It’s a particularly frigid Friday evening in February, and Aaron Martin has just stepped into his office. It’s a small room—cozy, to be generous—and it feels even more cramped with all the gear: a drum set, an upright bass, a saxophone, and about a dozen other instruments, cables, amps, and mixers, scattered around. The walls are plastered with old show posters and press clippings Martin has received over the years. There’s sheet music, empty bottles, and trash strewn all over the place, evidence of late-night practices and writing sessions that bled into early morning hours. It’s a cool practice space, the kind young, aspiring musicians would glamorize. But to Martin, a seasoned veteran of D.C.’s jazz scene and one of the city’s best saxophone players, it’s just a place to work.
“People romanticize this shit,” Martin says, “but the reality is that this is my office. This is where I come day and night to practice.”
Martin’s “office” is the practice space he shares with Luke Stewart on the third floor of the battered warehouse-like building at 411 New York Ave. NE. The building is home to studios for roughly 30 artists, among other entities, businesses, and organizations. It houses the artist collective known as Union Arts and has connections to an even larger D.C. underground arts community.
While Martin pulls out his sax to get to work, down the hall, Janel Leppin is plastering show posters on the yellow-tinged walls in the landing that greets visitors entering from the stairwell. Leppin, along with Stewart and others involved with Union Arts, have organized a benefit concert that evening. In addition to practice spaces for musicians and bands, Union Arts also houses a recording studio and a performance space that sometimes hosts as many as four shows a week—everything from raucous punk and hardcore bands, to genre-defying experimental music and avant-garde jazz.
Last June, developers D.B. Lee and Brook Rose purchased the building for $7 million and told its tenants they’d have to vacate within a year. In January of this year, the developers finally unveiled their grand plans for the building: 411 New York Ave. NE was to become a “boutique hotel,” complete with an arts program. The initial plan included eight artist studios, gallery and exhibition space, a community classroom, and a sculpture garden.
It’s an ambitious and innovative project that Dennis Lee, who owns the development firm that shares his name, says will be the first of its kind—not just in D.C., but anywhere in the country. It’s not only going to bring a trendy, chic hotel to the rapidly evolving area near Union Market, but Lee hopes it will act as a kind of hub for D.C.’s arts community—a place where organizations and festivals who don’t have a home base can regularly host events. “That’s the dream,” Lee says. “That people from out of town can come and stay in the hotel and immerse themselves into the vibe. It could really work.”
But it’s not everyone’s dream.
The tenants of 411 New York Ave. NE and their supporters sprang into action upon learning of the plans for the building—and that, in order to move forward with the hotel project, the developers would need D.C.’s Zoning Commission to approve a planned unit development, which offers community benefits in exchange for leeway on zoning rules. They assembled a coordinated protest against the developers at the first Zoning Commission hearing in early February. Members of Union Arts and other tenants formed the 411 Artist Union as a governing body to represent the building’s current residents and officially oppose the developers’ request for a zoning change.
In the days before the hearing, nearly 100 people signed up to testify in opposition to the proposed PUD. At the hearing, even more opponents showed up and packed into the room, some holding protest signs that read “SAVE UNION ARTS” and “MORE ARTS SPACE, LESS LUXURY HOTELS.” The public witness list was so long that, after four and a half hours of testimony, the hearing was adjourned and a follow-up hearing was scheduled. Four and a half additional hours of testimony later, a second follow-up hearing was scheduled for April 21.
Lee and Rose’s hotel project might fit into Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stated goal of “support[ing] and expand[ing] the District’s creative economy,” but for many of the artist tenants of 411 New York Ave. NE and members of the broader arts community, it dissolves a cherished, vibrant, and important arts space. To them, it’s cultural displacement.
To them, this isn’t a struggle to save a building, but a fight to save the future of D.C.’s underground arts communities.
Union Arts’ impending displacement is hardly news—the building has been on the market since 2012—but the hotel project marks a turning point in the building’s rich, quirky history, and the end of its role as an unofficial home to many of D.C.’s creative communities.
Gail Harris, whose family’s LLC purchased the building in 2007 for slightly more than $1 million, rented space to her tenants for below-market rates in an effort to sustain a stable arts community within the building. Over the years, Harris’ tenants have included numerous artists, churches, businesses, and The Warehouse—a nightclub that hosted some of the city’s most progressive and transgressive underground dance parties from about 2008 to 2012. The parties came to a screeching halt, however, when a shooting occurred outside the building during a Warehouse party, and Harris subsequently didn’t renew Warehouse owner Sammy Steward’s lease.
