East Austin Studio De-Tour
Homesteading artists face city code challenges – and raise old fears – in changing neighborhoods
Eight-hundred Gullett is the last address on a dead-end street in East Austin. From the road, you can see the front of the house belonging to artists Philippe Klinefelter and Sunyong Chung; it's not until you walk up the driveway and through the fence that you sense the scale of the property. Visitors – friends, colleagues, students, and once a year, art fans on the East Austin Studio Tour – first get a feel for the place when they set foot in the courtyard that Klinefelter and Chung built from the former facades of Austin buildings and the discarded plantings of a branch bank or two.
"When we first moved here, we were very poor but had lots of time," says Klinefelter. "So we went out of our way – whenever buildings were being torn down – to take out what we could use. We specialized mostly in facades and bathroom stalls."
Across the courtyard from their home, Klinefelter and Chung share studio spaces. Chung, a potter, works in the front of the building on Tennessee gray marble salvaged from the bathrooms at Brackenridge Hospital. Klinefelter, a large-scale sculptor, has repurposed the back of the place – what used to be a barn and before that a blacksmith's shop – to serve as his space. Behind Klinefelter's studio, you can walk a couple hundred feet to a third building he and Chung use as a gallery space. This route takes you along a well-manicured lawn past a pile of raw materials as well as a sculpture that looks not unlike ... a pile of raw materials. During the East Side Studio Tour, each of the two outbuildings is used for exhibits. A visit in off-times finds as close to a peaceful retreat as you can get within Austin's city limits.
"Their place is a wonderland," says Marcy Hoen, interim executive director of the Austin Creative Alliance. "Everybody who goes there wants to live there. ... It's just this magical place where everything's integrated: their work lives, their home, and their private lives. Everything about their lives is integrated in a way that touches people on a really deep level."
Klinefelter and Chung took 28 years to assemble their complex. During that time, they also bought property close to the house that they purchased in late 1983 for $73,000. Klinefelter says that price was a lot at the time. Now the couple also owns three nearby rental homes. Yet despite nearly three decades of effort and residency, Klinefelter and Chung are relative newcomers to this neighborhood.
The sign for the south end of Calle Limón sits half a block from Klinefelter and Chung's spread. Placed there in the mid-Eighties with help from legendary U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle, it's evidence of East Austin's deeper history and a tribute to one of the many Hispanic families that have lived in the area for nearly a century. There, the Limóns, their kin, and a host of other families found themselves clustered alongside various industrial facilities in a neighborhood also known as El Barrio. The Limón history in El Barrio, of course, predates the recent decades of artistic inroads – and accompanying gentrification – on the Eastside.
In February, officials from the city of Austin's Code Compliance Department pored over Chung and Klinefelter's property. They took note of the little stuff: the space between the back stairs of the couple's living space, their shower, handrails on the staircase (or lack thereof). They also eyed the general arrangement of the property.
Chung notes that current home occupation rules allow for artists to have a work shed in the same place where they live. "But," she adds, "[city code] states that everything has to be contained in one dwelling. In other words, if you have your house and your garage which you use as your work shed, then all of your work has to be contained in the garage. You cannot do work in the work garage and then take that work with you and go to your kitchen table and do a sketch – that would be illegal."
She calls this the crux of the situation.
Klinefelter and Chung's interaction with the city of Austin's Code Compliance Department was touched off by a complaint allegedly made by Angela Rangel, a member of another prominent East Austin Hispanic family. Her call came in response to one that Klinefelter made about a disabled truck that was parked outside her home. With the countermove, Rangel touched off a battle that raises several issues concerning how independent Austin artists operate – and simultaneously brings more public scrutiny to an already embattled city department.
The episode serves as another salvo in the wider battle that rages over the character – and complexion – of the city, especially in these rapidly changing Eastside streets.
Breaking the Code
The autonomy of Austin's Code Compliance Department is relatively new. It split off from the Solid Waste Services Department less than two years ago, after a city review criticizing the effectiveness of SWS forced management changes there. A report prepared for the city manager by Clarence Bibby – a consultant hired to examine the department – was critical of then-Solid Waste Services Director Willie Rhodes. Indeed, the second recommendation on a list of nearly 40 suggestions for change in the department began: "Select new [Solid Waste Services] leaders. ..."
