As rents rise, city seeks ways to save arts scene
Artists, arts organizations and arts venues have been hit especially hard by the recent increase in property values in Portland.
Much attention has been paid to the plight of lower-income residents since the Great Recession ended and property values started increasing. But those in the arts also have been been displaced by rising rents and redevelopment projects that replaced low-cost studios and performance spaces.
Creative spaces that have been displaced in recent years include Towne Storage, Troy Laundry, Artichoke Music, Crossroads Music, Theater! Theater!, Jimmy Mak's, Conduit Dance, The Fremont Theater, the PSU Dance Department, and the Ash Street Saloon.
The City Council will consider 24 proposals for helping the local arts community better survive the changes during a work session scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 9. The presentation — contained in a report titled "A Plan for Preserving and Expanding Affordable Arts Space in Portland" — was initiated two years ago by Commisioner Nick Fish, who is the official council liasion to the arts community. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly became involved when they took office last January.
"The cost of living in Portland is rising rapidly. This has created a housing crisis. Displacement, gentrification, aggressive development, and real estate market dynamics are making it impossible for artists to afford to live here. We stand at a moment where we risk losing many of the things that make Portland a desirable place to live, work and play," says the report, which was put together with the assistance of multiple arts organizations and employees from numerous city bureaus.
According to Fish's chief of staff Sonia Schmanski, the conversation about the need to do something got serious in September 2015 when the Towne Storage building in inner Southeast Porttland was sold and the artists living there were evicted. Policy director Jamie Dunphy and other staffers held meetings with other artists facing eviction over the next few months, and Fish identified the issue as a priority in January 2016. While researching what other cities are doing, Dunphy traveled to a conference on affordable art spaces in Seattle in October 2017. Other participating cities included San Francisco, Vancouve, British Columbia, and Los Angeles.
None of the proposals would direct new public funds to artists or arts organizations. Instead, they call for such steps as creating an inventory and map of creative spaces in Portland, encouraging new creative spaces in public and private buildings, and working with neighborhood and business associations to establish creative districts throughout the city.
One proposal would re-establish an "arts concierge" position within the Bureau of Development Services that lapsed when the previous employee retired. Such one-on-one help is needed because "artists and arts-related organizations are not necessarily well-versed in leasing, acquisition or development of commercial space," the proposal says.
Some of the proposals are based on policies that already are in effect in other cities. For example, Seattle and San Francisco already map and post the locations of many creative spaces on their official websites.
"Cities have been facing these same problems for decades, and community leaders have worked to find new solutions to old problems. This means that there is a wealth of information from trusted partners about what works, and what doesn't," the report says.
Many of the proposals require action by multiple city bureaus. In addition to BDS, Prosper Portland (formerly called the Portland Development Commission) would be asked to explore creating a real estate investment model to create ownership opportunities for arts organizations. Existing examples in other cities include the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) in San
Francisco, CulturalDC in Washington, D.C., and Equinox Development Unlimited in Seattle.
The report also calls for examining city policies that might contribute to the loss of low-cost creative spaces. They could include ongoing efforts to compel the owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to bring them up to current seismic standards.
"Commissioner Fish has been very clear with Mayor Wheeler that he wants a careful balance between ensuring community resilience and not making our affordability crisis worse by removing the most affordable places where people live and work," Schmanski says.
The current plight of the creative community is not new. It was among the topics discussed during the first public forum for City Council candidates during the 2016 primary election. The forum was hosted by the Regional Arts and Culture Council at the Armory Building that houses the Gerding Theater on Jan. 26 of that year.
The council already has approved numerous policies to support and encourage the arts community. They include the Art Plan adopted in 1989 when the creative community was contributing an estimated $89 million a year to the economy. That figure had grown to $300 million a year by 2009, an increase far beyond the rate of inflation. The council also is continuing to support the controversial $35-a-year arts tax approved by voters at the November 2012 general election to help fund arts teachers and organizations.