By Rachel Swan and Sarah Ravani San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Could the budding cannabis industry push out the artists in Oakland? In the past year, the city has issued permits to 87 cannabis operations, many of which are willing to pay a premium for rent.
San Francisco Chronicle
Nearly three years after the Ghost Ship fire, the scruffy, low-rent art spaces that helped give Oakland its edge are disappearing.
Building inspectors shut some of them down after the blaze that engulfed the Fruitvale warehouse in December 2016, killing 36 people and prompting the trial of two men who now await a jury's decision on whether they were criminally negligent.
But other artist colonies have succumbed to a new, more persistent threat: marijuana.
In the past year, the city has issued permits to 87 cannabis operations, including greenhouses, farms, laboratories, dispensaries and delivery services -- many of which are willing to pay a premium for rent.
And more could come: Since May 2017, 124 businesses applied for permits to run indoor cultivation facilities. Though Oakland won't make their addresses public, city officials say that most are vying for old manufacturing sites and abandoned warehouses.
Oakland's "green zone" -- the areas where cannabis businesses can legally operate -- encompasses much of the industrial hinterland in East and West Oakland, where artists sought cheap space to work and live.
The shift worries some artists, who say that a city long steeped in bohemian subcultures is now pinning its hopes on an industry that might not pan out. Even cannabis growers say they've noticed a visible change in the landscape.
"You used to see the Burning Man-type people walking down to the Fruitvale BART Station," said Alexis Bronson, a small-time cannabis grower who works out of a large dispensary.
"There is a lot less of that now," he continued. "It seems like every warehouse is a pot grow, and now it's even worse because the big real estate investors, they came in and bought up these whole swaths of buildings."
Nowhere is the tension more apparent than the Nimby warehouse in East Oakland, where artist-tenants are packing up their saws, sculptures and glass-blowing equipment. They have two months to leave before rent on the property jumps significantly, said Michael Snook, the group's founder and leaseholder.
Landlord Murray Hill Partners is making electrical upgrades to accommodate a "broad range" of potential tenants, including those from the cannabis industry, said Steven Wolmark, a principal at the firm.
When Nimby sculptor and volunteer security guard Clody Cates saw the building's new meters and wiring, she winced.
"Oakland decided to turn its artistic zone into a green zone, and we just don't know where to go next," she said. Nimby already shares its property with a cannabis grow house. Another one sits next door, abutting a refrigeration firm.
City officials have tried to fend off displacement, passing an ordinance last year to bar cannabis businesses from operating in places previously used as homes. It came after a marijuana-focused real estate company bought the Oakland Cannery, a big brick artists hub inside a former fruit processing plant on San Leandro Street. The landlord, Green Sage, threatened to push out the artists, but the city protected them.
"We want to protect the breadth of live-work communities in Oakland, because they hold so much of our creative, artistic and small business communities," said Kelley Kahn, the city's policy director of art spaces. The mayor established herself as a guardian of the city's art and maker colonies from the moment she took office, occasionally riding around Lake Merritt in an art car that resembles a fire-breathing snail. Like other officials, she has also embraced cannabis as a source of jobs and badly needed tax revenue.
Some skeptics say Oakland's ordinance may do little to shield its creative class from new economic pressures. The law doesn't apply to nonresidential work studios like Nimby. And it might not help scores of live-work spaces operating without permits that have held on despite the city's push to find them and bring the buildings up to code. Nearly 100 such dwellings still exist in Oakland, said David Keenan, founder of Safer DIY Spaces, a nonprofit that helps residents of these buildings bring them up to code. But because the city doesn't have a way of tracking them, the residents could easily be displaced by marijuana entrepreneurs with deeper pockets.
That's what happened at 2650 Magnolia St., a squat brick structure near McClymonds High School in West Oakland. It's subdivided into nine units that the landlord traditionally rented to artists or other creative types who live on the margins. As the inhabitants move out, they're being replaced by cannabis growers, said Kimball Stone, one of the last remaining residents. His unit, which costs him about $2,800 a month and he shares with a friend, has two bedrooms, a bathroom with laundry, a kitchen and a living room with space for Stone's "garage hobbies."
"Where are you going to find a place where you can have motorcycles and bicycles and two big dogs? Parking for a big truck?" Stone said, pointing to piles of tools near the motorcycles stowed several feet from his couch. "I don't know where we can find that. The rental market has gone insane. I have been on Craigslist constantly for months looking for places to live, and we can start to afford at Petaluma or Vallejo."
Neighbors frequently complain that 2650 Magnolia has become a magnet for crime. Jon Sarriugarte, a blacksmith who lives across the street and built Schaaf's fire-breathing snail, fears that the building will become another Ghost Ship.
Even before Oakland's green rush, growing anxiety about building safety made it difficult to sustain spaces operating without permits. In the immediate aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire, city officials reviewed a backlog of complaints and found 32 commercial buildings or warehouses where people were living or working illegally. Eight were ultimately cleared of violations, three were issued permits, one building was red-tagged, and the other cases remain unresolved. Some owners chose to evict their tenants instead of fixing problems, even if they hadn't received a notice of violation from the city, Keenan said.
Displaced artists often have nowhere to go. Vacant buildings that once housed canneries or steel mills now command $1.20 per square foot, a steep rise from previous years. In 2017 alone, industrial rents soared by 70%, according to the city.
One of the last remaining work studios, a building in the Fruitvale neighborhood called Moxy, burned down Friday.
Some of the demand comes from e-commerce companies that want to open distribution centers near the port and the Bay Bridge. But cannabis tenants are also vying for property and paying rents of $2 to $5 per square foot -- a price that landlords set to cover the extra risk, because these companies can't secure bank loans and some landlords fear the possibility of federal raids.
Outdoor lots that used to be dirt cheap are now valuable, Snook said, because marijuana growers use them for greenhouses.
Cannabis fever swept through Oakland as soon as commercial sales became legal in 2018: A stretch of warehouses along San Leandro Street between High Street and 66th Avenue earned the nickname "Green Row," because developers converted so many of them into cannabis incubators and nurseries.
As the warehouse scene dries up, some artists are fleeing to rural areas. Snook, the founder of Nimby, moved his collection of off-road vehicles to Doyle, a small Northern California town where social events include lizard racing and chicken bingo. He recently bought a shuttered cafe. Other artists are clearing their tools from shipping containers that served as studios, some decked with shelves and French doors. One tenant, leather crafter Rex Goulet, may wind up working out of his car or the living room in his San Leandro apartment.