A mass exodus is underway at an old warehouse in southeast Portland. And the only way out of the Towne Storage building is one terrifyingly elderly elevator. Joni Kabana shows visitors how to work the thing.

Artists and other creatives are losing affordable commercial space at a Central Eastside warehouse.

“You have to open up the big panel, and shut both [inner] panels, or the elevator won’t run. Many times you hear people downstairs yelling “Shut the door!”

Kabana is a photographer. A lot of her work is overseas, but for ten years she’s grounded her domestic operations out of a studio space in this building, Towne Storage.

Kabana shakes her head as she considers moving all her equipment and inventory of prints out, on this lift. She’s one of about a hundred tenants — including musicians, printers, woodworkers, filmmakers, a creative agency and others — looking for new space.

Towne Storage’s managers have informed them they need to be out by November; the building is being sold.

This location has occupied a special place in the Central Eastside arts scene. It’s not in great shape, and it’s certainly not up to seismic standards. But its exposed brick and vintage wood beams are exactly what you’d picture for an artist’s studio.

“I would bring in executives, corporate projects were shot in here,” Kabana says. “They loved  what they saw in here.”

The creative ambiance at Towne Storage has also been affordable, at about a dollar per square foot. Kabana says she had several offers from other landlords for rent breaks if she’d move. But she said no every time.

“There were a couple of times I thought I’d move to in New York City,” she says, but it turned out to be cheaper to stay at Towne Storage, and fly out when she needed to.

Lots of mysteries surround the sale of the building.

The owners, George Bean and Nancy Frisch, declined to answer questions about who they’re selling to or why. Since the sale hasn’t closed yet, there’s no paper trail. Some tenants have heard it’s a real estate company in California.  

But it’s not hard to understand demand. Even at five stories, the building delivers great views of Mount Hood in one direction, and ever-changing downtown Portland in the other.

It’s also right on the edge of one of the biggest civic projects in Portland. The Burnside Bridgehead project, under the steering hand of the Portland Development Commission, is adding hundreds of offices, apartment units and condos on the surrounding blocks.

Jonathan Malsin is a principal at Beam Development, a firm that’s responsible for several successful commercial buildings in the neighborhood — as well as creatively-minded projects like the Milepost 5  studios for artists. BEAM has nothing to do with Towne Storage, but it’s the lead developer at the Burnside Bridgehead.

“What we’ve seen throughout the Central Eastside is a tremendous demand for creative office space,” Malsin says. “Whether it’s a digital media agency or a software development company, companies that like the grittiness of the Central Eastside.”

It seems likely the new tenants at Towne Storage will still be “makers.” But they’ll be makers working a higher price point.

A number of the tenants we talked to at Towne Storage saw this move coming, and are already exploring other spaces.

David Abel sells rare books and art books at Passages, his quiet, airy studio  on the fifth floor. He’s also a poet. Abel’s got some leads on new locations, but they will cost more. To make the transition, he thinks he’s going to have to change his business, courting more walk-in retail visits.

Abel is philosophical about what’s happening at Towne Storage. He used to have a shop in New York’s East Village, and has seen gentrification before. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.  

“The feeling I’ve got, which is really sad to me, is that the reputation that Portland has for thoughtfulness and planning, is really just skin deep,” he says, of the last few years of Portland’s growth. “Neighborhood input, neighborhood character, any concern for interests other than the developers does not seem to be very much in evidence.”

A number of tenants we spoke with are selling or giving away stock and supplies, to make the move-out easier. And they’re hoping that ancient elevator holds out a few more months.