A LITTLE MORE THAN TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED since tenants first began hauling their belongings into the Working Artists Ventura (WAV) affordable housing complex. The city’s investment in the project has come into question from time to time as critics and proponents debate the necessity and efficacy of both arts-related funding and subsidized housing. But despite rumors of foreclosure, assorted improprieties, infighting and heavy-handed property management — most of which can be filed under growing pains — the ambitious project, a social and urban development experiment, and the only one of its kind, has just begun to find its footing.
Brownfield of dreams
In the early 2000s, downtown Ventura was benefiting from progressive thinking in leadership. This led to its gradual makeover from underutilized, rundown beach town to historic cultural district. In line with this trajectory was the city’s embrace of the arts as a branding identity. But as property values rose and rents increased, the people who made Ventura an artsy destination were being priced out. The city began looking for inventive ways to keep creative types living and working in Ventura, and so began the conversation about an affordable housing alternative for artists.
“Ventura was in a unique and very lucky position of having a lot of active artists in the community who were developing a sort of Venturan style,” said Elena Brokaw director of parks, recreation and community partnership for the city of Ventura, who was cultural affairs manager at the time. “We had an authentic artistic life. A lot of other communities try to import that,” she said. “To me, the only way that Ventura could maintain its unique voice was to create affordable live/work space.”
Brokaw and Sid White — the city’s economic development manager at the time — enlisted the expertise of ArtSpace, a nonprofit developer in Minnesota that was building live/work space for artists around the country. During the planning of the project, ArtSpace consultant Chris Velasco went on to form his own company PLACE (projects linking art, community and environment), and the city was forced to make a choice: it went with Velasco/PLACE (with the agreement that affordable housing giant John Stewart Company would be involved.)
What began as a simple idea — build affordable housing for creatives whose income doesn’t support market rent, so they don’t take their talent elsewhere — evolved into something a bit loftier under the direction of Velasco and with the input of Ventura’s artistic community. Myriad private brainstorming discussions and 142 public meetings (with upward of 200 in attendance) yielded a somewhat utopian concept. More than a shelter and work space for artists and their families, it would provide shelter for the homeless, retail/office space, market rate penthouse condos and a multi-use gallery/theater. And if that weren’t enough, it would all be constructed to meet the highest standards of environmental sustainability and efficiency according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria.
By 2009, amid the worst new construction slump in decades, a blighted, petroleum-polluted brownfield lot at Thompson Boulevard and Ventura Avenue was transformed into the high-concept, eye-catching WAV — the most “ambitious community” Velasco said he’d ever had the privilege to work on.
That mean green
Given that affordable housing developers get a substantial amount of funding from taxes, their projects tend to get scrutinized more than those in the private sector — and the WAV hasn’t been without its critics, namely those who eschew arts-related spending.
The actual cost of the four-story, 69-unit complex on 1.7 acres with more than 6,000 square feet of retail space has been a point of confusion, as the smoke and mirrors jargon involved with large-scale financing tends to significantly complicate matters. The WAV has been described as a $60-some million project so often in public documents and via the press that most laymen have assumed that figure to be the actual cost of the project. Velasco says that number reflects the overall economic impact (a term that requires some suspension of disbelief to understand) or all the money that exchanged hands, back and forth in association with the project. While actual hard construction costs totaled $29.7 million, the entire project was completed for about $55 million, according to Ventura City Manager Rick Cole.
If nearly $30 million seems a bit much for an apartment building, according to White, it’s really not. When government funds are used to build housing, as is the case with affordable projects, by law the developers must pay locally prevailing wages. White said that if they didn’t have to pay those wages, which he considers to be relatively high, they could shave about 30 percent from the budget. White said that each WAV unit cost approximately $400,000 to build while other affordable housing projects currently being completed in Ventura are coming in at about $100,000 more per unit, and they aren’t anywhere near as complex in design and concept as the WAV.
Adding to the budget was the green aspect of the project. To qualify for LEED certification, the WAV was built with more expensive materials than a standard development, including solar panels (which decreases tenants’ utility bills substantially) and low-energy appliances. The project also suffered a couple of surprises early on: more pollution than had been anticipated and a much higher water table than geology reports revealed. The costs associated with cleanup and pumping out a million gallons of water per day for four months, pushed the project over budget and necessitated a sacrifice on the part of residents: they chose to do without closets, according to Velasco, a decision that seemed in alignment with the open, warehouse-style design of the live/work spaces.
