It’s a story we’ve all heard before: Artists find cheap, funky space in a neglected industrial area and beautify it making the neighborhood more livable. Word gets out drawing more residents and development opportunities. Rents spike and these same artists eventually get pushed out.
Except this time, these artists organized, successfully fought back and secured stability that will keep them in the community in perpetuity.
In fact, in 2023 the fabled Emeryville Artists’ Cooperative celebrated the 50th anniversary of their inception.
4250 Horton Street & 1420 45th Street
As detailed in The Emeryville Historical Society Park Avenue District Walking Tour, the story of The Emeryville Artists’ Cooperative (EAC) begins at 4250 Horton street which was the first space leased by the founding artists.
The earliest newspaper archive for 4250 Horton from 1928 lists the space for Magnavox Company who manufactured radios and speakers at the time. The space is also listed as occupied by Colgate-Palmolive in 1936 and a cardboard box manufacturer in the 1950s.
When vacated in 1972, it was being used by the Shell Development Emeryville Research Center.
The building at 1420 45th Street was originally erected for The Kirsch Company in 1926.
Headquartered in Sturgis, Michigan, Kirsch manufactured drapery hardware and at the time were considered the world’s largest manufacturer of flat curtain rods.
In 1934, the plant was sold to the Apex-Rotarex Manufacturing Company who made appliances including vacuum cleaners, washers and refrigerators.
Apex only occupied the space for four years before they consolidated operations in 1936 at their nearby Horton & Powell location.
The space was eventually absorbed by the adjacent Shell Development facility who used it for research and development.
Shell relocated to Houston in 1972 leaving many buildings in their sprawling 27-acre campus vacant.
In the Beginning: Artists Seek Affordable Studio Space
Emeryville, similar to parts of SoMa and West Oakland, became attractive to artists because of the abundance of large warehouse space left vacant by fleeing industry. Many of their crafts demanded high ceilings and open space and Emeryville had these in abundance.
In 1973, artists Frances Oman and Anya Horvath leased the space at 4250 Horton followed shortly after by 1420 45th Street. By this time, the 45th Street property had been acquired from Shell by Norman Spivock and Henriette Spivock. The Horton Street property was owned by the Watkins Family of the J.R. Watkins Company who also owned nearby buildings along Hollis Street.
The space was much larger than these artists needed and they began partitioning and subletting them as studio space to a variety of other artists including sculptures, painters, choreographers, writers, furniture designers and other creatives. The spaces were initially partitioned into about two dozen or so studios.
The vacant warehouses needed a lot of work. “The roof was collapsing and there was grass growing inside,” described longtime tenant Dean Santner who raised two boys at the Co-op and currently helps manage the Alameda Point Studios. Santner’s work within Emeryville actually predates the EAC having moved his business to the city in 1971.
These artists customized their spaces to accommodate their respective crafts including adding stairs, loft spaces and industrial lighting.
1980: Cooperative Formed
Managing the space started to become a full-time job for Oman and Horvath pulling them away from their artistic passions. At the same time, the subtenant artists began wanting more of a say in how the space was being managed and were getting anxious about rising rents (This 1984 SF Examiner article notes a small studio space renting for about $300/mo.)
The subtenant artists created a survey to better understand what their fellow artists wanted from management. They netted out on a Cooperative structure where all artists would have a voice and decisions would be made more democratically.
“Forming a tenants union in 1979 was a significant advancement for our group’s beginnings,” noted 47 year Emeryville resident and an EAC founding member Scott Donahue.
In 1980, they officially formed their housing cooperative, bought out the leases from the original artists and, after some brief litigation, assumed management of the spaces as “The Emeryville Artists’ Cooperative.”
Live-Work Model Sought Within City
Some of these artists also opted to live in their studio spaces to save money which was in many cases illegal. Some of the abandoned spaces throughout the city reportedly also attracted squatters.
In the 1980s, the Live-Work model was catching on with the artist community. But if these artists were to legitimize living in these spaces zoned for commercial use, they would need to work with the city.
Much of the City of Emeryville’s focus at the time was on the development of Western Emeryville. The Watergate apartments had just completed construction and there were other large swaths of vacant land earmarked for high-rises and other new development.
Some developers, including Wareham founder Rich Robbins, saw opportunity in the live-work model and helped push the city to embrace it.
Robbins was having success with the adaptive reuse of old warehouse spaces in West Berkeley and Emeryville including adapting part of the former Shell facility for the pioneering Biotech firm Cetus. Robbins and Wareham were responsible for one of Emeryville’s first loft conversions in 1979 – the General Cable Cable Corporation building at 6221 Hollis Street (where Ruby*s Cafe is).
While Robbins mostly targeted creating spaces for scientists to flourish, he acknowledged the importance of the energy the artist community brought with them and the overlap between creativity and science. “Those [live-work] spaces not only brought artists — they brought innovators,” Robbins noted in a 2016 presentation detailing Emeryville’s Renaissance that attracted international attention.
