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Will landmarking ‘save’ LA’s first publicly subsidized artists colony?

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Artists say they’re being priced out of the former furniture manufacturing plant

Santa Fe Arts Colony.
By Jenna Chandler

An artists colony on border of Downtown and Vernon is poised to become a city of Los Angeles landmark, a designation that residents, who are facing steep rent increases, say could help keep the former industrial complex affordable.

The city’s cultural heritage commission voted unanimously today to make the Santa Fe Arts Colony a local landmark, recognizing it for its place in Los Angeles history as the city’s first publicly subsidized housing for artists. The decision will have to be approved by the City Council.

“Permanent historical protection will be a huge ‘win’ for the Tenants’ Association’s goal to buy [the colony] and keep it affordable,” the association president, Sylvia Tidwell, wrote in an email to tenants. “If this happens, the owner will not be able to add density, build out the property or otherwise change it without strict city review—changes that could encourage the owner to sell.”

The association is trying to purchase the property from new owner, Miami-based Fifteen Group, which acquired the property last year. The real estate firm has hiked prices on the complex’s 15 market-rate units, and notified tenants in the 42 income-restricted units that it would raise rents as soon as old financing agreements that kept rents low expired November 1.

Last month, as she packed up the unit she shares with her husband, painter and installation artist Gina Han said their rent was set to more than double on November 1, from $977 to $1,980. She said they would struggle to pay that much, but she was unsure where they might go instead.

“This space has been really wonderful for both of us,” she said. “There are a lot of spaces, but if you can’t afford it, it doesn’t do any good.”

Together, she and Tidwell pointed to the doors of neighboring apartments that were recently deserted by longtime tenants.

“It wrenches my heart to see the moving trucks,” said Tidwell.

A representative for the Fifteen Group told the commission that the firm has no plans to demolish any existing buildings. The colony, he said, “will remain and continue to be a live-work artists community.”

The question, residents say, is for who.

The complex opened in 1916 as plant for the C.B. Van Vorst Furniture Manufacturing Company, which fabricated mattresses and furniture using high-grade wood, such as mahogany and native oak, according to a report prepared by Architectural Resources Group.

C.B. Van Vorst moved out in the 1950s, and three decades later, the city’s now-defunct public Community Redevelopment Agency lent $1.2 million to the property’s-then owner to retrofit the brick-clad buildings and turn them into flexible living spaces where serious artists could live and work.

It was one of the first buildings to be converted to live‐work spaces under the city’s Artist‐in‐Residence law. Passed in 1981, the ordinance aimed to help the artists who had reignited developer interest in Downtown LA—but could no longer afford to live there.

While Downtown lofts commanded monthly rents upwards of $800, units at the Santa Fe Arts Colony were priced from $415 to $623.

“That’s roughly 50% to 65% of the market rate for legal loft space downtown, where struggling artists are being increasingly squeezed out by lawyers, designers and other monied professionals,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1988.

At today’s cultural heritage commission meeting, artist and Downtown resident Jonathan Jerald called the complex a monument to an “endangered species.”

“The architecture of the community is important, but what is more important is the spirit of place,” he said.