission, both CEDA meetings, you name it. Once the proposal was approved, they dissappeared like a puff of smoke. I can tell you they sure as hell weren’t interested in coming to the stakeholders’ meeting. I also had a long conversation during election season with a lending officer from Bank of Alameda and all the plans they were trying to put together for funding residential development in case ILPP fell through.

    And as for residential reversion, I did paint it a little too strongly as a “developer issue”. My bad. It’s also simply an organic issue about the natural progession of residents being drawn to “hip” artist areas. This issue isn’t really a HUGE problem by itself, but when you throw in the fact that it would also affect the ability of industry to get work done (noise complaints, pollution complaints, etc.) the problem gets quite compounded.