Following that review, Rhodes (in what appeared to be an unsubtle management hint about retirement) and one of his top deputies transferred to Code Compliance, and that former division became its own department. As the city conducted a search and hired Rhodes' Solid Waste Services replacement, current department head Bob Gedert, he and his lieutenants continued to run Code Compliance. Rick Cofer, co-chair of Austin's Solid Waste Advisory Commission, had a front-row seat. He recalled in particular the Cathedral of Junk incident and a Wall Street Journal article that quoted the aesthetic judgment of Code Compliance's Assistant Division Manager Ron Potts. "Some people are calling it art," Potts told WSJ, "but if you look at what it is, it's people's junk that they've dropped off."
Cofer remembers thinking, "What is happening at this department that it's on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?" Later, he offered what might serve as an answer to his own question. "It seems like the attitude of Code Compliance is still 'enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.'"
That was supposed to change. A simple adjustment to the department's moniker – a switch from Code Enforcement to Code Compliance – was intended also to signal a shift in the way code officers thought about their roles in the city's bureaucracy. "I don't know what, if anything, changed at Code [Compliance] when Willie became the director," says Cofer.
A couple of highly visible and unpopular enforcement actions that became public in the spring of 2010 didn't help. There was the attempt to shutter the beloved Cathedral of Junk and a massive campaign by one resident of the Fairview neighborhood to report to the city the various alleged code violations he'd found on his neighbors' properties.
Code Compliance also began to take a closer look at the participants in the East Austin Studio Tour. For the past nine years, local artist Shea Little and an increasing number of his friends and colleagues have been annually opening their many Eastside studios to the public. The two-weekend-long event comes with a map, a ton of signage, copious coverage in the Chronicle, and city support, and it has become a boon to artists, who use the popular event to sell their work. But because so many studios are either augmented with unpermitted (and therefore, technically illegal) construction or located in the homes of the participants, leading to another host of technical problems, the weekend also represents a juicy target for code enforcement. That is, whenever someone fires off a complaint.
Klinefelter and Chung's trouble started on Nov. 16, 2010, when Rangel's anonymous complaint – about an "unsafe fence behind the properties" – was lodged with Code Compliance. Though all complaints received by Code Compliance are afforded an official cloak of anonymity – as, indeed, was this one – Rangel is known around the neighborhood as the party responsible for the dime dropped on Klinefelter and Chung.
According to an official summary of action, inspector Luis Gonzales visited the property and responded to Rangel that day.
"I contacted complainant and advised her that I was unable to locate any fence nor could I see any violations from street vantage point," he wrote. "She was at work but advised me of a lot of information on the owner of 800 Gullet. She said that she has been researching him on the internet. I advised her that I would call her when I made a determination or if there was a violation of code."
Klinefelter and Chung's fence – the original source of the complaint – had passed muster. Had Gonzales' mission been more about compliance and less about enforcement, that might have been the end of the matter. But he wasn't done.
Klinefelter describes Gonzales as "unusually intimidating." He says that Gonzales said "that he was an ex-cop" and that "there was a police report on the house." Code Compliance spokesperson Melissa Martinez says that, because code can be seen as cut-and-dried, residents who have interactions with the department sometimes conflate that character with the personality of the investigator.
On Feb. 11, Gonzales and Code Compliance supervisor Jonathan Josephson showed up to take a closer look at the property. Josephson later said that because Klinefelter and Chung's case is ongoing, he could offer only limited comments about it. "We were able to look at the whole property," Josephson says. There, he says that he and Gonzales found work that Josephson says was done without a permit, hazardous conditions, and the inappropriate use of a property.
After Gonzales and Josephson's inspection, the summary of action recounted reads like a departmentwide hem-and-haw. On Feb. 22, Gonzales wrote: "J. Josephson advised me to hold off on mailing out notice of violation due to extraordinary circumstances. He needed an opportunity to consult with [Code Compliance Assistant Division Manager] Steve Ramirez. After consultation, Steve Ramirez suggested we all meet with Legal department prior to meeting with [the city's Development Assistance Center] and the owners of residence."
