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Artists help East Austin boom, but issues remain

With the East Austin Studio Tour this weekend drawing thousands out to see the creative spaces of hundreds of artists, an inevitable question resurfaces: Has the booming popularity of the swath of central East Austin highlighted in the tour squeezed out the very artists and arts groups that brought the neighborhood its buzz in the last decade?

The irony of the artist-run tour that started in 2003 — and is now arguably the city’s largest arts event — is that it has been an undeniable factor in creating East Austin’s current popularity as a hip, creative place to live and play.

Since the first tour 11 years ago, East Austin has seen more warehouses converted into complexes for artist studios and galleries, often complemented by restaurants or bars. And if some indie theaters, galleries and cultural spaces have closed within the past decade, others have opened, indicating a continued vibrancy despite higher rents.

At least one development in the works, Think East Austin, involves private investors working in tandem with the nonprofit arts organization Fusebox as well as neighborhood organizations to create a mixed-use development with affordable housing, flexible live/work studio spaces and retail on the site of a former bulk fuel storage facility or tank farm, the cleanup and closing of which was one of Austin’s biggest environmental community actions in its history.

The growth

The East Austin Studio Tour was started in 2003 by an informal group of artists, who were among a new wave of young creatives discovering East Austin’s affordable warehouse space.

Just 28 studios were on that first tour. Eleven years later, this year’s tour roster boasts 402 artists.

The artists who started the tour are now formally organized as the nonprofit Big Medium, and its gallery functions as the anchor tenant at Canopy, a warehouse complex at 916 Springdale Road that was renovated by private developers in 2012.

With more than 40 individual arts studios, four galleries and the newly opened Sa-Tén Coffee and Eats cafe, the Canopy development is the product of the buzz originally created by the East Austin Studio Tour — and a microcosm of the push and pull of development in East Austin.

When Canopy was renovated two years ago, longtime resident Blue Genie Art Industries, creators of funky signage and commercial sculpture, survived the transformation. However the nonprofit Blue Theatre, which had long been on the site, closed in 2011 just before the property changed owners. The small arts group that had operated the venue couldn’t afford the building’s maintenance.

But just down the street at another warehouse complex, Lisa Scheps is in the final build-out of the new 140-seat Ground Floor Theatre.

“I just feel like this area of East Austin is where the creative enclave is emerging rather than the areas already developed along Manor Road and along East 11th Street,” Scheps said.

Formerly the home to United States Food Service Corp., the vast multibuilding site where Scheps is opening the theater is owned by Peter Barlin, the developer behind the Penn Field complex on South Congress and one of East Austin’s first arts complexes that opened in 2000, an 11-acre site at 701 Tillery St., a former Mrs. Baird’s Bakery.

The mix of creative industries, recreational businesses and restaurants is the same formula Barlin used at 507 Calles St., also a former warehouse tucked behind an H-E-B at East Seventh Street and Pleasant Valley Road.

Ground Floor Theatre will occupy just 4,500 square feet of the 105,000-square-foot building on Springdale Road. Other new tenants include hard cider brewery Austin Eastciders and Daily Greens juice company. Barlin said that a climbing gym is set to open, and possible future tenants could include breweries and restaurants.

“At first we were just interested in getting tenants that didn’t object to coming to East Austin and needed less expensive rent,” Barlin said. “Now the east side has come along, and we try to keep (rent) in the range of affordability.”

If the past decade has seen smaller arts businesses and groups come and go, others are settling in.

Earlier this year, Jill Schroeder opened a new location for her Grayduck Gallery after purchasing and converting a bungalow on East Cesar Chavez Street. Previously, Schroeder had rented space in South Austin, but saw the chance to move to East Austin as fortuitous artistically and financially.

“The art scene in this part of town is thriving, and I think it will continue to thrive,” Schroeder said. “Moving here was also partially a financial decision. With real estate costs the way they are in this city, this was one of the only areas I could afford to run a small business.”

Other issues

But for all the increase in the sheer number of art spaces in East Austin, affordability remains a salient issue. So does the long-term viability of the area remaining an arts destination if creatives don’t gain some ownership stake.

Artists, after all, are themselves very often the reason that they wind up displaced as a neighborhood gentrifies.

“Artists have a long and complicated relationship with gentrification,” said Ron Berry, Fusebox artistic director. “Artists are typically the working poor. But they are often the core factor in how a neighborhood changes and gentrifies. I definitely think that many artists I know, as well as many long-term residents in East Austin, are going to get priced out.”

Hence, in an interesting twist to the entirely developer-driven model, Fusebox, producers of an annual international performance art festival, partnered with the private developers behind Think East Austin.

“We decided that as artists we wanted to be proactive and be a part of the decisions about how these problems are addressed,” Berry said.

The 2013 Keep Austin Creative Survey, a study commissioned by the Austin Creative Alliance, found that the median income for those in creative industries is $35,202, less than 80 percent of the area’s median family income for one person.

The survey concluded that the average full-time creative worker in Austin would be eligible for affordable housing assistance through bond-funded programs.

That study is just one of many that Think East Austin used in developing its proposal for the 25-acre site on Shady Lane near Govalle Park.

Attorney Robert Summers and architect Richard deVarga purchased the former tank farm site in 2012 and have since begun the process to rezone the property for mixed use. In 2013, the city also designated the site as Austin’s first urban creative district, which brings with it relaxed regulations concerning residents working and vending out of their homes.

In something of a first for Austin, ArtPlace America — a collaboration between leading national and regional foundations, federal agencies and banks — awarded $400,000 to the Think East project for a community design process involving arts groups and neighborhood associations in the development of a master plan. Fusebox and Think East backers intend to use the Fusebox Festival next April to stage a temporary planning workshop on the site with events geared toward community brainstorming and input. Master plan development will continue through 2015.

Summers said that while most of the project’s funding will come from investors and bank lending, the vision would be driven by creative and neighborhood stakeholders. Summers said the goal is to have a certain percentage of the housing meet state affordable housing guidelines.

“Growth is going to be inevitable in East Austin, and what made the area what it is could be eroded,” said Summers. “So you can be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.”

“I feel like Austin is sort of ground zero for this issue (of gentrification),” Berry said. “There’s this strong and steady stream of people continuing to move here every day. Even if there hadn’t been an influx of artists moving into East Austin over the past decade or so, we would still be experiencing this affordability and displacement issue. So our question is ‘Can we hit pause for a moment, and investigate some other ways of doing this?’”

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