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Santa Monica cultural groups feel squeeze from airport rent hikes

Santa Monica cultural groups feel squeeze from airport rent hikes
A renegotiation of leases for businesses on land at the Santa Monica Airport is affecting cultural organizations, a pair of which will see rent increases. Seen here: painter Joan Wulf working in her space at the Santa Monica Art Studios. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

A pair of arts organizations in Santa Monica are facing rent hikes after the city renegotiated leases for all of the businesses and organizations occupying land at the Santa Monica Airport.

In addition to various restaurants and aviation-related businesses, the move affects the Ruskin Group Theatre, which opened in 2003, and Santa Monica Art Studios, which has provided studio and gallery space to an estimated three dozen artists since 2004.

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The 23,000-square-foot art studios would see their monthly rent go from nearly $11,000 per month to more than $16,000, an increase of 45%. The Ruskin Group, which occupies a far smaller space, would see the monthly rent jump from just over $3,000 per month to more than $3,500, a 17% increase.

"It's not an easy amount of money for us to come up with," says Michael Myers, the director of the Ruskin, a small nonprofit theater space that began life in the 1980s as an acting school. "But in terms of my peers in the Los Angeles theater community, it's a better deal than a lot of them have. So we have to look at that."

The studios will be much harder hit. Sherry Frumkin, founder and codirector of the Santa Monica Art Studios, says that the organization will do its best to cushion the blow for its artists.

"We will have to cut corners," she says. "We will have to cut back on openings. We will have to reduce curatorial fees. There's no way we will pass that all onto the artists."

David Leeds and Kathy Leeds, a married sculptor and painter who share a bright corner studio in the building, say that a large increase may compel them to look for space elsewhere.

"If we had a 50% increase, it'd be hard to stay," says Kathy. Adds David: "And if it doubled, we definitely wouldn't stay." Already, the pair pay $1,500 a month. To add anymore to that, says Kathy, "it'd be like a mortgage on a house."

Unfortunately, there is little that the city of Santa Monica can do about the rent hikes, since the theater and the studios occupy airport land, whose use is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We have to do everything under the guidelines of the FAA," says Martin Pastucha, Santa Monica's director of public works, and director of the airport. "And those regulations state that non-aviation properties on airport land have to be leased at market rate."

The theater's and art studios' long-term leases recently expired. Both received below-market rents when they signed agreements in the early 2000s in exchange for making improvements to the structures they inhabited.

The hangar occupied by the art studios was in disrepair when Frumkin and her business partner, Yossi Govrin, took it over. (The studios are a for-profit enterprise.)

"It was filled with pigeon poop," Govrin says in describing what the space looked like in 2002. "We did all the walls, all the lights, all the water. We built everything."

The city is also evaluating "master tenancy" leases, in which a tenant leases space to a subtenant — as is the case with the artist studios. "We are analyzing the costs and benefits," says Pastucha. "We are looking at how much it would cost to manage these ourselves."

Which means that, in addition to higher rents, the Santa Monica Art Studios also face the possibility of being taken over by the city.

"I understand the city cannot be out of compliance with the FAA," says Frumkin. "But it really puts us in an unfortunate position. Santa Monica is a beautiful city. It's flourishing. But there are fewer places for artists to go."

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This comes at a time when the city and the FAA are locked in a struggle over the future of the airport. Many area residents would like to shut the airport down. The FAA and a number of aviation businesses would like to keep it open.

As the city and the FAA duke it out over the airport, Pastucha says the city has to closely follow the rules in order to avoid further entanglements.

"The city is under scrutiny from the FAA," he says. "We have the FAA in court on one particular case and we're in an administrative hearing in another. So want to make sure that we are following the letter of the law — as we should be."

And for the time being, that means no breaks for the arts organizations on airport land.

None of this, however, will quash artistic impulses.

"If the rent increases, we're not going to stop drawing and painting," says Julie Weiss, a costume designer who keeps a drawing studio at Santa Monica Art Studios. "We'll just go somewhere else and build a community there."

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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