A common misconception about the WAV’s financing is that the city, in one form or another, paid for most of it, but the truth is that only a fraction of the funding and the 1.7 acre parcel of land came from the city. The lion’s share was from public and private lenders (including the city’s redevelopment agency) and the federal government, which contributed 32 percent. The actual numbers vary, though not dramatically, depending on who you ask. According to White, developers (PLACE and John Stewart Company) borrowed $2.8 million from redevelopment and public art funds. The money is to be repaid using “residual receipts,” which is basically net profit. Though technically, the loan shall never be forgiven, if the project has no residual receipts, the money can’t be repaid, White said. The city (not to be confused with the redevelopment agency) loaned developers nearly $300,000 to offset various fees. Finally, an additional loan of $2 million, again using redevelopment money, was given for the construction of the market-rate condominiums.
This money is to be repaid from sales of the 13 condos, but to date, none has sold. Originally listed for between $725,000 and $850,000, they are currently renting for roughly $2,000 per month (all but one are occupied.) Developers recently asked for, and received, an extension on this loan from the City Council, citing extremely unfavorable economic conditions as the reason they’ve been unable to sell the condos. (Whether or not people who can afford expensive condos with a freeway/ocean view would really want to live amid subsidized rentals is a question still on the minds of WAV critics.)
According to Cole, although the redevelopment agency is being dissolved, as per legislation Gov. Jerry Brown enacted last year and then, after much dispute, was upheld by a recent California Supreme Court decision, if and when the loans are repaid, the money will go to the city.
When you take a highly creative but not impossible plan and squeeze it into the constricting framework of a bureaucratic system, someone’s bound to feel the pinch. WAV artists are, to some degree, forced to live in a fishbowl, the critical eyes of taxpayers, city officials and others in the art community watching and waiting for them to fail or produce as the case may be. The taxpayers argue that as a public project there should be some sort of payback for the artists’ affordable lifestyle when regular people must pay top dollar in an inflated rental market. Ostensibly, the payoff is economic, a sort of trickle-up scenario where the surrounding marketplace is stimulated by the presence of the artists. That’s been the intent of the project all along, but as with most long-term investments, the results are not immediate and there are peaks and valleys throughout.
Early PR for the WAV painted a pretty, if idealized, picture: “Galleries, coffee houses, art supply stores and jazz clubs will provide jobs for our residents, promote small businesses, and contribute to the tax base and the vitality of our community.” If everyone was a bit starry-eyed, it’s no wonder.
Now, two years in, virtually none of these things have come to fruition, though much good has come from the project. And while the commercial spaces have remained empty, management has hinted at a prospective tenant, but won’t confirm just yet.
“We have turned down a few businesses for our retail space that we didn’t think would be the best fit,” said Velasco, “and so have maintained vacant spaces. Maybe that wasn’t the best decision, but we are trying to find the best fit for what WAV is trying to accomplish.”
There’s also been a perception within Ventura’s art community that the WAV ‘s involvement has been underwhelming even though WAV artists have participated in a slew of local group shows here and continue to open their studios every First Friday in addition to hosting a variety of events on site. Though there may not be constant visible and audible activity there, defenders of the project say the artists still need time, and that’s OK.
“It’s only been open for two years and that seems like a long time, and it’s not,” said Brokaw. “In terms of what it will cure or marinate into, it’s just not done yet — at all.”
She also said that even though preventing Ventura from becoming “Anywhere, U.S.A.” was at the heart of the project, it’s not solely the WAV artists’ responsibility to fulfill that goal. “That’s a lot to have riding on a person who just needs an affordable housing unit. I don’t think it’s fair to lay that on people.”
Deborah Hazen, who assisted with the application process and served as WAV property manager for the first year, agrees that there may have been a “general expectation that the WAV would hit the ground running,” she said.
“The process of coming up with workable — and legal, and safe — shared-space guidelines, a community identity and community goals is taking a while to gel.”
But, she adds, “Given the complex calculations required to balance the WAV’s identity as a residence, an artists’ community, a location at which outside community organizations can hold their events, and a destination for arts-minded members of the public, and the colorful personalities of which the WAV community is comprised, it seems to me that a lengthy period of self-definition makes sense.”
Rocking the boat
In his WAV dedication speech, Chris Velasco said, “May she be the ship of our collective dreams. May she take us all through uncharted waters to unknown lands.” Placing more than 90 artists of various disciplines, myriad ethnicities, cultures, lifestyles and age groups in a high-profile, progressive environment, to live and create and somehow build a community together while under the watchful eye of the public is, indeed, uncharted territory — and residents have weathered a few storms together.