On March 3, he added: "J. Josephson, [investigator Dennis] Vaughn and I met with owner of this property at [the Development Assistance Center] along with all interested parties. Many proposals were presented and a good discussion followed. We reached somewhat of a step procedure that will require another visit to residence in the near future. J. Josephson also advised, [Code Compliance Assistant Division Manager] Dan Cardenas present, that we wait until [DAC Department Manager] Chris Johnson meets with the owners before we [send] out a notice of violation."
March 7 brought discussion of another look at the property. "Today, J. Josephson advised me that [city of Austin Residential Planner Sylvia Benavidez] was to set up the re-inspection at this address and we would go along with her when she calls," wrote Gonzales.
On March 16, Josephson wrote that he called the Watershed Protection Department's Eric Kaufman and that Kaufman met with Rangel on-site but "did not find any violations at the 800 Gullett site, and the complainant was not able to provide any specific concerns, only general concerns that have been addressed to this point."
Nevertheless, the case remained open. The latest entry in the log, which was obtained by open records request on June 14, came on June 8. There, Gonzales writes that he "was advised by J. Josephson to hold back on this case due to the process in city hall that will ultimately affect this case and other Art Studio cases." According to Gonzales' notes, Josephson also told him to take a picture of Klinefelter and Chung's property every month and attach it to the case file.
Klinefelter and Chung have been working with Benavidez from the city's Planning and Development Review Department. They say that Benavidez has been understanding and that they and at least part of the city are working proactively toward an agreeable solution. Nevertheless, on June 16 – after they began talking with the Chronicle about this story – Gonzales visited one of their rental properties and left another code violation notice. According to Klinefelter, the couple was cited for a host of violations, including a lack of handrails for the farthest building in their complex. Gonzales also cited Klinefelter and Chung for expired construction permits, even though, as Klinefelter wrote in an email, "no construction had been done since the expiration."
One Man's Art ...
Klinefelter and Chung are not the only participants in the East Side Studio Tour to face code issues. The Chronicle filed a public information request for complaint data on 180-odd addresses that have participated in the East Austin Studio Tour over the past three years. Forty-five of them, including two of Klinefelter and Chung's addresses, have received complaints. Some of the complaints feature language that would seem to be specific to an artist's home during the tour; one simply says "reported by Ron Potts." Some properties reflected multiple complaints. In all, 28 of the complaints turned out to be valid. Twenty-three were classified as either "no violation found" or "unjustified complaint."
Both Martinez and Josephson say that the department is bound to act on and review any complaint. "We can't make assumptions about whether there's a violation or not," says Martinez. And, again, following a standard policy that can be either reassuring or an invitation for abuse – depending on your side of the exchange – complaints received by the Code Compliance Department are anonymous.
Artist Barry George received four complaints about a space at 204 Attayac between March 2010 and 2011. In one summary, the first complaint, pursued by investigators Mac Castillo and Kit Campbell, came in response to a call alleging "accumulated rubbish." In the summary of the case, Castillo wrote, "Most of the items there are art." On April 19, Campbell closed the case, calling it an "unjustified complaint."
The second inspection came after a complaint against George for "unpermitted and/or unsafe yard art sculptures or structures and zoning violations for public event/tour use without authorization/permits." Inspector Dennis Vaughn took photos of the property and waited for a use determination from other city officials about whether George had violated any zoning provisions. The case was closed in September 2010, with a note from Vaughn that "[n]o violation(s)" had been found.
In January 2011, someone complained that there was "[t]rash, junk and debris around the shop area" and that someone at 204 Attayac had left trash carts at the curb. This time George wasn't so lucky. "I conducted an initial inspection on 1/3/2011 at this address to verify all violations," wrote Vaughn in the summary. "I noticed a lot [of] junk and debris located around the metal shop area. Also, the trash carts were left at the curb. Trash pick up is always on Friday. A notice of violation will be sent to the owner for compliance."
