Staff Reporter

When Gretchen Spence moved into her 1,200-square-foot warehouse space in the Brewery Arts Complex in Lincoln Heights three years ago, a banner on the roof of one of the buildings advertised available space.

The banner is long gone, and now there is a waiting list of around 90 people for a loft. Meanwhile, Spence has seen her own rent climb from $800 to $940 a month a tight squeeze for a struggling artist.

Los Angeles either has too many artists, or not enough empty old warehouses.

A strong economy has led to a resurgent art market, and that means more artists flock here every year. They often choose to live in converted warehouses, which allow them to live and work in low-cost lofts with wide-open spaces.

But after a spate of conversions in the '80s, developers have basically stopped building new lofts. The result is that rents are rising fast in L.A.'s designated arts districts, and there simply isn't enough space to accommodate the demand.

"There are between 2,000 and 2,500 artists living in (industrial-zoned) artists-in-residence spaces east of downtown," said Don Spivack, deputy administrator with the Community Redevelopment Agency. "As soon as something becomes available, it is taken. There's no need to advertise because everything is done by word of mouth. As a result, we have seen prices go up steadily over the years."

Artists are the only people who can legally live in parts of the city zoned for industrial uses; all they need is a permit designating them as "creative" professionals who need live/work spaces. Areas where such artist lofts are allowed include the Brewery Art Complex in Lincoln Heights, the Santa Fe Arts Colony at Santa Fe Avenue and 24th Street, and the Artists District east of Alameda Street.

The Brewery, just east of the Los Angeles River, has for years produced a steady supply of affordable live-and-work spaces for artists by converting industrial structures, but the owners say they cannot afford to continue conversions because of stringent city regulations.

Tucked away among the railroad yards, a UPS facility and the San Antonio Winery, the Brewery has been a haven for local artists since the mid-'80s, when Carlson Industries LLC began converting the former Pabst Brewery into artist spaces. The sprawling, 20-acre complex, which also includes a former Southern California Edison power plant building, now houses 300 units for artists as well as numerous commercial spaces, including a restaurant.

"It's more than just a place to work or to live," said longtime resident Catherine Cummings, who is involved in video and photography. "It is the people and the community that makes this a unique place to be an artist."

Cummings pays $1,600 a month for a 2,800-square-foot converted workshop, with exposed-brick walls, a 25-foot ceiling, 18-foot factory windows and a roll-up, industrial-sized garage door.

Richard Carlson, co-owner of the Brewery, acknowledges that rents have gone up in recent years, but he maintains that they are still lower than in the early '90s, before the recession. As for the current shortage of industrial lofts, Carlson blames the city for making it impossible to build affordable live/work spaces in the area.

"We have been adding 25 to 30 units a year since we started, by converting existing structures into artist-in-residence spaces," said Carlson. "Now that we have finished the existing structures, we started adding new buildings, but it is made prohibitively expensive because we come under a different code. We now have to deal with inspectors who normally deal with high-rise structures, who know nothing about artist-in-residence spaces."

Carlson recently leased 10 new units before they were even finished in February.

The current shortage of live/work space is the result of developers taking a wait-and-see approach after a flurry of activity in the '80s, according to Joel Bloom, president of the Los Angeles River Artists and Business Organization, which represents artists that live in Artists District, east of downtown.

"With the exception of the Brewery, nothing has been converted in the last eight years," said Bloom. "In the interim, the area has been cleaned up, and there has been a new influx of artists."

Despite the shortage of space and higher lease rates, Bloom does not see any developer taking the plunge at least for now.

"The new development that is taking place downtown is live/work spaces aimed at multimedia artists and other professionals," said Bloom, referring to, among others, Gilmore Associates' redevelopment of vacant office buildings in the financial district. He says artists are forced to look beyond downtown in areas as far south as Crenshaw.

Bloom says average leasing rates in the Artists District now run around 80 cents per square foot, up from 60 cents three years ago. That is still considerably lower than the $2 per square foot that they will pay for similar spaces in Westside communities like Venice.

But not all local artists are lining up for a loft at the Brewery.

"It's like living in a mini-mall," said photographer Gary Leonard. "I think that the more pioneering artists are moving to less well-established places and communities. Echo Park is an area where a lot is happening currently, and I expect that the area around the new motion-picture studio that's being built west of the Harbor Freeway could become interesting."

Another local artist, Peter Shire, took the initiative of purchasing commercial space on Echo Park Avenue, which he renovated into six units for artists.

"I wish I was in that business, rather than in painting," said Shire. "It's not quite like printing money, but there seems to be a huge demand for these kinds of spaces. It seems like everybody is looking right now."

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