During the arduous WAV application process that attracted at least 900 people and involved a stringent financial evaluation (tenants must make less than 60 percent of the median income for their area and family size), applicants were asked to share their work and qualify themselves as community-oriented. Putting people in units that matched their family size and income was no simple task, and it stands to reason that making sure everyone was placed in a unit that would match his or her exact needs would be close to impossible. By most accounts, they did a good job.
WAV planners adopted a democratic decision-making process that was used to determine community guidelines. Issues such as pets, noise and use of the gallery space were hammered out. Rules such as “no smoking anywhere near the building” were built into the LEED certification for environmental standards. Still other rules, such as no barbecues on balconies, were imposed by John Stewart Company, the property management/co-owner.
As is the case with any social microcosm, people will gravitate toward those they naturally relate to and find themselves in conflict with others. The friction can be caused by personality clashes, rule-breaking or perceived rule-breaking and other lifestyle differences.
The WAV is not immune to these troubles and while the majority of people living there have had no negative experiences with other tenants, some have not been as fortunate. Adding to tensions is a perception among some tenants that the environment is not conducive to creativity and that rule enforcement has created an oppressive atmosphere that encourages some residents to “police” others. One such tenant recently sought legal representation in an eviction dispute with WAV management over alleged lease violations, mainly concerning noise. WAV residents are held to the same standard as other Ventura residents in accordance with the city noise ordinance. While the situation is fairly isolated, and may or may not simply be solved by moving the tenant to a different unit, it has opened a small Pandora’s box of issues.
Anna Karakalos, a musician and visual artist who lives at the WAV with her husband, said that following a sort of honeymoon period living there, where she felt excited to bond with, and be inspired by, other artists, she now keeps to herself in what she feels has become an increasingly rigid environment.
“None of us want to make waves and get ourselves kicked out before we can figure out how to make this place work for us in the way that we dreamed,” she said. While the vast majority of residents are “amazing,” there are a few who she believes are attempting to tone things down “into a living space by the freeway with quiet little craftspersons and hobbyists, whittling away behind their closed doors,” in contrast with what many imagined would be a hyperexpressive, free and very openly creative environment.
Lori Horn, vice president of John Stewart Company, which co-owns and manages the property, said that the rules were agreed upon during community meetings and no new rules have been imposed. While she says artists may be a bit more “free spirited” than their other affordable-housing tenants, there’s no reason to adjust the rules specifically for them. “We are facility managers and need to maintain the property.” She also noted that there are families with children living at the WAV and everyone needs to be respectful.
Other WAV residents anonymously expressed their dissatisfaction with what they perceive as an authoritarian environment that’s not conducive to creativity.
These issues have created a sort of unspoken divide between those who consider themselves to be “legitimate” artists and those who might identify more as craftspeople, as Karakalos mentioned.
Being approved to live at the WAV, however, doesn’t rest on the caliber of your work, as this is considered too subjective a criterion. Rather, an artist must show commitment to the work and must be actively producing it.
“Quality is impossible to quantify,” said Brokaw. “What one woman thinks is Picasso, another thinks is garbage. There were interviews for each tenant, and commitment to a body of work was the most heavily weighted criteria to get in.”
Filmmaker Jacob Foko lived at the WAV for six months before relocating to Washington, D.C., to start a nonprofit. He says noise at the WAV should be surprising to no one. “If you need to be alone without noise, you don’t have to apply at the WAV,” he said. “I knew it would be musicians and carpenters — artists will be free to do what they want to create their art.” At the same time, he says people need to deal with the rules. “Everyone who decided to live at the WAV [should] understand that you have to follow the rules or you have to move out.” Otherwise, he says, you can stay and “be part of a family that really helps you.”
Despite conflict between some WAV tenants (as Sid White put it, “It’s a family, so you’re seeing some family problems”), most are thrilled to be there. Craig Kasamis, who lives at the WAV with his wife and two children (one was the first WAV baby), says the project saved them from raising their kids in an unsafe neighborhood. Kasamis, a professional musician, isn’t fazed by the rules. “I grew up poor as poor can be, so I’m used to government rules and a homeowners association vibe.” The WAV, he says, is a blessing. “Everyone has come from different backgrounds. Some are old and retired, some lost a house. A lot of these people had higher set living standards,” he said, so it’s a bit more of an adjustment for them. “Art is an extremely broad term. They want permanent tenants to build a community. The main concern is truly getting people who will thrive in a community.”