On Jan. 24, Vaughn wrote that he and Josephson met with George, adding, "The owner has made some progress in the removal of weeds/grass." But when Vaughn returned on Feb. 7, he observed that – though George had "done some clean up around the property ... more work is needed to bring the property into compliance." According to the summary, the case remains open.
Respecting the Spirit
"When it comes time to actually become legitimate, there are so many steps to go through that it's actually prohibitive for an artist-run space," says East Side Studio Tour founder Shea Little, referring to occasionally unconventional – but not necessarily dangerous – adaptations of property by artist-residents. Little says that the studio tour first heard rumblings about issues with the event about two years ago. "We heard about neighborhoods that were a little upset about the tour and having spaces in residential neighborhoods that would generate traffic, and those types of things," he said. "Code Compliance actually contacted us and said: 'There are some things going on; we're aware of the studio tour, and there are some things that may need to get permitted, so we need to talk to y'all. Let's get together sometime.'"
The meeting never happened. "We actually feel like we held up our end of the bargain and pursued them and said, 'Yeah, let's make this happen,'" Little continues. "I think they just ... they kind of put it on hold."
That, says Little, was in 2009.
In recent months, City Council has stepped into the fray. On May 12, council instructed City Manager Marc Ott to draft ordinance language that would allow artists to sell their work out of their homes a few times each year – previously a violation of city code – effectively legalizing art sales during the East Side Studio Tour.
On May 26, council took further action, approving a change to city code that would retroactively grandfather "longstanding code violations that do not threaten public safety or negatively impact surrounding properties." Though the effect of this measure would cover a wide range of properties, artists with nondangerous code violations on their properties – like Klinefelter and Chung – stand to benefit. And Code Compliance loses another enforcement tool against home studios. There is also talk that the Planning Commission will soon consider zoning changes that would allow artists who live on single-family lots more leeway in designing and using studio space.
Council Member Chris Riley co-sponsored the May 12 resolution with then-Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and then-Council-Member Randi Shade. "East Austin Studio Tours has become a hallowed tradition in Austin," he says. "I believe the resolution was just a way to make sure that our current code respects the tradition that has emerged – respects the spirit of the event."
Marcy Hoen says that though she believes that the city is "very motivated to be helpful," she sees another gap. "There currently is no system in place for artists to come into compliance and to learn what it is that they're not doing correctly before they get cited," she says. "They can't call the coding department and say, 'Come check me out; I want to come into compliance,' because as soon as that happens, they'll get cited."
On June 29, Hoen's organization joined with Little's East Austin Studio Tour to put on a benefit that kick-started a microlending entity that will provide EAST artists with funds to upgrade illegal structures in time for this November's tour. Hoen says that she expects to begin distributing loans sometime this month. (For more detail, see "Frameworks EAST Fund," The Arts, June 24.)
On July 19, Klinefelter and Chung will meet with local architect Gary Devin – one of the consultants provided by the Austin Creative Alliance to help EAST artists with their violations – and city officials to begin setting up a proactive way for artists in a commercial zone to address any code issues. Once established, the program would allow DIY studio operators on commercially zoned lots – such as those at 501 Pedernales (see "Eastside Art Spaces Under Siege?," May 6) – to get professional assistance without risking the wrath of the Code Compliance Department.
New Sheriff in Town
This spring, Rhodes finally obliged city management and made way for new blood, which arrives from Fort Worth on July 18 in the person of Carl Smart, the former executive assistant to Fort Worth's city manager. He has extensive experience in code compliance in three states and says Austin's department is "poised to become one of the best code compliance departments in the state – maybe even the country."
Smart seems ready to bring with him something of a softer touch. He says that his approach to compliance comes "without having to use the hammer as much. We're going to put more emphasis on educating the public, for one," he says. "For two, the overall approach, how you approach people .... We are there to serve them. Good customer service, that's a priority for me."
Solid Waste Advisory Commission Chair Gerard Acuna says he's looking forward to meeting Smart. "There's a need for Code [Compliance] to become a little more understanding," he says, and he's "looking forward" to someone "who can lead [the department] away from code enforcement back into code compliance."