Following Steward’s departure, Harris hoped to lease The Warehouse’s space to more artists, she told Washington City Paper in 2012. Coincidentally, that was right around the time Gold Leaf Studios—home to a vibrant DIY arts community in Mount Vernon Square—was coming to an end.
In the ’80s into the early ’90s, a frame shop known as Gold Leaf was situated on the ground floor of 443 I St. NW, a studio space that renowned local gallerist George Hemphill lived and worked in. In the late ’90s, post-rock trio Trans Am moved into the warehouse space to build its recording studio. In 1998, sculptor Mike Abrams moved in, built more studio spaces for artists, and began subletting them to artists from varying disciplines. With Abrams and Trans Am at the helm, Gold Leaf soon became a valued haven for D.C.’s artists and musicians.
“It was pretty amazing,” Abrams says of Gold Leaf. “Everyone was coming and going [in the building] to get busy doing their work, but it was a little bit like beach culture, too. People would drop in and we’d have barbecues, and events, and parties.”
In 2011, the building was sold to developers, knocked down, and replaced by apartments. Abrams, who had put so much work into fostering the community at Gold Leaf, wanted to keep that momentum going. It only took a few months before Abrams connected with Harris, and pretty soon, the spirit and community of Gold Leaf was to live on at 411 New York Ave. NE.
With a lease on the third floor, Abrams—along with a core group of Gold Leaf’s members, including Luke Stewart and Josh Cogan—founded Union Arts in late 2012. Abrams built out some artist studios on the third floor, while Stewart helped build a music community in the building, with both practice and performance space.
By this time, 411 New York Ave. NE was already home to a vibrant arts community. Parts of the building had been rented to artists—including an artist co-op on the second floor—at an affordable rate since the early ’80s. Since Union Arts moved in, the building’s arts community has continued to flourish: vintage shop Nomad Yard Collectiv took over the building’s ground floor in 2014, and MOUSAi House, a for-profit company that offers affordable art and music education, moved in that same year. The location has become one of the most prominent incubators for D.C.’s creative community.
It’s another recent Friday evening, and Chris Otten, the public representative for the 411 Artist Union, and some other tenants have gathered inside Nomad Yard Collectiv to prepare for a meeting with the developers. There have been two Zoning Commission hearings so far—both very contentious. Otten anxiously paces around the store while Nomad Yard founder and curator Desirée Venn Frederic points out all the broken light fixtures and other problems she says Lee and Rose have refused to fix.
The tenants are frustrated, to say the least.
Otten says tonight’s meeting was scheduled only three days ago, and the short notice made it difficult for a lot of tenants to attend. The last-minute communication from Lee and Rose, Otten says, has been “par for course.”
After the first hearing, Lee, Rose, and CulturalDC, a nonprofit the developers contracted with to help come up with the hotel’s proposed arts program, listened to the witness testimonies and retooled their plans.
“A lot of the protest was about music, and a lot of the testimonies were from musicians,” Lee says. “So we took all that and then we went back and made some pretty good changes to the program. We added studio space, square footage, we created more privacy, we added a music studio.”
A few days before the second hearing, Lee and Rose sent information about the revamped arts program to the Artist Union’s leaders, who then sent the info to everyone who had signed up with the Zoning Commission to testify. But, the leaders say, there wasn’t enough time for the witnesses to review the information before the hearing took place. As a result, most of the cross examination from Lee and Rose’s lawyer, Meridith Moldenhauer of Griffin, Murphy, Moldenhauer & Wiggins, LLP, was spent asking the witnesses who testified if they knew that most of the issues they were complaining about had already been addressed.
“There has been very serious communications problems, and it started from the very beginning where we weren’t introduced to an opposing party until the first hearing,” Lee says. But Susan Hostetler, an artist who’s rented space in the building for the past 12 years, says the issues predate the Zoning Commission hearings.
“Originally we had a meeting when they first bought this space. We did not have another meeting until right before the first zoning hearing,” Hostetler says. “So that was months and months and months that they never spoke to us. They never really asked for our input.”
Many of the tenants of the building also object to the fact that CulturalDC did not consult them before it developed the plan. Shannon Lewthwaite, a partner in Nomad Yard Collectiv, says that CulturalDC “made a big mistake in not even coming to the building once [and] not once involving any of our artists—some of them who are very well known, very established in the community.”
