Eastside Art Spaces Under Siege?
Code crackdown on eclectic studio space
It's about 4:30 in the afternoon on April 25, and Scarlett Vivienne is sitting on the floor of what will be a working hair salon tomorrow. Her plumber has just finished work on a hair-washing station in the back corner of the shop, and Vivienne herself is spotted with the evidence of a day of painting. There are no chairs to speak of or much in the way of fixtures. Tomorrow is moving day for this spot at 14th & Chestnut; at 6pm, she'll be expecting her first client.
This scene represents something of a metaphor for the pace of Vivienne's recent professional life. It was only at the end of March that she found an eviction notice tacked to the front of the unit where her salon, Hearts & Robots, formerly did business. She says she had five days to vacate the property. "The utilities were going to be shut off," she said. "My business depends on water and electricity, and I just decided it wasn't worth waiting on, so we packed up our things."
Until then, Hearts & Robots was located in an old industrial complex at 501 Pedernales that hosted a handful of artists' studios, a children's puppet theatre company, a recording operation, and Vivienne's hair-styling cooperative. Their eviction came at the hands of city staff, who have engaged in a running battle with the building's owner, Jesús Turullols, over a long list of code violations at the Pedernales building and a similar location on Chicon that date back to 2007, Turullols says. But with the quick turn of the East Sixth corridor from a weedy, vacant spot to a thriving hipster mecca – and the complaint-based investigative process that city code officials are required to follow – some of the 501 Pedernales artists and their landlord worry that development's creep into East Austin may lie behind their current difficulties. Turullols and his wife, Christina, think there's a reason those complaints have started to come up now. "It's very obvious that someone is after one of the properties," she says.
Either way, the loss of another Eastside raw space has more artists scrambling to continue their work.
It's not that the 501 Pedernales property didn't have issues. At a hearing of the city's Buildings and Standards Commission, code investigator Dennis Vaughn pulled out four folders' worth of material documenting code violations that Turullols had racked up. And the most recent visit to the property by city code officers seems to have come at the behest of a fire inspector.
The Fire Department "had already told their fire engines in that area that if that place catches fire, do not go in. That means do not go in to save lives, do not go in to fight a fire because there was a dead corridor – once you get in there, you're trapped," says Code Compliance Assistant Division Manager Ron Potts. "They had shut down different exits; they had built structures that were not permitted. ... It's a death trap for everyone in there."
On April 27, the Buildings and Standards Commission gave Turullols 60 days to bring the first of portion of the complex at 501 Pedernales up to code; the commission will review the status of the rest of the place at a future meeting. All parties appear interested in finding a way to upgrade the facilities and keep the buildings in the hands of the Turullolses. But bringing the structures up to code will be expensive, and Jesús Turullols says that he'll have to raise rent from roughly 85 cents a square foot to somewhere north of $1.
Sculptor José Acosta notes the need for a low-rent space like 501. "You know, it was a raw space, and that's what artists need – that's what makes them affordable," he says. "Coming from New York, it was notable just how few studio spaces there were in Austin, and the ones that were available were basically alternative uses of an existing building." It's enough to make him wonder about how the city thinks of its artists. "For all the talk of the importance of Austin's 'creative class,' it just doesn't jell," he says.
As for Vivienne, she noticed a building at the corner of 14th & Chestnut, which she says had been vacant for nearly four years. Hearts & Robots snapped it up and has begun to make it ready for customers. Despite her luck relocating, the experience at 501 Pedernales has left Vivienne with a sour taste about the city's priorities. "It makes me question where Austin will be in five, 10 years," she says. "I'm from Los Angeles. Somebody who charges $60 for a haircut in L.A., that's pretty much average. In Austin, people can't afford to pay that."
Vivienne notes that the low cost of rent in Turullols' building helped her and her colleagues charge much less than that. "Thirty-five dollars for a woman, $25 for a man," she says. "If the rent here was twice what it is, then we wouldn't be able to afford that. I think the city really has to reevaluate ... the future of East Austin."