The Leviathan improv crew at the new Siren Theater.

The Leviathan improv crew at the new Siren Theater.

Arthur Hitchcock

Shelley McLendon struggled for years to find affordable theaters to stage her sellout adaptations of movies like “Road House” and “The Lost Boys,” as well as sketch and improv comedy shows.  

“It wasn’t just affecting me — it was affecting everybody else,” McLendon told State of Wonder during an episode she guest curated. “So you had all these companies, from comedy to straight-up drama to dance to poetry, looking for places to put up a show — places that were not only available but affordable. We were all in competition.”

McLendon decided to go in search of her own space. After two years of hunting for the right building, she opened the city’s first new theater in some time, the Siren Theater.

McLendon’s story is a bright light in an otherwise darkening theater landscape. The list of theater and dance companies that have been displaced, have lost their homes and have struggled to find new ones as a result of Portland’s booming real estate market continues to grow at an alarming rate, starting with the companies sent scrambling after the close of Theater! Theatre! in 2013 and most recently seen in the displacement of three of the city’s dance companies — Northwest Dance Project, Conduit Dance and Polaris Dance Theater.

Extended news story from State of Wonder:

Some of the displaced nonprofits got booted by landlords who wanted to redevelop, up the rent or tear down the buildings. Others fell victim to new ownership, like Shaking the Tree. Its benevolent Stark Street landlord died, and his children sold the building.

“Pretty much every day I would look at a new space, all over town,” founding artistic director Samantha Van Der Merwe said. “That was disheartening because pretty much everything that was on there was out of my price range.”

After six months of nonstop searching, she finally found a raw warehouse in Southeast Portland’s light industrial district, just north of Division. Without insulation, it’s cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer, and with only one restroom and not the right exits, she can’t have more than 49 people in it at one time.

“So the question is: do I keep it as it is and make rough theater for adventurous audiences,” she said. “Or if I start to talk about a capital campaign and investing my own money, am I making this space more desirable for people who can afford to pay more than me?”

Shaking the Tree has converted a raw, uninsulated warehouse into a black box theater, staging award-winning shows — even if audience members might occasionally have to keep their coats on.

Shaking the Tree has converted a raw, uninsulated warehouse into a black box theater, staging award-winning shows — even if audience members might occasionally have to keep their coats on.

Courtesy Samantha Van Der Merwe

Other displaced nonprofits have also found makeshift homes in the industrial Eastside. Third Rail Repertory recently shacked up with Imago Theatre off Burnside, staging shows between Imago’s. And Conduit Dance, which was a downtown anchor for 20 years before getting that fateful eviction letter, has moved into a former ballroom dance studio for the short term. But even though it’s cheaper than downtown, rents in the area have still doubled over the last four years, putting nonprofits at a disadvantage against the digital agencies, restaurants, breweries and cannabis businesses they find themselves competing with.

“There’s just no way that these hundreds of small- to medium- sized arts organizations can have their rent increase by double when they try to renew their leases or go in for an initial lease,” said MaryKay West, a real estate agent who specializes in helping nonprofits. “So one of my fears is that we are going to find arts organizations completely priced out of the central city and pushed out to the suburbs. And I don’t think that’s a good thing for Portland, I really don’t.”

West said that performance-based nonprofits have unusual needs: big, column-free rehearsal and performance space with smaller rooms for offices, dressing rooms, backstage work, and storage. And big open spaces generally mean one thing: warehouses.

“Those buildings are often difficult to make work because of two things,” West said. “One is zoning. They are zoned industrial,” which means the occupant has to make something physical, although smaller organizations can squeak in under a retail exemption for spaces under 3,000 square feet.

The other factor is occupancy, or the maximum number of people allowed in a building. In order to have 50 or more people — that is, anything but a small audience — a building needs assembly occupancy, which is rare in industrial buildings. As Van Der Merwe, Conduit Dance, and others are learning, converting a space generally requires installing multiple exits, insulation, heating, seismic upgrades, and other costly improvements to make the building safe.

“Because it’s specific to arts organization’s needs,” West said, “landlords are typically not going to go, ‘sure, I’d be willing to pay for the cost of sprinkling my building and seismically upgrading it,’ just to have a terrific arts organization in there who is likely paying at the low end of market rents. So economically, it just doesn’t pencil out.”

A lack of performance space is far from a new problem. In the 1980s, the city created the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, now called Portland 5, and built the Newmark and the Winningstad theaters to accommodate larger performances. The theaters now run at capacity and are are often cited as being too expensive and overscheduled by smaller groups. Then a 2010 study by the Regional Arts and Culture Council found that the lack of theater stock continues to limit the development of mid-sized organizations and that the city is in need of flexible, high-tech spaces. Initially there was hope the arts tax could fund new venues, but conversations fell by the wayside when it failed to generate enough funds.

In the absence of new public spaces, developers have spearheaded the creation of several arts-focused projects like Mile Post 5, Revolution Hall, and the DeSoto building.

“If you look at the time, complexity and amount of equity, it’s an enormous amount of work,” said Jim Winkler, who developed the DeSoto, pointing to the complicated historic and new market tax credits he had to use to make the building affordable to the art galleries that bought spaces. “And I think if you find people who are mission oriented, you can get it done. But you need the right location the right building.”  

The question is: are the right buildings disappearing?

Winkler tried to do a larger-scale project at the Custom house, but he was outbid. It’s one in a string of private attempts to create a new arts center that just haven’t proved tenable.

“Portland needs to really restart the conversation about developing a collaborative arts center,” said West, echoing a sentiment shared by many local arts leaders. “They exist in other major cities around the country, they can be very successful. But in my view, unless we try to do something like that in Portland within the next one to two years, because of the economic forces, we will lose that opportunity and it will not come back around.”
Different spaces have been suggested over the years, including the Memorial Coliseum and now the Portland Post Office.

Commissioner Nick Fish takes it a step further. He said the city may have made a mistake when the Creative Advocacy Network disbanded. That was the group of arts, government, philanthropic, and business leaders that developed what became the arts tax. Commissioner Fish said a similar group needs to create a blueprint for how we can preserve the city’s nonprofit arts ecosystem, and then we need a leadership that will act on it.

“I think we have to expand our view of what economic development looks like,” said Fish, “and think of using our existing toolkits differently: general support, tax breaks, incentives, cutting red tape, the kinds of things we do for businesses routinely because we want them to come here to stay. I feel the same sense of urgency about having nonprofit arts organizations stay and grow.”

In the current election, affordable arts space has been overshadowed by affordable housing for artists and everyone else. But for advocates, both are part of the same question: what are we willing to do to protect and foster the creative pursuits that make Portland so wonderful to begin with?