It’s a timeworn cycle: If you’re a dance troupe or a painter or a drama band, the edgy neighborhood you call home won’t always have as much room for you.

Warehouses and crumbling buildings yield stimulating settings for arts and adventurous audiences. These pockets of creativity magnetize more hipness. Soon come developers and new residents who want to live near cool artsy people, but arts people can’t afford to stay there anymore. They find space in a less-developed neighborhood and the cycle repeats.

More than a decade ago, the local government tried to put a stick in that wheel.

At a time when condos and the ballpark squeezed out pockets of arts tenants, the city of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency made a deal to ensure that one could remain in the bottom floor of a big condo project being built atop an old dairy factory.

But that group, Sushi Contemporary Performance and Visual Arts, closed its doors permanently earlier this year. It had struggled for nearly three years in a bleak economy, and the edgy group clashed with its new neighbors once the high-rise was built upstairs. The space is now empty, though it’s supposed to house an arts group for 20 more years.

It’s the only time downtown planners at the Centre City Development Corp. have made a deal tying developer financing to arts. But it’s not unique for redevelopment agencies here to try to weave arts into the region’s gentrifying neighborhoods — or keep at least an organization or two from getting pushed out.

Downtown’s East Village was a once-thriving arts hub with artist studios, galleries, performance and rehearsal spaces. The arts proved no match for Petco Park, a slew of condo towers and the sports bars and parking structures that followed.

Many longtime artsy interests moved out of the neighborhood. But Sushi had a reserved spot.

Redevelopment agencies use tax money to revitalize and plan neighborhoods. Many of them, like CCDC, espouse a commitment to arts: They want theaters and dance groups and art collectives to stay even when condos and restaurants and shops begin to sprout.

A few miles uptown, the city invested more than $5 million with a private developer to refurbish the rundown North Park Theater. It came with strings: the theater had to be used for performing arts for 50 years from 2006. The current owners have filed for bankruptcy, unable to shoulder the mortgage, casting at least a momentary shadow over the building and the city’s investment.

The city’s redevelopment agencies have spent money on arts pursuits that aren’t in trouble. But the story of an arrangement like Sushi’s, and what’s come of it now, lends a distinctive look at the wrinkles that come with pushing neighborhoods to their development limits with condos, bars and parking garages while still trying to save room for arts and culture.  And how the strings that come with that government investment for arts leave complicated questions about what comes next when the first experiment breaks down.

Infusing Soul in East Village

The old factory at 10th and J once generated milk, ice cream and eggnog.

As architect Wayne Buss dreamed it decades later, the old Carnation/Qualitee dairy building could generate art. When he got his hands on the building in the 1990s, he saw renovating it as a chance to inject some soul into a neighborhood of warehouses, manufacturers and social service agencies.

CCDC backed the project, lending Buss $536,000 to rehab the old factory. Buss agreed to rent performance and rehearsal space to an arts group for less-than-market-rate rents through 2031.

The chosen tenant: Sushi.

Sushi specialized in giving edgy artists a platform. Birthed in the 1980s, Sushi first dwelled in a union-hall-turned-loft on Eighth Avenue where its founder also lived. Sushi moved into Buss’s space in the late 1990s. Cafés, shops and more lofts began to pop up nearby.

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But the drumbeat of development in the city core’s eastern neighborhood threatened to drown out the arts. Buss had helped popularize the East Village moniker and helped plan for a neighborhood of unconventional spaces for living, working and making things. Then came the ballpark, stomping on Buss’s bohemian dreams. Developers downtown began to pay into a fund for buying sculptures and other public art, but the affordable spaces where that art could be made were vanishing.

Disillusioned, the Crawford High School graduate moved to New Zealand in 2004 and launched a tree-planting project. Several months later, he died in a car accident at age 47. A tribute in the Union-Tribune included a wistful poem Buss wrote, which characterized the ballpark and surrounding development as dimming the “bright lights of East Village” that “Bring you Art no mooooooore!”

A Dairy Turned Arts Space Turned Icon

Buss’s legacy includes one foothold in the neighborhood for the arts: That deal he inked with CCDC extended through 2031.

Many nearby landlords sold to condo developers, pricing out artists who’d rented space there. But the developers who bought Buss’s ReinCarnation project also inherited the arts promise he’d made CCDC.

Buss had accepted a $536,000 loan, and as long as he made space for an arts group to rent for less than market rate, he didn’t have to pay it back.  If Sushi didn’t have a home in the new Icon project, the developers would have to pay the $536,000 loan back, with interest.

The Icon developers needed Sushi out of the space while they built the four towers, ranging from five to 24 stories. They pitched in some money each month, and Sushi took the show on the road with a “Sushi: TakeOut” series around the county.

It was a huge disruption for Sushi. The alternative wasn’t great, to join its compatriots on a march out of the neighborhood. But it also wasn’t expecting the nomadic phase to stretch to four years. When the group finally moved into the Icon building in 2008, the economy was spiraling. The space wasn’t finished. Sushi couldn’t raise enough money to set up the space the way it wanted to, even with a loan and a gift from Icon. Sushi never really recovered from the tumult of moving back in.

“Those four years were really deadly,” said Sushi founder Lynn Schuette. “They lost momentum, and audience and the economy changed, and the organization itself just, in many ways, wasn’t prepared for the toughness of the situation.”

And the band of artists that had always had its rein of downtown now had neighbors. In the new space, Sushi’s performances irritated the homeowners above. The building’s homeowners association levied fines on the developers, Sushi’s landlords.

The tension speaks to the challenge that different constituents find trying to coexist in an embryonic downtown.

 Sushi had brought in nude performers to signify the raw, intimate stories they were telling, and experimental musicians playing avant-garde music.

In its first season back in its venue, it brought back famous and controversial performance artist Karen Finley. She had been the force behind some of Sushi’s “most memorable shows, for instance smearing her nude body with chocolate as she chattered with the perky wholesomeness of a Girl Scout,” according to a U-T story. The first show of the season, a “combination carnival, edgy participatory performance and impassioned social critique” took the audience on a parade through the streets of East Village.

“It would’ve been a problem no matter what, just because those are conflicting interests, aren’t they?” said Sushi board president Indra Gardiner. “Particularly knowing the types of performances Sushi was doing, there’s going to be noise.”

But developer Paul Menzies speaks up for the angry homeowners, whose ownership documents promised certain considerations for noise in the commercial and arts spaces in the building.

Many of the arts groups scattered around downtown had thought the people buying the new condos might be instant audiences for their pursuits.

“I think we all anticipated that the younger group downtown would pick up the reins, when that downtown audience really didn’t develop in the way everybody kind of predicted and hoped,” Schuette said. “Downtown seemed to develop around bars and clubs.”

This June, Sushi’s board of directors voted to dissolve the organization.

Who Will Coexist in East Village?

The art coals aren’t all the way cold in East Village.

Across the street, a project many arts boosters have awaited for decades is close to completion, the new central library. A few blocks away, clusters of artists like Space 4 Art and Periscope Project have sprung up on their own, without government help, in recent years. The family that owns the local Jerome’s furniture chain has plans for a five-acre “I.D.E.A. District” that would bolster the neighborhood’s design and arts identity.

Meanwhile, the old Sushi space is empty.

“We never anticipated that Sushi would just disappear like that,” said Menzies, the developer. He’s thinking of ways to reduce noise and add improvements that a new arts group tenant would need.

But it’s unclear whether CCDC would agree to pitch in any more money to make it happen. That’s for the agency to negotiate with the developer and a potential arts tenant. CCDC planner Eli Sanchez said three groups have expressed interest.

The lesson of Sushi may be that whoever inhabits this space in this neighborhood might need to have smoother edges.

“Maybe if Sushi could’ve tempered its productions to a more general audience,” Sanchez said. “They have to be able to coexist. And if a group comes to us on the edgy side, we might say, ‘We think we need to look at your record. Show me your books.’”

That’s scrutiny the nearly always fledgling Sushi, though widely cherished for its artistic footprint, might never have held up under.

Gardiner, Sushi’s board president, credits CCDC planners for having “their hearts in the right place.” She said she doesn’t know what would have happened if the agency didn’t require Icon’s developers to house Sushi.

“Maybe [Sushi] would’ve found a new space, or not and dissolved,” she said. “When you look at all the arts organizations that are failing, you kind of wonder, was the handwriting on the wall?

“Maybe,” she continued. “I don’t know. Maybe it kept it around longer than it would’ve otherwise.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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