Robbins approached Emeryville’s Director of Redevelopment Mark Buell about adopting zoning regulations to allow live-work but Buell was ambivalent instead focusing on expanding Emeryville’s skyline.
Buell reluctantly adopted what was referred to as “incidental residential,” which was a type of residential use that permits the “incidental use” of low-nuisance business activity like arts.
“They unenthusiastically tolerated it” according to researcher Luke Leuschner who wrote his thesis on the subject as a student of Architectural History at UC Berkeley.
This permitted the expansion of live-work development in Emeryville and also allowed EAC artists to live in their spaces.
Today, living in your unit, as well as being low to moderate income, is a requirement for obtaining a unit at the EAC.
1986: Property Acquisition
While forming their own organizational structure gave them more of a say in how the space was operated, it didn’t completely stop rents from increasing and the clock was ticking on their leases on the spaces.
These artists began to realize that they would eventually get pushed out if they didn’t organize and formulate a longterm plan to acquire the property.
Artists were not known for being wealthy, but they were creative, collaborative and resourceful. They pooled their financial assets together in an attempt to purchase the buildings and contributed hundreds of volunteer hours toward the effort.
They then hired Community Economics Inc., and Oakland-based nonprofit that is still active, to assist with the framework of the organization.
They established bylaws for the organization that outlined restrictions for occupancy, subdividing utilities, equity sharing and selling units. The EAC’s “limited equity” Cooperative structure means individual share equity is limited and members agree to a pre-set formula for studio value. “It’s purposely setup to preserve the units as affordable for future artists,” noted Sharon Wilchar, a textile artist.
Wilchar would become a pivotal figure in organizing these artists to advocate on behalf of themselves serving as the org’s longtime “Community Liaison”.
The lease on 1420 45th St. was set to expire in 1986 and the property owner listed the building for $1.37 million which was beyond these artists’ means. At this point, the Coop’s 1420 45th Street residents incorporated as a nonprofit creating the “45th Street Artists’ Cooperative”.
The EAC lobbied the city to provide them a $721K loan in the form of a long-term lease buy-back of the land through the Redevelopment Agency with the remaining funding coming independently from a consortium of banks (SAMCO) in support of their federal Community Reinvestment Act obligations, and the artists own equity in shares.
“We worked very closely with the city’s Redevelopment Agency and with Community Economics for several years,” Wilchar added noting the complexity and uniqueness of the arrangement. The agreement also included the sale of a portion of the parcel land and a directive to the Cooperative to lead the creation of a Public Art Ordinance for the City.
With Councilmember Laura Davenport as a strong ally of the EAC and the financial agreement, the item was brought before council. Failure would likely mean the displacement of the 50 or so artists that occupied the space.
EAC residents packed council chambers to advocate for approval of the agreement but were denied in a surprising 2-3 vote. In a dramatic move, Councilmember Walter Fertig called for an emergency council meeting the following week to revisit the item. This time, the artists were able to secure the $721K funding with Mayor Dottie Heintz flipping her vote in support.
Another wrench was thrown into their plans when in late 1986, the owner of 4250 Horton suddenly died putting the pending sale of that building and the future of those Co-op resident artists in limbo. The nonprofit was eventually able to finalize the acquisition of the building two years later and this time with a different finance model: a single SAMCO member bank that had been impressed with the performance of the 45th Street loan, a loan from the seller, and a smaller short-term loan from the city’s Redevelopment Agency and, again, artist share equity funds.
In 1992, the Co-op decided to execute a parcel split of 4250 Horton selling the portion of the property along 45th Street that was previously occupied by California Plywood. “We arrived at the conclusion that we just didn’t have the bandwidth to develop that empty warehouse portion and had been unsuccessful at leasing it to another entity,” Wilchar clarified. Paul Germain, an EAC member and Planning Commissioner at the time, was instrumental in structuring this sale.
This parcel was sold to local architect Joseph Costarella and Tom Levine for what became the Horton Street Lofts which are market-rate condominiums and no longer part of the EAC.
“New Art Capital of the World”
The Arts thrived in Emeryville in the 1980s with the city earning a reputation of having more artists per capita than any other city in the country. Artists declared Emeryville “The New Art Capital of the World” with the Artists’ Cooperative and the surrounding Park Avenue District sometimes referred to externally as “The Artist Colony.”
The Emeryville Mudflats Driftwood sculptures further advanced the city’s reputation as a quirky spot for artists and aspiring artists to express themselves.
Some incredible talent has passed through the halls of the EAC and the city for that matter including photographer Richard Misrach, M. Louise Stanley and Marcel Pardo Ariza to name a few (a complete list of EAC members is captured on their website).
In 1983, led by artist Edythe Bresnahan with support from the EAC, the co-op began a youth art program in partnership with the Emery USD. The Co-op’s Emeryville Youth Art Program (EYAP) is now in its 40th year and over fifty Co-op artists have provided instruction to EUSD students as an enrichment to the existing art curriculum.
