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Thursday, Jun 1, 2023

City Long Framed as Artist Enclave

Bruce Blair looked all around Los Angeles for a spot to open a fiber arts gallery. Culver City was too expensive. Downtown Los Angeles was too dicey. Inglewood was just right – affordable and surrounded by artist studios.

“This place is ideal for what we want to do,” said Blair, who opened the Branch Gallery in a storefront adjacent to an industrial park in February. “I rediscovered how big Inglewood is as an arts mecca.”

Artists have flocked to Inglewood for decades, drawn by low rents at warehouse and commercial spaces and its proximity to the Westside. That scene has grown recently as rents in other artists’ enclaves have become prohibitively high. Industrial rents in Inglewood hover around $1 a square foot a month, compared with twice that or more in Culver City and downtown Los Angeles.

But changes are afoot that might put upward pressure on rents: A light-rail line passing through Inglewood on its way to Los Angeles International Airport is under construction, the Los Angeles Rams’ football stadium is set to open in 2019, and Hollywood Park is being redeveloped as a 238-acre housing and retail community.

That has some longtime arts residents worried.

“We don’t know what kind of impact there’ll be on the arts community,” said mixed-media artist Michael Massenburg, who has lived and worked in Inglewood since the early 1990s. “You have to have a balance of what works for the creative community, what works for commerce, and what works for the community at large.”

For now, said Dario Svidler, a broker at Partners Trust in Beverly Hills who owns several Inglewood properties, the city remains competitive on price.

“The biggest thing going for the city of Inglewood is that it’s still the cheapest rent for all of L.A.,” he said. “It’s insane how low the rents are. Artists can come here and find warehouse space from 50 cents to 75 cents a square foot. I’ve seen even lower.”

Many landlords have owned their properties for decades and are carrying little debt, so they can afford to hold prices down to avoid scaring off tenants. Also, industrial spaces in Inglewood are much smaller than in other lower-price areas of South Los Angeles. That means artists are not competing with manufacturers or distributors for space.

Mayor James Butts called the presence of so many artists a valuable part of the city, adding that the building boom about to hit Inglewood would not change that.

“I see us becoming even more attractive to arts people,” he said. “We’re quite proud of our artist population. We think it adds very much to the ambience and je ne sais quoi of the city.”

Art history

Inglewood began attracting artists to its downtown Market Street and other pockets of industrial and commercial space as early as the 1980s. The postwar industrial boom fueled by the aerospace industry had slumped, and the 1965 Watts Riots marked the death knell for many Inglewood businesses. Artists eventually snatched up buildings left vacant.

“You might need space to paint, or to construct something, or to weld,” said MonaLisa Whitaker, an artist who has lived in Inglewood for a decade and runs the Inglewood Cultural Arts nonprofit.

While there is no formal Inglewood arts district, most artists have gravitated to the city’s north side, largely on La Brea Avenue near Beach Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. The area is on the border with Ladera Heights and is about six miles from downtown Culver City and about 11 miles from the Santa Monica Pier.

The nearby intersection of Manchester Boulevard and Florence Avenue, close to the iconic Randy’s Donuts, is another hot spot, anchored by 1019 West gallery and Three Weavers brewery, right on the path of the upcoming Crenshaw-LAX light-rail line.

The art clusters began claiming attention in 2006, when local artists Renee Fox and Kenneth Ober co-founded Inglewood Open Studios, an annual program inviting visitors to tour artist workspaces. About 40 artists were featured last year, representing just a sample of Inglewood’s talent.

The expanding scene has led some landlords to try to cash in on the cachet of artist tenants. Landlord and art devotee Tony Kouba decided to repurpose two storage buildings to support the burgeoning creative community around 2009. The project includes 1019 West and the Beacon Arts Building, which offers studios ranging from 300 to 2,300 square feet at rates ranging from $1 to $2 a square foot. Co-developer Scott Lane said all 60 spots are taken by professional artists.

The success of those projects has spurred the owner of a retail site next to Beacon Arts to spend a year preparing to turn a former party supply store into a live-work space.

“We’re mostly going to pull from Culver City and downtown (Los Angeles), finding people paying above and beyond what they should be and bringing them into a city that’s developing and getting reasonable rents,” said Joe Clarke, a broker with Maxam Properties who is working on leasing the site.

The 4,445-square-foot building benefitted from an Inglewood ordinance passed two years ago that allows for live-work uses in six areas of the city – an ordinance that local artists fought for years to create.

The ordinance could open up opportunities for developers and artists, but it’s not yet clear if many landlords will make the investments needed to bring aging buildings up to code, such as installing fire sprinklers. Also uncertain is whether artists would cough up market-rate rents.

Designs on growth

It’s not just studio artists who are scouting for space in Inglewood. Onna Ehrlich and her husband, Joel Bell, gave up leases in Culver City and downtown Los Angeles to buy a 4,800-square-foot warehouse for $700,000 in a space zoned for light manufacturing. The property has been repurposed for offices, showrooms, and manufacturing space for Ehrlich’s eponymous handbag company and her spouse’s firm, Joel Bell Industrial Design.

“It’s one of those places where you can find inventory,” Ehrlich said of Inglewood, where she and Bell have a house. “It’s still affordable compared to Culver City, Venice, and Playa Vista.”

Owen Smith landed in Inglewood when he discovered a decades-old theater that had sat empty for years, much like other neighboring storefronts. Smith is in the process of buying the 8,000-square-foot venue for about $1 million and plans to convert it into a music hall for local artists.

The venue represents a new career path for Smith, a cinematographer who rents camera gear through his company Wandering Pictures.

“I recognize that Inglewood already has character, already has history, and has a great community,” he said. “I just see so much opportunity.”

The stadium waiting game has already begun in Inglewood, with some developers snatching up property around the site where the 2021 Super Bowl is scheduled to take place. But brokers call it all speculation.

“Nobody knows what the properties are going to be worth, because you can’t really compare anything,” said Clarke.

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