Riley says that the complaint-driven process works in some ways but has a major weakness: "There is obviously a real potential for abuse," he says. "We have to figure ways of dealing with it, and I think one possibility is to revisit some of the requirements we have in place. Another possibility is to make sure our Code Compliance is ... mindful of the degree of culpability of any particular violation."
But whatever the managerial shifts at Code Compliance – or artists' ability to bring their respective properties up to code – first generation Eastsiders such as Klinefelter and Chung remain subject to a certain lack of acceptance from their neighbors, rooted in a long-standing cultural conflict that helped touch off the code complaints in the first place. And that issue raises the need for more than just these comparatively simple ordinance or structural changes.
Klinefelter and Chung's three rental properties sit facing Calle Limón, side by side on Lyons Street. Chung says that she and Klinefelter bought two of the houses after a member of the Limón family was unable to do the same. They bought the third after a foreclosure forced friends out of the neighborhood. Chung says that they asked for that family's blessing. "Every five years, by happenstance, they've been available," said Klinefelter. "I spent three years of weekends, three years of weekends, three years of weekends [fixing them up]." Still, as careful as they were to avoid the label, Klinefelter and Chung's actions read – at least to some of their neighbors – as those of gentrifiers.
"What has worried some of the people in our community has been him purchasing the homes next to him," says Johnny Limón, who also notes that a zoning change that Klinefelter and Chung applied for "opened some of the residents' eyes."
"You know, any kind of a zoning change in a single-family neighborhood is going to raise eyebrows," he continues. "In the past, it probably wouldn't have. But now, as people are more aware and people like to protect the community, it raises eyebrows."
In a May profile of the Limóns, Austin American-Statesman writer Michael Barnes noted the political history and importance of the family. The Limóns are "politically active," he writes, "and their gatherings are popular with elected officials and aspiring candidates." The Limóns were part of the effort to clean up the barrio in the latter portion of the 20th century, including the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Combined Neighborhood Plan. "There were many neighborhoods that were zoned light industrial/industrial," says Limón. "During the neighborhood plan, we were actually able to change down a lot of those zonings."
In so doing, they opened the door for what Limón suggests has been 10 years' worth of change. "With our neighborhood plan, we corrected some injustices that were done to this community for many, many years – and we don't want to go back to that," he says. "[But] we made this area a much better place to live, to where now people from all walks of life don't mind moving over here and living here."
Little is also aware of the cross-cultural situation. "The studio tour, and artists in general, play a big role, or are a part of gentrification – are part of the process of, more or less, revitalizing lower-income areas like East Austin," he says. "We come over for the cheap rent and the unused space."
The studio tour "started to develop as what it was – this way of exposing artists," he continues. "In effect, [it also] started exposing East Austin to a crowd that was hesitant – or still carried that stigma from 10, 15 years ago that was like, 'East Austin is bad, don't go there.'"
Nevertheless, Limón appears ready to welcome Chung, Klinefelter, and anyone else to the Eastside. Indeed, the idea that the newcomers weave themselves into the fabric of the community is central to his concerns. "To me, the gentrifiers are really investors who come in, buy a home, tear it down, and now they put two homes there and they turn around and they sell it for lots of money," he says. "If [the artists] ... really want to move here and live here and be part of our community, you know what, I personally – and my family that lives here – don't have a problem with that."
Klinefelter and Chung feel as though they have answered Limón's call. "Our children grew up in this neighborhood," says Klinefelter, "We've been next to 10 rental properties for 28 years, and I know all of their first names." Chung flips the criticism around. "I suppose it goes the other way too," she writes in an email. Though she notes that some of their older Hispanic neighbors typically make it to their own events, "[i]n 27 years we have had open studios, I have never ever seen my 'native' neighbors come."
In an earlier conversation, Chung was circumspect about the whole debate, distinguishing her family's history from some grander demographic transition. "We're a couple of artists who bought into this neighborhood," she says. "[We're trying to] carve out a little piece of earth."