One of the most unique and most visibly fruitful elements of the WAV project is the SHORE (Supportive Housing Opportunities in a Residential Environment), which provides homes for people trying to get off the street. The project is case-managed by Brenda Byers of Project Understanding, who comes across as a proud, nurturing mother. Fifteen units at SHORE are home to 35 formerly homeless adults and children. Two of the units are designated for kids aging out of the foster care system.
A family of four with only one income that had been swept away by the economic crisis managed to save enough money while living at SHORE to recently move into their own home.
The idea to set aside units specifically for people dealing with homelessness was conceived by the community during the earliest planning discussions with Velasco and city officials. Velasco, who experienced homelessness as a child, is particularly proud of what has been accomplished with SHORE and is planning to include supportive housing in every PLACE design going forward.
Not only do SHORE tenants live in brand-new, attractive units, but perhaps more important, they get to live within a community, and that community — the WAV artists — has welcomed them warmly, says Byers. “There are other Section 8 apartments,” she said, but nothing that is a part of this kind of community. She said the hope was that “they would be completely enmeshed in a community, so when they move they know how to interact with everybody.” That hope has become a reality. “The working artists have been fantastic helping out, welcoming and supporting. There’s no ‘them and us.’ It’s all a real cohesive community.”
Pride of ownership
While those who live there don’t own (yet), some might say the WAV belongs to the city of Ventura as much as it belongs in the city of Ventura. Despite its warts, what it has accomplished, not only in terms of lives affected, but also in the sheer ingenuity of it, pales next to what it has yet to accomplish. When the kinks get worked out and the dust finally settles, it will be the crown jewel of the city’s hard-fought campaign for the arts. Other important and visionary projects have succeeded to bolster the arts and the people who make art without financial assistance from the government, but none has filled as many socioeconomic gaps as the WAV. Residents and planners say, give it time and healthier economic conditions, and see how it will grow. “I was with the project since it was on the back of a napkin,” says White. “I have gone to lunch with every naysayer in town. It’s a magnificent project and it has exceeded every expectation of any of us that planned it.”
To learn more about the WAV and PLACE, visit www.wavartists.com or www.placeonline.us.
There are many hard-working, creative people living at the WAV. Most work in visual media but many do not. There are writers, dancers, actors and directors. Here is a small, random representation of the talent at the WAV, and the way it’s impacting the community.
Paul Benavidez www.paulbenavidez.com
An award-winning artist, Paul Benavidez’ large body of work is widely shown and collected throughout Southern California, and ranges from large-scale installation pieces to detailed portraiture and abstract paintings. Benavidez leads a local Unequal Wealth Distribution group that explores issues of economic injustice. He is currently working on his master’s in fine arts.
Michele Foster www.artesiahealingarts.org
Michele Foster is director of the ARTesia Healing Arts project, which teaches victims of trauma and domestic violence to process their feelings through the creation of art. She is also the director of the Bell Arts Factory children’s program. She works with clay, mosaics, airbrush, acrylics and mixed media and is passionate about community building through art.
Pete Ippel www.peteippel.com, www.hypermodern.net
Pete Ippel is a record-setting high jumper who has achieved a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a bachelor of fine arts in photo/digital art making from Cornell University as well as a master of fine arts degree in new genres from the San Francisco Art Institute. His work tends to be multidisciplinary and experimental. It has been exhibited in New York, California and around the world.
Larissa Strauss www.larissastrauss.com
If you’ve been to the Museum of Ventura County, you’ve seen her eight mosaics in the courtyard that are part of the permanent collection. Larissa Strauss is a highly regarded mosaic artist and jewelry designer who also teaches mosaic work. She recently completed a large-scale commission for Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. She has received several public art commissions and artist fellowships, and plans to begin work on a combination paint and mosaic project soon.
Sean Tully www.seantully.com
A professional surfer who’s been featured in a number of national surfing publications, Sean Tully holds a bachelor of fine arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts. He has “painted, curated, photographed, blogged, hosted, built and abandoned countless projects in his studio space. It’s been a unique experience, one which would be hard found anywhere else,” he says.What he sees in his future: “gallery shows in Los Angeles, residence in France and the materialization of a large-scale conceptual-based exhibition that explores territorialism within surf culture.”
Sarah Willey www.sarahwilley.com
A fine-art photographer and member of the Buenaventura Artists Association, Sarah Willey’s project “The Clayborns: An Illusion of the Nuclear Family” is a whimsical, engaging work in stop-motion photography using claymation. She has participated in many local group shows and enjoyed a handful of solo exhibitions. She is very active in the community and a Burning Man alumnus. She is currently working on a series of self portraits she calls Desert Explorer.