There’s also an issue, they say, with the kind of studio space that CulturalDC’s plan calls for. Originally, the eight artist studios were going to be on a floor without much privacy, so that hotel guests could watch artists at work. That didn’t go over well with many people who testified at the first hearing. “It’s displacing our community, and what they’re proposing is a space that’s very sterile, where people can come by and watch artists work,” says Michele Montalbano, an artist who’s been in the building for nearly 15 years. “That’s really not the environment to create in.”
Since then, the developers have come up with an alternative that would lease the entire third floor of their hotel—11,000 square feet—to artists. It comes with a hefty price tag: $1 million per year.
But the real point of contention isn’t just the lack of communication from Lee and Rose, the perceived sterility of CulturalDC’s plan, or the extraordinary lease price for a completely artist-run floor in the hotel. To those who oppose the hotel development, this fight has revealed a deeper concern about the diminishing availability of affordable spaces for artists in D.C.
Right now, Lee says the tenants pay an average of $10 per square foot per year—a subsidized rate. “To get the building to sustain itself, with the lowest possible operational and maintenance costs,” Lee says, “the price per square foot would need to be at least $25.”
And that’s just to cover the basics—finance carry, property taxes, insurance, and some modest maintenance and improvement for the building, which Lee says “is now functionally obsolete with its decrepit operational systems and seriously deteriorating structure.” He says that the estimated cost to renovate the building—to fix just its basic problems—would be about $5 million. To support that improvement, they would have to bump the rent up to somewhere between $40 and $50 per square foot.
Under Lee and Rose’s current plans, the cost per square foot for the third floor of their hotel would be $95. It’s expensive, but the main purpose of the plan, after all, is to build a hotel that will attract guests—not to support a thriving arts community. That’s secondary.
It’s inevitable, when the value of its building rises from $1 million to $7 million, that this arts community would bear the brunt of rising rents.
Under CulturalDC’s current arts-program proposal for the hotel, the developers would subsidize the rent for the artist studios on the second floor for at least five years; because of that, Lee and Rose won’t be able to rent the third floor for anything less than market value.
If anything, the situation highlights the need for more affordable arts spaces in the District, something that many of the tenants at Union Arts are hoping local government agencies—like the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities or the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development—can step in to help with.
“We don’t want a handout. We want support in helping to acquire a space,” Venn Frederic says. “I think it’s really critical that there is artist ownership, and so our responsibility and our job is to raise those funds and also organize and develop our own programming to operate this space so that it is, in fact, viable.”
In September of 2015, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—the District agency that supports local arts communities through grants, education programs, and other services—released an update to its strategic plan. Among its key findings: that “the [arts] field is beleaguered by the forces of gentrification, increasing social and economic disparity, and the stresses of sustaining nonprofit organization or an artistic career.” The plight of the artists of 411 New York Ave. NE is a microcosm of just that.
“What [Union Arts has] pointed out for us is what we’ve known: that there is a demand, and a need, for art makers to work and to live,” says Arthur Espinoza Jr., executive director of DCCAH. “We’re trying to address that straight on.”
There are glimmers of hope outlined in DCCAH’s strategic plan: “The District has access to a number of vacant and underutilized buildings, including schools that are no longer needed,” it reads. “The District is in a position to negotiate with private developers to include the amenities that will support placemaking, including such elements as affordable artist/creatives live-work spaces.”
It’s too early in the process for DCCAH to start looking for sites that can potentially be converted into arts spaces, Espinoza says; its strategic plan names no deadlines and doesn’t provide a specific budget for any of its goals. Espinoza, who left the Washington Ballet to head DCCAH in December of last year, says the commission needs to be smart and methodical about executing the plan as a whole.
“Right now, we’re asking the questions,” he says. “We’re digging and researching and investigating all of that.”
But one thing is clear: It’s going to take a collaborated effort not just between DCCAH, DMPED, CulturalDC, and private developers, but with individual artist communities like Union Arts, who, until recently, have had little to do with each other.
Agencies like DCCAH and organizations like CulturalDC have, in the past, worked on big, city-changing projects, like commissions for large-scale murals and the Arts Walk redevelopment at the Monroe Street Market in Brookland, respectively. It’s a far cry from the kind of underground, sometimes transgressive, art and music that comes from the artists at Union Arts.
