Two-in-one strategy to support the arts and breathe new life into the old
In 2012, San Francisco arts organization CounterPulse had three years left on its lease when Twitter moved around the corner. A mainstay of experimental arts in the city since 1991, CounterPulse knew it was facing a massive rent spike, so seven years into a ten-year lease, it began looking for a new home.
As it happened, a few blocks away was a former adult theater in the Tenderloin neighborhood, which had been largely vacant since the late 1990s. CounterPulse moved in in 2013, a transition made possible by a program pilot who bought dilapidated properties in the Bay Area, renovated them and connected them with arts and cultural organizations facing displacement.
Named CAST, for Community Arts Stabilization Trust, the program was started by the nonprofit Community Vision and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which donated $5 million in seed capital. CAST purchased the Tenderloin building for $1.3 million in 2012, giving CounterPulse an affordable 10-year lease and the option to purchase the property at the end of it. (CounterPulse’s starting rent was just under $4,900; it’s now $5,600.) After a dazzling renovation in 2016, CounterPulse is now set to purchase the building from CAST. A milestone for the organization, it also offers a replicable model that can foster arts and culture in cities, while pulling old buildings from the abyss.
“When we moved to [our previous location in] SoMa (South Market District) was just abandoned donut shops and holes in the ground,” says Julie Phelps, art director of CounterPulse. Soon, however, the influx of tech money drove up rents and the entire city became mired in gentrification. “We didn’t expect to be able to renew our lease, not to mention that we were packed,” she says.
San Francisco consistently ranks among the most expensive cities in the world to live and work in, making it especially difficult for arts organizations to stay afloat in the face of rising real estate prices. “There has always been a hunt for space for community arts organizations,” says Joshua Simon, senior adviser at CAST, noting that the goal of the program is to find a way to lock in the value of a building and give cultural organizations the chance to catch up. , thus creating “an engine to root arts and culture in communities”.
In 2015, federal funding from the New Markets Tax Credit helped CounterPulse fund a renovation. He hired local architectural firm Jensen Architects, which preserved the building’s iconic pink facade and transformed the dilapidated 10,000-square-foot building into an ADA-accessible venue with state-of-the-art performance spaces, rehearsal studios , offices and an apartment. for guest artists.
As a nod to the building’s relationship to the arts, the underside of the cascading theater seats was left visible from the lobby, where it forms a striking red ceiling reminiscent of a red carpet. “Even after gutting the interior, the building retained the qualities of its theatrical past,” says Frank Merritt, director of Jensen Architects.
In a way, the transformation of the building is part of that of the district, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by 29% over the last year alone. Phelps says when CounterPulse first moved in in 2013, the entire block across the street was boarded up. Today, a 12-story hotel and residential building with a panoramic facade occupies the majority of the block. “It’s really clear that we would never be able to buy this building now,” Phelps said.
CAST exists to support the arts, but by taking advantage of old buildings, the program can also be seen as a particularly effective urban redevelopment tool. In 2015, CAST acquired the historic three-story Walker Building on Market Street, allowing the luggage store gallery – a staple of the San Francisco art scene since the 1980s – to stay indoors and renovate if needed.
In 2020, CAST partnered with the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to rehabilitate the 1901 Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse. Once San Francisco’s first electric railroad, the building now houses an education workshop at nonprofit Performing Arts, which can stay at the Powerhouse on a 55-year lease below market rate.
And now, CAST is transforming the historic Dempster Building in the SoMa district into a 10,000 square foot arts and performance space. (The building was donated to CAST by real estate company Brookfield Properties and sits on a 4-acre mixed-use development.)
All CAST properties have a deed restriction that ensures the building can only be sold to another non-profit arts or cultural organization. If CounterPulse outgrows its home in the Tenderloin, or the building no longer functions for its needs, the organization can sell it to another nonprofit or resell it to CAST, forever securing the space for arts and giving the building another lease on life.