Real-estate bingo and the scramble for performance and studio spaces continue to do an awkward dance on Portland’s inner East Side, sometimes executing a neat two-step, sometimes stomping on each other’s toes.
Latest entry in the dance: the former Zoomtopia space at Southeast Eighth and Belmont, where a real-estate investment company and an arts entrepreneur appear to be enjoying a mutually beneficial tango: WYSE Real Estate Advisors gets a new headquarters, and dance teacher and producer Subashini Ganesan gets 3,000 square feet of studio and gathering space that’ll also be used by several other arts groups. What’s more, both parties are happy with the arrangement.
The deal struck for Zoomtopia, though less than the outright purchase Ganesan had originally hoped for, seems like a solid win for both parties, and it’s not the first one. In spite of development pressure and the loss of spaces such as the old Theater! Theatre! building on upper Belmont, which rendered more than a dozen performance groups temporarily homeless, a few other winners have emerged in the East Side dance.
Northwest Dance Project, squeezed out of its spot on the Mississippi Corridor, landed a bigger, better home space in the shadow of the Franz Bakery plant, just north of Burnside. Miracle Theatre and the nearby Imago Theatre, where Third Rail Rep will also take up residence in the fall, have solidified their East Side beachholds, creating vibrant small centers for performance. The tiny Shoebox Theatre and the Backdoor Theatre, a little room behind a coffee shop on Southeast Hawthorne, have helped define an East Side theatrical style: bare-bones, rough-and-tumble, experimental in a variety of ways. Shaking the Tree has planted a new, bigger flag on the East Side, Triangle Productions has pioneered performance on Sandy Boulevard, The Headwaters has colonized the far north, and multiple-studio buildings for visual artists and other creative workers now dot the inner East Side: indeed, they’ve been so successful that rents have begun creeping up, and artists, inevitably, are starting to look farther east and south in search of cheaper work spaces.
The Central Eastside Industrial Zone, in particular, is under pressure, and the squeeze there ripples out to nearby areas. Hard by the Willamette River and only a short bridge-hop away from downtown, it’s being eyed increasingly as a potential gold mine for apartment and condo development – especially since Portland has one of the tightest housing vacancy rates in the nation.
So far, zoning stipulations and opposition from the light-manufacturing and warehouse businesses that have made a thriving industrial home there have kept things relatively quiet. (Information on the city planning bureau’s draft plan for the Southeast Quadrant is here.) But with the Rose District and the Oregon Convention Center to the north and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Portland Opera headquarters to the south, the land between is becoming more and more coveted for its development potential.
Add the rapid development of the long-slumbering nearby Lloyd District, and the heat’s starting to rise. People in the arts and creative fields who’ve found comfortable and relatively inexpensive quarters on the inner East Side are beginning to look nervously over their shoulders, wary of spiraling costs that would push them out – ironically, the same sort of feelings that blue-collar workers and business owners in the industrial area are having. Some artists are advocating live/work rezoning, which would allow actual loft living as opposed to the faux-loft apartments and condos in the Pearl District – in effect, they argue, creating a symbiotic relationship with the industrial and warehouse interests to keep a flexible status quo in the area, with some added residential use.
Other artists are beginning to toss around the risible words “rent control,” a term that not so very long ago, when Portland was known as the low-rent district of West Coast cities, would have been dismissed as both alien and outlandish. Rent control likely would face opposition from both developers, as a loss of potential market-rate returns, and the city, as a tax-revenue drain. And to control rent, you need to have rentals in the first place. As Chad Rheingold, a shareholder and vice president of WYSE, says: “The city is pretty clear that they don’t want housing in the Central Eastside Industrial Zone,” unless it’s on major thoroughfares, where it can be clustered.
Amid this overheated atmosphere, an intriguing meeting of commercial and creative minds is taking place at the old Zoomtopia space, across the street from Grand Central Bowl and close to the studios that Oregon Ballet Theatre is abandoning to move to the West Side’s South Waterfront district. Zoomtopia, the lively arts incubator founded and developed in 2010 by Carole Zoom, has emerged from uncertainty to become a dual-purpose space.
WYSE has bought the building and remodeled it, reserving the larger part of its 9,600 square feet for its own headquarters. But the company has leased about 3,000 square feet to Ganesan. She, in turn, is sharing space with the adventurous Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), her own Natya Leela Academy for Bharathanatyam South Indian classical dance, her N.E.W. (New Expressive Works) residency program for contemporary choreographers, and other regular and occasional creative renters including Third Angle New Music, taiko drummers Unit Souzou, Oregon Ballet Theatre for summer classes, and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art for its TBA festival workshops. Ganesan has begun to use “New Expressive Works” as an umbrella name for the building’s performance spaces.
The new deal follows long negotiations and a failed attempt to keep the entire building as an arts incubator. And it comes at a time when arts groups are hungry for more and better facilities. “We still have a challenge in this community to get viable performance spaces,” notes José González of Miracle Theater Group, whose nearby space is in near-constant use by Miracle and a variety of other groups. Dañel Malán, his wife and co-founder of Miracle, looks at the future and worries. “I see fewer risk-takers,” she says, noting that Miracle succeeded partly through its entrepreneurial approach to producing art.
