Real Estate News

New R Street complex sees artists working, living and collaborating

Painter Jose Di Gregorio works on a mixed media on wood panel art piece at his loft in the new R Street lofts in Sacramento on May 26.
Painter Jose Di Gregorio works on a mixed media on wood panel art piece at his loft in the new R Street lofts in Sacramento on May 26. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Among the rules and regulations in place to make the Warehouse Artist Lofts run smoothly is this one regarding noise: Make all you want until 10 p.m. in order to fulfill your artistic needs.

Those noises include drumming, sawing, dancing, sewing and more. If you’re an opera singer practicing an aria, go ahead and hit those high notes. If you’re a musician mastering the guitar, plug into an amp and no one gets in trouble. Those who like to write or paint in silence have to learn to cope. Or buy a really good set of headphones.

This mixed-use, mixed-income community is far from a place where artists create in quiet contemplation. Spend some time in the renovated 100-year-old Lawrence Warehouse – with its art installations, performance hall and dance studio – and you’ll hear residents working, intermingling and exchanging ideas. Opened less than six months ago, this unusual collective along Sacramento’s R Street corridor has inspired a new way of living for those lucky enough to get into the 116-unit complex, which offers subsidized rents for artists.

Scores of tenants from a wide range of pursuits and age groups say that in addition to the new-found creative freedom cheaper rent gives them, they are making friends fast and finding all kinds of inspiration. Many already have joined forces to collaborate on new projects. That often happens after meeting a neighbor on the elevator, in the parking garage or on the rooftop patio.

“This is probably the best living situation any of us will find ourselves in in our lifetimes,” said James Cavern, a singer who made a splash on the hit TV show “The Voice” and a WAL resident. “Beyond the design, we’re living with a bunch of artistic minds and people of the same mindset. That is something that is rare.”

Cavern is in the process of making new music with some of his neighbors. They’ll get together in his loft, work out new material and record sample tracks, often while Cavern’s dog Sadie sleeps nearby. Next door, Annie Rose designs and sews clothes, filling online orders for her business, Deranged Designs, which caters to the goth and alternative apparel market.

“It just feels really cool that somebody who had the power to make a building like this actually decided to do it,” said Rose, 26, whose loft is filled with sewing machines, patterns and fabric. “It’s just kind of surprising that somebody would care enough about low-income artists to do this for us.”

Until recently, Rose had been living in shared quarters, a midtown “punk house” where musicians played at all hours. During the WAL application event this past fall, she arrived at 4:30 a.m., determined to secure a place to live that would help her take the next step in her career. Her application was the 39th submitted. Now she lives in a place where the noise is far more manageable, paying $608 a month for a one-bedroom loft with a small balcony. That’s about half of market price.

“I was ecstatic because I could finally afford to move out of that house after seven years,” she said. “I’m so happy I have a way to move my business forward.”

Despite his national TV exposure, Cavern is still vying to make it as a touring musician. His annual income fell to less than the $28,000 or so to qualify for subsidized rent. The federal government allows an affordable housing building to screen for artists as a special needs group if they meet predetermined income guidelines. Cavern lives on the second floor of a new building – also a part of WAL – that mirrors the renovated Lawrence Warehouse. He pays $450 a month for an 800-square-foot loft that features large windows, 18-foot ceilings and stainless steel appliances.

Appreciative of his digs, Cavern said he believes subsidized rent is not something to be taken lightly. “I genuinely feel that those of us who are lucky enough to live here have a responsibility to show Sacramento and the rest of the country that this is something that can work, that this is something that should happen in every city,” he said.

As housing developments go, WAL, at the corner of R and 12th streets, is one of the more novel housing concepts in the country. While other cities have artist communities offering subsidized rents, WAL differs in part by making 30 of the 116 units available to anyone at market rate. It also features ground-floor retail space that includes a public market with locally owned eateries and shops. Several businesses already have opened, including Kickville Vintage and Vinyl and Benjamins Shoes. Others, including Bottle & Barlow – a combination barbershop and bar – are set to open soon.

In the basement adjacent to the parking garage, there is a large studio space still under construction where musicians will be able to jam until the wee hours. On the rooftop, residents have collaborated on a community garden with flowers and vegetables growing in raised beds. On the second floor, there’s a dance studio with a spring-loaded floor.

Throughout the project, 25 commissioned art pieces, some incorporating materials from the old warehouse building, give the property its signature aesthetic. Tre Borden, a WAL resident, helps curate the on-site art collection. Borden, who has a Yale undergraduate degree and an MBA from UC Davis, is not an artist, but he is often involved in linking artists with new business ventures. Moving in three months ago, he said the energy of the area is undeniable.

“You look at every major building on R Street, and it has been purchased,” he said. “This is going to be the next hot neighborhood. The artists who live here, they’re the ones pushing the culture.”

And all those creative people in the same housing complex are already making plenty of art – and noise.

“I have a very talented drummer who lives above me,” said Tresa Honaker, a 49-year-old dance instructor who was paralyzed after falling during an aerial dance practice. “His riffs and stuff are just outstanding. It doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I find it kind of thrilling to hear my neighbors and know that they are there. You can feel the energy and feel what people are passionate about, all under one roof.”

WAL is the brainchild of 32-year-old Ali Youssefi, who joined the family business, CFY Development, after graduating from Dartmouth and working as an investment banker in San Francisco. CFY, which specializes in affordable housing, purchased the property from CADA, which provided part of the financing. The three-year, $41.5 million project, which includes new construction and the renovation of the century-old, six-story warehouse, qualified for $4.9 million in federal affordable housing subsidies.

Youssefi noticed early on that this project, geared specifically toward artists, did not face the same scrutiny and NIMBY-isms that more traditional affordable housing projects often do. Given its location in an industrial corridor in transition, artists seemed like a natural fit. “The more art we have in Sacramento and the more artists we have in Sacramento, the cooler our city is going to be,” Youssefi said.

Even the non-artists paying market-rate rents have been quick to find inspiration at WAL. Kimio Bazett, co-owner of soon-to-open Bottle & Barlow, began taking piano lessons from his new neighbor after moving into his $1,200-a-month loft.

“I came in on a Sunday afternoon and heard him playing. It was just beautiful,” said Bazett, who is also a partner in Hook & Ladder and The Golden Bear restaurants. “He’s a classically trained pianist. So I poked my head in, and here’s this hippie-looking dude with a ponytail and beard just flying on the keys. He was like, ‘Hey, sorry man.’ I said, ‘No, it’s cool. It sounds really good. Do you give lessons?’ We worked out a deal for $100 a month.”

But there is a catch to living at WAL. If an artist becomes a success – if Cavern breaks big as a musician, if Rose’s clothing designs flourish – and starts to earn more than the identified income ceiling, he or she will be required to leave their subsidized lofts.

Painter Jose Di Gregorio says he finds his new place so appealing, he would be willing to pay full price if it comes to that. His sixth-floor apartment has three bedrooms, an open kitchen that flows to the living room and plenty of natural light. Newly divorced, Di Gregorio pays a reduced-rate $844 a month. His two young daughters live with him part-time.

Like many artists, Di Gregorio found ways to decorate his apartment in style without spending much. The sofa was given to him. The chairs cost $3 each; the two desks $100. The larger master bedroom has become his painting studio. He sleeps in one of the smaller bedrooms.

“I really wanted this,” said Di Gregorio, adding that he camped out all night to submit his application. “I was romanticizing what this was to become, the idea of a community like this. There is art permeating everywhere. My peers who don’t live here are incredibly envious.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob

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