“You’ve got CulturalDC, who works with local artists, and then you’ve got the Union Arts artists and every other artist like them, and they don’t mix,” says developer Lee. “The artists at 411 are critical of the CulturalDC side. And I just sit there like, ‘Guys, you’re complaining about authenticity, but you’re refusing to mix it with CulturalDC.’”
When CulturalDC first received opposition from artists to its proposed hotel arts program, Lee says the group tried to back away. “They were like, ‘We can’t get involved with that.’ And I’m like, ‘Guys, you need this. You need that authenticity. Listen. Pay attention [to these artists],’” he says.
Tanya Hilton, interim executive director of CulturalDC, thinks that the artists’ opposition to the plan is a sign that they’re resistant to change. “I think people are focused on what is there today versus what can live and thrive tomorrow,” she says. “Our goal in being involved is to help bring stability to the areas of growth in the city by implementing arts spaces that can be there for many years to come. That message is getting lost.”
Michael Seman, a senior research associate for the Economics Research Group at the University of North Texas, has written extensively on music scenes in urban centers from an economic framework. He says he’s distraught about the situation at 411 New York Ave. NE—“not because it’s being redeveloped, but because the fact that they’re displacing a DIY venue is a bad sign.” Seman thinks government agencies should focus on ways to preserve arts communities rather than finding new spaces and programs for the creative class.
In the four years since Union Arts’ creation, it’s become one of the most reliable DIY music venues in the city, thanks in part to Stewart’s diverse and steady booking. It’s a venue where both locals and touring acts can play without having to lose a cut of the door to the venue or promoter.
“D.C. [musicians] don’t have that support the same way that they would for visual artists,” says Gaje Jones, owner and founder of MOUSAi House. “There’s a lot of commissions for murals. There’s a lot of commissions for sculptures and things of that nature. But when it comes to music-centered installations and spaces, that’s not really something that D.C. finds supportable.”
This is the exact kind of mentality that Seman’s research focuses on. “We need to pivot our thought on music scenes,” he says. “In this modern age, what people have to understand is that people playing in bands are people you want to have in your city.”
Why? Because most musicians aren’t career musicians and, according to Seman’s research, generally work in the design, education, or nonprofit sectors, or are entrepreneurs—exactly the kind of professionals mayors and city officials aspire to attract. “What you have is DIY venues that are very supportive of local music scenes. You have these creative career-types who want to populate your city.”
The importance of D.C.’s music scene is something that Seman doesn’t think local government officials fully grasp. There’s no government agency solely dedicated to music; it’s instead lumped into the District’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment—a mouthful of priorities.
Seman thinks D.C. can look at other cities, like Austin and Seattle, who each boast their own music commissions, as examples of how to successfully navigate the local music scene through government agencies.
“If they have a DIY space they know is being shut down, they should think, ‘How can we help these displaced artists?’” Seman says.
With the next Zoning Commission just a few weeks away, Otten is preparing for another heated hearing. Communication between the 411 Artist Union and Lee and Rose has deteriorated. Otten says everything the developers say “just feels real disingenuous.”
Otten and the 411 Artist Union are prepared to drag this fight out for as long as they can. But Lee and Rose own the building now. And if the commission doesn’t grant the developers the zoning change they need to build the hotel as currently planned, they can adjust those designs accordingly.
The displacement of the building’s tenants is inevitable.
Under Lee and Rose’s current timeline, the tenants of 411 New York Ave. NE need to be out by Sept. 1, but Lee says that could be extended by a couple months if all lessees agree to a relocation assistance agreement by the end of March. Many of the artists in the building are looking for other spaces in the city, but it’s a tough search.
“Artists come into an area, and then they’re pushed out once that area starts to be rejuvenated and part of that rejuvenation came from the artists,” artist and tenant Montalbano says. “The publicity has been good and hopefully a wake-up call to D.C. to do some planning.”
The future of the artist community at 411 New York Ave. NE is unwritten, but they’re not ready to give up yet. They’re not optimistic, but they are determined. They’re confident that, if anything, the conflict will sound the alarm to the local government, and that artists and officials can work together to find spaces where there isn’t a threat of displacement.
Before he moved into Gold Leaf, Martin says he practiced playing his saxophone outside the post office on Brentwood Road for 10 years “in the snow, in the heat, during the day, and after work.”
If he finds himself without a space once more? “I’ll practice outside again if I have to. I hope I don’t,” Martin says with a chuckle. “Life always finds a way, doesn’t it?”