Still, much of the city’s current cultural energy, from tech and food startups to small arts groups working on the edge, seems built on a willingness to work lean and take chances. And both Zoom and Ganesan are entrepreneurs. Zoom sunk a good deal of money into the building before deciding she needed to move to a warmer climate for health reasons. She and Ganesan entered into negotiations for N.E.W. to buy the building, on generous terms, for $1.92 million. But Zoom needed more money up front than N.E.W. could raise, and eventually WYSE entered the picture. A building that with another buyer might have given way to speculative high-rise housing – you’d have to knock it down and start from scratch, Rheingold says, and “you’d probably have to go up six to eight stories for it to pencil out” – instead became an intriguing hybrid, with WYSE as landlord to a still significant arts venue. “Getting a five-year lease was a big deal,” Ganesan notes. “And now it’s … OK. Get to work.”
Even at five years, the lease is still a lease. But it’s a longer deal than many performing companies have (Northwest Dance Project locked into double that, with an option to extend), and allows Ganesan to make some long-term plans. And the terms seem good. WYSE wanted the building for its headquarters, not as a space for future development, and it foresees no need to expand its own footprint in the building. “I think Suba has a great incubator space for the arts that might be in a more experimental vein,” Rheingold says, and adds: “We really wanted to preserve Carole Zoom’s original vision for the building, and went to great lengths to make sure that it would work. I don’t feel that anybody was pushed out of the building.”
A big part of Ganesan’s challenge will be to pull in enough income from renters to cover her lease costs: “Really, it’s about the sustainability of leasing the spaces.” The spaces include a large, attractive common area with kitchen and lounging facilities, plus two studios: a high-ceilinged, 750-seat smaller studio with a new sprung floor, and a 1,700-square-foot big studio with a 40-by-40-foot floor area. Originally WYSE wanted to use the same two studio spaces for its own headquarters, but realized that so much had been done to refurbish the larger studio for dance purposes that it should remain a performance space. WYSE paid for half the cost of the smaller studio’s new sprung floor, plus a sound barrier between the two studios that, Ganesan says, makes it possible for taiko players to be drumming in one studio without bothering dance classes in the other.
Ganesan herself is good cause to be hopeful about the space’s future. Of Indian descent, she grew up in Singapore, moved to Washington, D.C., attended divinity school in Rochester, N.Y., and has spent years in Portland building the Natya Leela Academy and developing a broad array of relationships with artists in several disciplines. She is both practical and creative, and has a good deal of energy. And the spaces she now controls are attractive to many potential users.
PETE, for instance, has been working with Ganesan on grant applications and other behind-the-scenes tasks, and has signed on as a major tenant at least through next May. Company member Amber Whitehall says PETE has been using studio space there for a year, at first under a lease with Zoom, “and we basically broke the lease so Carole could sell the building.” From September through May it’ll use studio space extensively for the pilot year of a certificate program it’s calling the Institute for Contemporary Performance. “We think of it more as an incubator than a school, really,” Whitehall says, and N.E.W. is an ideal place to incubate. As PETE’s performances bounce around from The Headwaters to Reed College to Shaking the Tree to CoHo to Imago, the studios at N.E.W. provide a home base and stability – valuable commodities in a volatile real estate market. Whitehall also points out that, because Zoomtopia had several non-performance tenants, the splitting of the building’s space between WYSE and Ganesan isn’t the shrinkage that it seems: “There’s no real loss of rehearsal space and performance space from when Carole had it. Which is amazing.”
Under any circumstances, Portland’s inner East Side is bound to change radically over the next 20 years. How will the inevitable changes affect the rambunctious, relatively low-cost East Side arts and entertainment scenes? After sitting empty for many years, the auditorium of the old Washington High School has been transformed into the music venue Revolution Hall. Will the heavy hitters ever dare to cross the bridges and establish other big halls on the east side, the way that London, for instance, utterly changed the South Bank of the Thames by developing the likes of the Tate Modern, the National Theatre, the Globe Theatre, and (yes) the London Eye?
Even the larger players with studios and offices on the east side – Portland Opera, Northwest Dance Project, and, until its current process of selling its East Side studio building for high-rise residential development, Oregon Ballet Theatre – perform in the big halls downtown. What about the long-fantasized modern and contemporary art museum that may or may not ever be built, or the equally fantasized moderate-sized concert hall for opera and ballet, or the coveted modern theater center with two or three spaces between, say, 99 and 399 seats? Are any or all in the East Side’s future?
In the meantime, the sometimes rough-around-the-edges but rapidly developing East Side arts scene rolls along, going its own way and developing its own personality in much the way that the East Side restaurant scene has diverged from West Side traditionalism and created its own energy. Real-estate bingo could change everything. For now, Zoomtopia is dead. Long live New Expressive Works.