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Don't Destroy Our Community, Airport Tenants Urge Commission

By Jorge Casuso

They had taken a smattering of corrugated steel buildings where pigeons roosted and turned it into a complex of offices and artists studios south of the Santa Monica Airport runway.

On Monday night, fearing they will be forced out of the community they helped to forge, more than two dozen airport tenants successfully urged that the Airport Commission put the breaks on a plan to increase rents on non-aviation spaces.

"It's a very special place," artist Joan Vaupen told the commission. "Raising rents would drive us out."

"We feel that it's a good mix and we want to keep that mix," said businessman John Clarizio, who has rented his space for 10 years. "Things are going well for what we have. What we're requesting is that we stay part of it."

The tenants of nine buildings on the south side of the airport - many of them artists -- could see rents double by 2002 and face the prospect of competing with dot.com and entertainment businesses for spaces some had rehabbed and rented for years.

After listening to testimony, much of it heartfelt, airport commissioners decided to reconsider the new leasing rates, which City officials contend must be put in place in order to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant requirements that the airport be self-sufficient.

"I'm at the moment skeptical about the FAA specter," said Commissioner Jean Gebman. "They've got a lot of work on their hands that's undone. I wouldn't be surprised to see the next 14 years go by without much heat.

"What we're talking about here this evening is a lot of people's work," Gebman said. "I think it's important that we arrive at a solution. We need to have a little more sensitivity for the people going home tonight with a high level of anxiety."

Instead of approving the new leasing rates - which would step up rents over the next year and a half to 90 percent of market rates - the commission voted unanimously to form a task force to explore ways to retain the current tenants. The task force will meet with an Arts Commission task force that is exploring ways to stem an exodus of artists who have lost half of the city's 156 live and work studios.

"The airport has been a place where artists created for a long time," said former Arts Commissioner Bruria Finkel, a driving force in Santa Monica's arts scene. "The airport has always allowed and had artists in its mix. The situation is grave. Artists who make a living don't need to be there. Artists who struggle and need affordable spaces must be there."

"Macro economic trends are about to make artists an endangered species in Santa Monica. It's nothing short of that," said Arts Commissioner Greg Spotts, who is a member of the arts task force. "The airport is really the final frontier where we can preserve and enhance artists' presence in Santa Monica."

Several of the speakers were artists who fear being driven out of some of the few affordable spaces left in the city.

"I've made my entire living since graduating making and selling art," said Rachel Lechowicz, an artists who rents a space at 2900 Airport Avenue. "I won't be able to afford the rent increase."

"They doubled my rent and completely destroyed an artists community," said Feilden Harper, who was a tenant at the Drescherville arts community, which was decimated after rents were doubled on more than two dozen live/work studios. "We are an art producing community and this is something we need to value. I urge you to treasure it and treasure us."

Not all of the tenants are artists. Many are small business owners who have pumped thousands of dollars to turn the raw spaces with few amenities into the headquarters of their budding businesses.

Bob Olodort said he spent $20,000 converting a "corrugated steel open warehouse where you could see the sky through the roof" into a home for his business. Larry Acord said he pumped $172,000 into the space he has leased for 22 years.

"There's a pride that we take in our buildings," Acord said. "All the money we put into our buildings, it seems we're being penalized with the appraisals for all the improvements."

An appraisal last year showed that a majority of non-aviation lease rates were well below market value, ranging from 47 cents a square foot to $1.47. The plan proposed by City staff calls for the rates to increase to 70 percent of a July 1999 appraisal market rate by Jan. 1, 2001 (hiking rents up to between 84 cents and $1.40 a square foot).

An increase to 80 percent of market rate will kick in on July 1, 2001 (to between 96 cents and $1.56) and a final increase of 90 percent on Jan 1, 2002 (to between $1.08 and $1.80). Along with the higher rents, renters would be offered three-year, instead of month-to-month, leases.

But some Airport Commissioners said that the new leasing policy - which staff says will bring the airport more in line with leasing policies in the rest of the city - sounds too mechanical.

"What bothers me is that it feels so very mechanical and what we're talking about here is the fabric of a community," said Gebman, a rocket engineer with RAND whose wife, along with an ancestor, is an artist. "I can't help but think if we were talking about apartment buildings we wouldn't be here."

Commissioners, as well as tenants, questioned how the market rates were determined, noting that many of the buildings were unique and in poor condition.

"The numbers have been presented in a scientific way when I'm not sure it's necessarily a science," said commission chair David Kaplan. "I'm not sure that we're that accurate."

"The south side of the airport is a glorified slum," said Finkel. "What they did to their businesses is put their hard-earned funds there. Many have no water, bathrooms, adequate electricity or mail."

The tenants came to City Hall Monday night armed with a list of proposals that included comparing the rents to those of spaces with similar conditions and stepping up the increases in smaller increments. The tenants also urged the commission to provide five-year, instead of three-year, leases and to give tenants two options to renew their leases. Existing tenants would be given first right of refusal.

"What we do is our life," said architect Tricia Owen. "It's not something we do for three years."

City staff members said they were open to looking at different leasing structures. "Is there something special or magical about three years?" said Mark Richter, who works for the city's economic development division. "Absolutely not."

But Richter also said that tenants shouldn't feel they have "an absolute right in perpetuity" to lease the spaces.

"What we're trying to achieve is a balanced approach to conflicting and competing interests," Richter said. "Existing rents, although quite variable, are substantially below current market rents."

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