In 1987, in collaboration with the Emeryville Redevelopment Agency and the local leaders, the EAC helped found an annual art exhibit open to both residents and employees of Emeryville businesses. The roving event has become among the most anticipated events in the city and a proud tradition. 2024 will be the event’s 38th year for the nonprofit Emeryville Celebration of the Arts.
In 1990, the City formerly adopted The City of Emeryville’s Art in Public Places Program with policies for both the city and for private developers. This award-winning program continues to flourish today.
The Artist community became an asset to the city giving them political leverage with its leaders.
Hotspot of Political Activity
In 1987, EAC resident Greg Harper was elected to city council as part of the “All-Emeryville Alliance” slate. This election furthered the influence of the EAC and the plight of artists within the city.
This election represented a turning point in Emeryville’s history that officially deposed the city of the influence of notorious Police Chief John LaCoste.
Throughout the 1990s, Emeryville experienced a building boom and the artist community saw the need to continue to organize to advocate not just for their personal interests, but on behalf of the livability of the city and the next generation of artists.
The EAC became a hub for political organizing when several members helped elect the city’s first “progressive” city council in 2014 with resident Scott Donahue serving two terms from 2014-2022 (both Donahue and Harper still reside at the cooperative).
In addition to serving on the City Council, over the years EAC members have been appointed to the Emeryville Planning Commission, the Public Art Committee, the BPAC, the Economic Development Advisory Committee and many other committees and commissions.
They have been Emery High tutors, instructors at the Senior Center and served on the Board of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce. EAC member Paul Herzoff was a founding member of the still active Emeryville Historical Society capturing an incredible collection of photos and using early layout software for their quarterly journal.
Wilchar has served as the EAC’s community liaison for decades frequently attending council meetings and advocating for their interests. For any contentious agenda items, you should expect a good turnout of EAC residents.
Park Avenue District Neighborhood Evolution
With the EAC as an anchor, the surrounding neighborhood rapidly evolved throughout the 1990s into the first decade of 2000. The 140-unit Emeryville Warehouse Lofts were renovated for condominiums in 1998 followed by the 20-unit Bluestar Corner condominiums in 2007. The Industrial Hard Chrome plating Corporation became the 54-unit Icon Apartments in 2008.
The Park Avenue District has gone from being on the edges to the epicenter with the recent completion of the 500 unit Sherwin-Williams development (renamed “The Emery”) and the striking South Bayfront bridge.
As active members of PARC (Park Avenue Residents Committee), these artists successfully advocated for a “cut through” of the adjacent Sherwin-Williams warehouse at 45th Street providing more convenient access to the new 2-acre Huchiun park and connecting greenway paths.
They also helped negotiate that a gallery space be included among the many community benefits in the developer agreement. “Gallery 4509” is slated to open in 2024 under the management of Emeryville Celebration of the Arts.
The artist community is still hopeful that the stalled Emeryville Art Center that they have advocated for for decades will come to fruition.
The Artists’ Co-op Today
Today, the Emeryville Artists’ Cooperative operates 58 studios across two buildings with approximately 100 residents. They are considered Emeryville’s first affordable housing project and a model for other municipalities for artist-owned housing.
“The nonprofit corporation owns the building with each artist owning a small share,” Wilchar explained noting their structure might not be a ‘cooperative’ in the strictest sense of the word. “But we’re self-governed, employ a business manager, facilities manager, a community liaison and our board is elected from among our members. We strongly encourage volunteerism both internally and in the Emeryville community.”
A handful of the artists that were around for the inception of the cooperative, are still residents.
The EAC has also attracted a new generation of talent who are eager to carry the torch.
“The access to affordable and stable housing has truly been life changing,” noted Erin Fong who has lived at the EAC with her partner and fellow creative Tyler McPherron since 2014 when she was 28. “The mental burden it has released has opened up that space for creative thinking.”
The EAC was recently acknowledged as an “outstanding organization” by Assemblymember Mia Bonta with Wilchar on hand to receive the award.
Living at the EAC is still very coveted by local artists and when a unit turns over, dozens of applicants typically apply. Recent improvements to the neighborhood including park space and the possibility of a walkable grocery store will certainly be an added bonus of living at the EAC but affordability and a supportive environment are what truly keep these units in demand.
Residents of the EAC gathered in 2023 to acknowledge the 50 year milestone and reflect on the challenges and victories of the organization.
“I have so much gratitude to the founders and the hard work of all the Co-op members who have invested their time and energy to keep it going these past 50 years,” noted Fong who recently received a coveted Purchase Award from the city. “The relationship forged between the EAC and the City not only supports the artists living here, it uplifts and celebrates us!”
Those interested in being added to the EAC email list when new units become available or want to be alerted to open studio events can do so through their website.
Feature Image: A Kamala Harris quote adorned a roll-up door of the 45th St. Artists’ Cooperative during the pandemic (Photo: Rob Arias).