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Council Okays Low-Rent Plan for Artists at Airport

By Teresa Rochester

The movement to stem the tide of artists leaving the City amid skyrocketing rents scored a victory Tuesday night, when the City Council approved new leasing guidelines for space at the airport that will be used to create a low-rent "artists village."

The council also approved leasing guidelines for Bergamot Station and the heart of the Bayside District, including Third Street Promenade.

After an hour and a half of debate and compromise, the council voted 4 to 2 to drop by 20 cents a square foot the rent proposed by City staff for artists' spaces. The council also approved in a 5 to 1 decision the overall leasing guidelines that would see rents increase to 90 percent of market value for non-aviation tenants at the airport who are not artists.

"In Santa Monica, in a boom economy, fair market value is an oxymoron. There is nothing fair about market value for a struggling artist," said Councilman Kevin McKeown.

McKeown successfully pushed for rents to be dropped from a proposed 95 cents a square foot to 75 cents a square foot for artists who move into spaces in two buildings on Airport Avenue when the current tenants move out.

Under the leasing guidelines approved by the council, artist day studios used by 36 artists at the airport would more than double from 15 percent to more than 38 percent of the building area.

"The rental rates approved by the City Council will allow for a true diversity of artist to be subsidized within the city," said Arts Commissioner Jan Williamson, after the meeting. "This can only further the long-term goal of the arts community in Santa Monica."

Not all council members supported the discounted rents. Councilmen Bob Holbrook questioned the appropriateness of subsidizing artists and Richard Bloom questioned the fiscal soundness of approving rates that were not analyzed. Bloom said that while he supported artists he also supported the rates proposed by City staff.

"I wish we could buy art that reflects the rents some of these artists are paying," said Holbrook. "Cause usually it's pretty expensive. Especially the kinds my wife likes."

"I want to make it clear, I support artists," said Bloom. "I also want to make it clear the 95-cent rent is a subsidy."

Rent for a vacant 22,560-square-foot building at 3026 Airport Avenue also was reduced from 85 cents a square foot to 65 cents. The space will be the subject of a request for proposals (RFP) for a ten-year lease as an art studio center.

An amendment, sponsored by Councilman Paul Rosenstein and approved by the council, calls for City staff to have completed the RFP process and selected a tenant in three months. Those responding to the RFP also will have to provide income histories.

Part of the leasing guideline for the Airport calls for current non-aviation tenants to have a five-year lease with an additional three-year option. Council members amended the guidelines to keep the rent rate the same after the three-year incremental increase, plus annual inflation adjustments.

At its meeting last week, the council heard from a number of current non-aviation airport tenants with careers ranging from writing to building. The tenants said they supported artists' spaces, but they didn't support paying higher rents to bear the weight of the decreases. Over the next three years, current tenants will see their rents climb to 90 percent of the estimated July 1999 market value.

Heeding their concerns, McKeown floated an unsuccessful plan that would spread out tenants' rent increases over a five-year period instead of three.

"I have grave concerns about something that will keep those tenants from being forced out by changes to their business plans," McKeown said, adding that he would support a four year incremental increase. That plan failed as well.

For months, members of the Arts Commission met with members of the Airport Commission to hammer out a plan that would stop the current exodus of artists from Santa Monica.

On Tuesday, commissioners hailed the council's decision as a testament to the work volunteer citizen boards can do.

"I'm just delighted with the outcome," said Arts Commission vice chair Gregory Spotts after the council's decision. "I think it's a real terrific example of citizen volunteer boards and commissions working together to create a solution. I know this will be remembered in the future as a turning point in the effort to stem the tide to stop artists from leaving."

The debate over the leasing guidelines for Bergamot Station and the Bayside District went much more smoothly, with the council basically adopting staff's recommendations.

Under the proposed guidelines for the cluster of galleries at 2525 Michigan Avenue, master lease holders will be offered a five-year term lease plus five one-year options, which the city can cancel within 90 days should it decide to use the site for its intended transportation use.

Lease holders in the Bayside District will be offered non-renewable five-year leases as vacancies arise. The council also mandated that City staff actively advertise the spaces.

The non-renewable leases are consistent with the City's objective to periodically make public property available to members of the public for the preferred uses. Exceptions, however, may arise if a prospective tenant may be required to make substantial new capital investments in a City owned property to achieve preferred uses, in which case they will be offered a five-year renewal option pending council approval.

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