In rare form, artists embrace development project – and vice versa 

click to enlarge Marti McKee is one of the artists who use the Noonan Building at Pier 70. The building will be torn down but artists will have a new site in the Pier 70 development project - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Marti McKee is one of the artists who use the Noonan Building at Pier 70. The building will be torn down but artists will have a new site in the Pier 70 development project

San Francisco's artists are among those who have been squeezed by The City's development crunch amid dwindling studio space.

"In the quintessential development history in San Francisco, artists are simply ignored and batted about, then forced to move on," said Adele Shaw, a painter who lived in San Francisco for two decades and still rents a studio in The City.

"I watched it happen in the mid-'90s in the Mission district, [with the] first dot-com boom," Shaw said. "It happened again in the mid-2000s. Of course it's just been really escalating lately."

However, the trend might be shifting, at least at one high-profile development. On Tuesday, 21 -- more than half -- of the artists who rent space in the Noonan Building on the 28-acre portion of Pier 70 slated for mixed-use development, endorsed Proposition F on the November ballot, which seeks voter approval for the project to proceed.

But such strong support for the project from the painters, filmmakers, photographers, sculptors and writers who work at Pier 70 was not always the collective sentiment.

"It seemed like there was no awareness of the Noonan Building and that being part of the future," Kim Austin, an artist who has worked in the building since 1998, said of initial development conversations. "As we have spoken up about it and got people to know there is an existing artist community here, things have really, really changed."

She added: "It's my impression that [developer] Forest City has really come around and listened to us and wants to build upon what we've been doing here for the last 40 years."

Tuesday's endorsement of the next step in the revitalization of Pier 70 marks the latest instance of urban developers accommodating artists in historically less-expensive neighborhoods -- such as Hunters Point and the Dogpatch -- who previously may have been cast away.

In 2008, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard project -- a mixed-use development plan led by Lennar Urban -- entered into a community-benefit agreement with the approximately 300 artists with studios in the neighborhood to replace the 130 studios slated for demolition with a roughly 100,000-square-foot building with space for artists.

"To the best of our knowledge, it's the first time that artists have been taken care of in this kind of development," said Marti McKee, president of the nonprofit artist advocacy group Shipyard Trust for Artists. "All of this happened because people fought for it," she said of maintaining space for artists with the shipyard and Pier 70 projects.

Forest City, planning for the mixed-use project at Pier 70 south of Mission Bay, has already pledged to accommodate the artists at the Noonan Building.

"Arts are a critical part of any community," said Alexa Arena, senior vice president of Forest City. "The way we see the site is not just building physical infrastructure, but building a community that's really an extension of the Dogpatch culture."

Prop. F includes language to preserve the artist community at Pier 70, where more than three dozen artists work out of studios in the three-story Noonan Building, though the building itself will likely be torn down. Constructed as a temporary building in 1941 for clerical offices for ship building and repairs during World War II, the Noonan Building today doesn't meet certain city codes.

Forest City is working with the artists to design custom spaces that "meet their needs," explained Arena. "All the artists will have the opportunity to maintain space at Pier 70."

That promise is music to the artists' ears.

"In the long run it will be an exciting, wonderful thing," said Suzy Barnard, who has worked in the Noonan Building since 2003. "But of course we're really sad that our building is going to be torn down."

The arts community at Pier 70 spreads beyond the Noonan Building as well. Adjacent to the structure, Building 21 serves as a warehouse for SOMArts Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization that rents staging equipment such as wheelchair lifts and sound systems to cultural fairs and festivals citywide.

Lex Leifheit, executive director of SOMArts, said she was initially concerned about the future of the warehouse space for the organization. However, representatives from the Port of San Francisco and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development assured her Tuesday that they will help SOMAarts plan ahead in the transition of Pier 70.

"It's very critical to have that arts piece in community development, and we're very focused on that," Arena said. "Certainly our intention is to maintain space for artists as part of a long term for the site."

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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