While retailing art has always presented a challenge, many of the workshops where sculpture, paintings, prints, and photography are created now seem to have a precarious existence. The owners of some buildings that house studios have started selling these newly valuable properties to industrial developers. The S & M Tire Warehouse, for instance, was sold to Hillcrest Development last year, leaving the 40-odd artists who rent space in the building uncertain about the future there. Several artists seem convinced that Hillcrest--which is currently working on four development projects of a few buildings each--plans to renovate the space for light-industrial use. It's a suspicion that is shared by others with business in the neighborhood.
"I'm sure Hillcrest is putting $10 million in the old Phillips bottling plant," says Ted Risk, a real estate broker in Northeast who specializes in commercial properties. (The Phillips building is a warehouse located in a complex next to the S & M building.) "I don't want to speak for Hillcrest, but I'm sure they'd like to rehabilitate S & M and make a nice upscale building. That's how these developers make money."
According to artists, as soon as Hillcrest bought the S & M building, rents there were raised from about $2.50 per square foot to the current rate of $6.50. And rents are rumored to be climbing as high as $11 per square foot at the Phillips building--a figure Hillcrest owner Scott Tankenoff will neither confirm nor deny.
"This is frustrating to me," says Tankenoff, who bristles at suggestions that he plans to develop the S & M Warehouse to the exclusion of artist tenants. "We have many leases in the S & M that go on beyond this year--a couple of years even. This [the artists' fears] doesn't seem reasonable."
Tankenoff points to rising rents within the context of improvements that have been made to Hillcrest properties. "We've spent money upgrading a failing heating system [at the S & M]. We put a new boiler in, and a new elevator to meet city code for providing access...Other buildings go at different prices because of different levels of improvements. We decided to take a different approach with the S & M. We have sacrificed raising rents to have a full building, and we need a full building to carry the cost of the building."
Currently, the artists and gallery owners who remain in Northeast Minneapolis are anxiously waiting to see what happens to their spaces. "I don't think we can stop the rising rents," says Padilla, who claims that most artists in Northeast now have a bunker mentality. "It's a capitalist machine out there. People are just trying to survive. The scene is not flourishing; it's just surviving."
But while the campaign continues outside the artists' bunkers, in recent weeks some quiet battles have been won by the arts community. For instance, artists in the Tyler Building survived an attempt by the Park Board to raze their entire block, located just off Central Avenue in the heart of Northeast Minneapolis. The plan, if it had passed, would have permanently displaced the 50 or so artists who live and work in the Tyler Building for a proposed aquatic and fitness center.
"Why are city politicians willing to put out money for a fitness center?" asks David Monson, an artist at the Tyler Building who has organized his peers and petitioned local officials. "Artists need to stay in touch with politicians and show how big the voter base is. Then things like this won't happen."
According to Julia Berman, a member of the Northeast Minneapolis Community Center Task Force, artists' issues are beginning to be heard. "The Park Board is reviewing their plan because of artists' concerns... Dislocation [of the artists in the Tyler Building] doesn't make sense if this is not the right place."
In the same spirit, many artists have been lobbying for a revision of the zoning code currently being undertaken by the Minneapolis Planning Department. These artists believe that a relaxation of the rules governing the zoning of industrial and commercial space in Northeast Minneapolis will give them some protection against owners bent on removing them, or from authorities looking for zoning violations.
"We are aware of the issue," said Blake Graham, who is supervising the creation of the new code at the Planning Department. According to Graham, there will be some flexibility in the emerging zoning code to accommodate artists who want to live and work in the commercial or light-industrial spaces of Northeast. Under the plan, artists will be allowed to live in districts zoned for commercial use, and, through the use of overlay--or mixed use--districts, artists will be allowed to occupy and create art in selected industrial zones. "We've made it easier for artists," Graham says.
Local politicians, too, are beginning to take note of their artist constituents. "The time is now," said Paul Ostro, Northeast's representative on the Minneapolis City Council, who recently met with several area artists to discuss possible solutions to their problems--including organizing artists to purchase their own spaces with city help, as occurred several years ago in Lowertown St. Paul. "We have to do something, or we are going to lose our artists in Northeast. And that would be a real shame."