Saturday, May 3, 2008
When the artists' colony at San Francisco's Hunters Point shipyard hosts its semi-annual open studios this weekend, they'll be talking about a lot more than painting styles and jewelry-making techniques.
After all, the enclave's fate could be decided by two competing measures on the city's June 3 ballot regarding development of the shipyard and neighboring Candlestick Point.
But the artists can't agree which of the propositions would mean a more promising future for the 300-member group, founded 24 years ago in old Navy buildings and billed as the country's largest artists colony.
Should they trust the city's and developers' promises that they'll get gleaming new studios and the chance to establish a renowned art center? Or would trusting them mean risking their very existence?
One thing's certain: The debate is growing increasingly heated between the more outspoken artists who are calling some of their colleagues short-sighted, ungrateful and "completely out to lunch."
"It's raising all this stink out here," said David Trachtenberg, who has painted at the shipyard for three years.
"It's driving a wedge between people here, and it's very unproductive," agreed Jack Hain, who has painted there for a year.
At issue are June's Propositions F and G. The latter would authorize Lennar Corp., a Miami-based developer, to build 10,000 housing units, shops, parks, and industrial and commercial space. Lennar would also rebuild the decrepit Alice Griffith public housing development and erect a new 49ers stadium if the team agrees to stay in the city.
And, thanks to pressure from the artists, the company has said it will refurbish Building 101, the heart of the artists' colony that is in great need of repair. The six smaller buildings housing artists' studios would be torn down and those artists would be guaranteed studios in a new building, according to Lennar.
There are also discussions about building a new art center in which the artists could, in conjunction with the Bayview Opera House, lead art, music and dance classes for Bayview-Hunters Point children and maybe even set up a radio station.
For Trachtenberg, that's too good to pass up. Standing in his paint-splattered studio on a recent afternoon, he pointed to a pro-Prop. G mailer sent out by Lennar with the words "permanent home for shipyard artists" listed as one of the selling points.
"We've managed to get in the picture," he said. "How can you doubt the city's trying the best it can to help us?"
But other artists wonder how their colleagues can so easily trust the city's good intentions. They point out their situation is pretty good as it is. In a busy city with many artists and few affordable rental spaces, they have low rents and quiet surroundings.
They don't know what will happen to their rents under the sweeping, 721-acre redevelopment plan, though the city promises they'd remain below market rate.
Some artists also point out that the plan is not binding until an environmental report is completed, a variety of city boards and agencies sign off on it and Lennar officially signs an agreement with the city - a process expected to take well over a year. That means everything being discussed now is more hypothetical than concrete, some artists say.
Hain said he's been called "ungrateful, churlish and short-sighted" for questioning the city and Lennar. But that won't stop him from voting against Prop. G, he said.
"They have not told any of the artists here what they'll be getting exactly or even approximately," he said. "I think you have to be completely out to lunch to take an offer like that and to agree to the destruction of an essential part of your livelihood without a specific assurance."
Navy cleaning toxic site
Painter April Hankins, on the other hand, said she'll probably support Prop. G and Prop. F, which would mandate that half the housing built by Lennar be affordable to people making 30 to 80 percent of the city's median income, which is $64,267 for a family of four.
Lennar says Prop. F would be a "poison pill," making it financially impossible to build the entire project. Instead, the company has pledged to make up to 25 percent of new homes affordable.
Hankins said she doesn't buy that Lennar would ditch the whole project if Prop. F passes. She thinks the measure could help ensure that the surrounding Bayview-Hunters Point community, including many low-income African Americans, isn't pushed out by the new development.
"Lennar says, 'We can't function, we can't make a profit,' " she said. "But what we lose if Prop. F doesn't pass is our community, which is a huge loss."
A test of how the displacement of the artists would work will likely happen this summer. The Navy is cleaning up the shipyard, a site so toxic it is listed as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The military has already transferred one parcel of the shipyard to the city, and Lennar is building new homes on it.
The Navy is now working to clean up a second parcel occupied in part by some of the artists' studios and needs to evacuate one of the buildings to determine if there is radioactive residue from the days when the building housed sailors working on nuclear submarines. This will likely mean tearing out walls and plumbing.
City 'working our tails off'
The city is working to find a temporary home for the displaced artists with the hopes of moving them back into the building and will pay to repair the damage from the Navy's work, said Michael Cohen, director of economic and workforce development for the mayor. And that's just the start of good things to come for the artists, Cohen said.
"We have a duty to protect artists in San Francisco, and we are working our tails off to do it," he said.
Marc Ellen Hamel, a painter with a studio at the shipyard since 1991, said she's confident the city and Lennar will work to give the artists' colony an even better set-up than they have now.
"We've been here, and we're going to stay. There isn't a doubt in my mind," she said, pointing out the window at the bulldozers moving earth on a nearby hill as part of Lennar's home construction. "Because look, it's already happening."
The Hunters Point Shipyard Artists will hold their annual Spring Open Studios from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Sunday at the shipyard. For maps, directions and more information visit www.springopenstudio.com.
Proposition G would authorize Lennar Corp. to build 10,000 new homes, parks, industrial and commercial space, a 49ers stadium, a new public housing development and revamped artists' studios on the 721 acres making up the Hunters Pont Shipyard and Candlestick Point.
Proposition F would require that half the new homes built by Lennar be affordable to people earning 30 to 80 percent of the city's median income, or $64,267 for a family of four.
For more information on both propositions, visit www.sfgov.org/site/elections and click on "voter information pamphlet."
E-mail Heather Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle