For nearly a decade, The Glashaus in Barrio Logan operated in a legal gray area as an arts venue.
But this month, city officials shut the venue down due to fire and safety concerns and code compliance issues. Now, the artists who rent studios in the space say they’re screwed. They were given 30 days to move out, and they’re struggling to find a place to go.
“All we’ve done is pay our rent on time for years,” said Glashaus studio artist Spenser Little. “This has been a real slap in the face to everyone here.”
All of the studios and the gallery will be completely demolished in early September. The city says they should have never been there in the first place.
In 2009, the building at 1815 Main St. opened as an arts venue. It grew to house 21 studios and a public gallery and event space. But none of the construction that master leaseholder Matt Devine had done inside the warehouse space was legal.
Last week, the city attorney’s office filed a complaint against Devine, an artist who had his own studio at Glashaus before he moved to Northern California, and Mitchell Investments, the investment firm that owns the building and has offices in front of the arts venue.
San Diego Fire Marshal Doug Perry said his inspectors had worked with Devine starting in 2009 to get the building up to code, before finally referring the issue to code enforcement at the end of 2014.
Beginning in 2015, the city attorney’s office alleges, code enforcement officers unsuccessfully worked with Devine and his cadre of architects and engineers to figure out how to legitimize the construction. This summer, code enforcement gave up and turned the case over to the city attorney’s office.
Last year, the Ghost Ship warehouse fire at an Oakland arts venue killed 36 people. Local fire inspectors began cracking down harder on arts venues, and the issues at Glashaus became more urgent. Underground arts venues across the country saw similar enforcement efforts from fire and city officials who realized the danger – and liability— of allowing them to operate.
Glashaus allowed its permit application to expire this summer, and fire and city officials concluded that, despite a new plan Devine’s architect submitted at the last minute, it would never reach compliance. Mitchell Investments and Devine have agreed to pay $25,000 in civil penalties and for required demolition or face steeper fines.
Neither Devine nor Mitchell Investments would comment for this story, but in an Aug. 4 email to Glashaus artists obtained by Voice of San Diego, Devine said he’d worked hard to keep the doors open.
“For over a year, we have been fighting tooth and nail and investing a lot of money trying to find a way to make the space viable for our artist collective,” he wrote. “This morning we got final word that this is no longer possible. … We have 30 days to to [sic] have everyone out and begin demolition.”
A handful of Glashaus artists, though, said Devine should have been more transparent about the issue instead of waiting until the last minute and giving them just four weeks to get out.
“There’s nothing else like this in San Diego,” Little said. “This place allowed kilns and fabrication. … There’s nowhere for us to go.”
The issue has come to head at a time when there’s less affordable art studio space in San Diego than ever.
A few of The Glashaus artists have moved to La Bodega, a collection of art studios and a gallery on Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan. But that venue was also put on notice after the Ghost Ship fire and is still working with the city’s code enforcement division to make fire safety upgrades and get the permits it needs to continue operating.
And as real estate prices continue to increase, arts venues across the city are disappearing.
Space 4 Art, which housed several artist studios in the rapidly developing East Village, recently closed its gallery and many of its studios while its founders work to raise funds so they can build a permanent housing and studios for artists in Sherman Heights.
“We already had taken on some of the artist who lost their space at Space 4 Art,” said Glashaus artist Kathleen Mitchell. “And now those artists are displaced again. So we’re all out there looking, and we’re not finding anything.”
The East Village building where the NewSchool of Architecture & Design school is located houses several art studios, but it’s been sold and will likely be torn down and redeveloped in the next few years. Liberty Station Arts District has available art studios, but The Glashaus artists I talked to said they are more than the $1.50-per-square-foot they’d been paying Devine.
A few Glashaus artists said they’d looked in Little Italy, but found that a big water main break there impacted several artist studios on Kettner Boulevard.
Plus, fire inspectors told the artists to stop all work, which, for artists like ceramicist Doreen Mellen, has led to lost income. Mellen says she got the order to cease all operations just as she was about to use her kiln to fire a big batch of new ceramic work for a customer. Dozens of unfinished pieces will have to be tossed, she said.
“We’ll have to return the people’s money and cancel orders,” Mellen said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Space 4 Art recently closed. Some of its arts studios are still open in a different East Village location.