Portland city commissioners received a formal report this week about the plan to preserve the city’s creative space.
In February 2018, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish drew up a list of two dozen ideas for easing the real estate pressures on artists and arts groups. Their concern is that Portland loses its essential character if the city’s musicians, performers, designers and other creative professionals can’t afford the cost of living.
This week, staff from Fish’s and Eudaly’s offices delivered a report to Council outlining what got done.
The city and the nonprofit that manages arts funding, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, made a few key administrative changes: A new position has been created to oversee RACC’s contract with the city, new leadership is at the helm at RACC, and the city auditor’s office issued a follow-up last month finding that oversight of RACC has improved since a critical report issued in 2018.
Staff acknowledged that many of the initial 24 recommendations didn’t pan out.
However, the presentation noted some advancements made in the city Parks Bureau, including acoustic improvements underway at some facilities suitable as performance venues, cultural mapping, the Percent for Art program on city construction projects and other areas.
City staffers say, overall, they’re trying to take a strategic approach, but they acknowledge there’s still a great deal of pressure on artists and arts groups to come up with rents and mortgage payments.
Across town in Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood, meanwhile, the Pegasus Project offers a real-time object lesson in arts affordability.
The owners of the small, two-story building at the corner of Southeast 76th Avenue and Stark Street is developer Randy Rapaport, an effusive presence in arts circles who’s worked on southeast Portland projects such as the Belmont Lofts and Clinton Condominiums. As first reported in Willamette Week, Rapaport tried to turn the old auto body shop into a live/work space for artists, but he said neighborhood complaints and city regulations have hampered those efforts, culminating in some $13,000 in fines from the Bureau of Development Services. BDS asked Rapaport to add a fire wall. The two sides are also in dispute over the zoning of the building, unpermitted murals and other matters.
“An auto body shop could use the space,” Rapaport told OPB en route to Bogota, where he plans to open an upscale cocktail bar, “but someone painting a picture couldn’t. It was the ultimate tax for the privilege of doing something that was beneficial to these artists and to the culture.”
Rapaport, who acquired the property in 2017, sold the building in June, saying repairs to bring the building in compliance with city code would not pencil out, given that it will ultimately be torn down. But the situation makes a murky future for the four residents plus and a dozen or so other artists with studios in the space.
On the surface, Pegasus might appear to be the poster child of the city’s problems with creative gentrification. But the longer you talk to its residents, the nuances of the situation become apparent.
Rapaport’s issues with the city stretch back two years, predating the creative space plan.
A number of people who live and work in the building say they’re not without options.
Justin Fetko owns the four-person custom decal shop Sticker Ninja at Pegasus. He said a consult with a realtor led him to a new spot lined up in the Goat Blocks off Southeast Belmont. Interestingly, he now has his own set of issues with construction and occupancy permitting. Fetko said he’s about nine months behind from when he thought he’d move in because of delays getting the necessary city inspections, but it’s happening.
One of the artists at Pegasus, Parker Wright, seems anything but worried about the future. Wright, who’s about 6-foot-4 in his cowboy boots and leopard-print jeans, greeted me with a huge, blissed-out smile. He’s been restoring old motor scooters as works of art, along with myriad other projects. If the Pegasus crew is turned out at the end of Rapport’s lease-back, Wright said, “We’re thinking about buying a circus tent and then installing it in various locations … like a festival that moves around Portland!”
Joshua Wallace, the art director at Pegasus, is also optimistic something’s going to work out. The graffiti artist is promising community classes in August and said he’s had conversations with the building’s new owner to see if there is any chance to keep artists in the building.
Wallace had a look at the city’s creative space plan and pronounced it “very confusing.”
“Didn’t seem like it had any real outline to direct” rescue efforts for threatened spaces, Wallace said.
The liens placed on Pegasus by the Bureau of Development Services — somewhere in the low six figures —will have to be reckoned with. The new owner will be responsible for paying the city.
If Pegasus is a bellwether for affordable options for artists, one might reasonably conclude that below-market space for artists can happen, but not without cost, and not without conforming to city safety codes.