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Vancouver artists getting the boot in city's aggressive real-estate market

Artist Jim Carrico stands in the art space he rents out at 154 West Hastings in Vancouver, Oct. 3, 2011.

Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/brett beadle The Globe and Mail

Vancouver has more artists per square kilometre than any other major city in Canada.

It's also the toughest place for them to find studios because of the expensive, aggressive real-estate market, where never-ending condo developments eat cheap space.

Now the city's politicians and staff say they think they've found a solution: Give artists free rein to set up studios on industrial land, where they can add jobs and activity without sparking any land speculation.

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"The industrial land base is ideal," councillor Heather Deal said, endorsing a staff report that recommends the city consider amending its zoning to allow all kinds of artists' studios to operate on industrial land, not just those using materials or equipment not allowed in commercial zones.

But the city's arts community says that wouldn't be necessary if the city could just stop its staff from kicking artists out of the spaces where they're already working.

"The city doesn't have to do anything to create more spaces," said Jim Carrico, who managed a thriving artists' space in the Downtown Eastside until the city ordered everyone out last month. "They can just stop attacking us."

Mr. Carrico rented a building across the street from the new Woodward's complex and sub-leased the units to artists.

Now the building is almost empty after city inspectors issued a notice to vacate by Sept. 26, even though Mr. Carrico had been working with them for three years to reach a compromise to keep the building open.

One of the city's hottest bands, the New Pornographers, had its recording studio there for the past seven and a half years.

The band left in August.

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"They've got clients. They can't afford to be uncertain" Mr. Carrico said. "And most people have moved their stuff out because they're worried about it being confiscated."

About 30 artists in total worked in the building, which Mr. Carrico called Red Gate.

Mr. Carrico and Ms. Deal say the city has a policy that is intended to preserve cultural spaces like this by not shutting them down while safety issues are dealt with.

Mr. Carrico said that policy seems to have been abruptly abandoned for this building, with city inspectors suddenly saying that issues they've known about for almost a year are unacceptable.

The city inspectors have also demanded that the owner of the building, Moshe Mastai, come up with complete development plans for it as a condition of allowing occupancy, a huge expense that Mr. Carrico said no one who was not planning to develop would be likely to undertake.

An artist who has been negotiating with the city for 25 years – ever since the post-Expo boom started wiping out cheap artist spaces – said the city's report is well-meaning but doesn't do enough.

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"I'm dismayed we have not seen any new studio spaces," said Esther Rausenberg, who notes that cities such as Toronto and Seattle have bought whole buildings for artist work spaces to preserve them from development. "And there is nothing that says how many spaces they want to create and when they're going to do it by. If you don't set targets, nothing will happen."

The city's artists – more than 7,000 of them, according to census figures – have tended to cluster around the Downtown Eastside, Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant. Those areas are so popular that the 15-year-old Eastside Culture Crawl, an annual tour of artist studios just before Christmas every year, now has more than 400 studios on its list.

But Ms. Rausenberg said younger artists are leaving Vancouver for other cities because they can't find cheap spaces to work.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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