Enchanted No More
Rising tax bill forces owner to put art venue on the market
In the woods of the Enchanted Forest, there's a big metal heart. It's rusted now, tipped over to one side, and a perfect visual metaphor for what's happening to this stretch of woodland off of West Oltorf. Owner Albert DeLoach said, "Two days before the surveyors came by, it toppled over, and I thought to myself, 'Well, that's a sign.'"
Earlier this year, DeLoach announced he was putting the South Austin art institution on the market. The property listing is non-descript. Three acres off Oltorf, zoned for commercial services and family residences, with a $3.3 million asking price. There's a creek running through the back lot, which means only around half the property can actually be developed, but it's almost unprecedented in recent years for this much undeveloped land in the urban core to come on the market.
That's because, for the past quarter-century, it's been a unique creative space in Austin. A combination of monolithic gallery and open-air amphitheater, and a hub for artists, both visual and performance, local and global. "I still have poet friends from Australia who stopped by just last week to say goodbye," said DeLoach. Last month, for old time's sake, he held one final public Easter Egg hunt, but the forest has hosted all manner of artistic happenings, from poetry to aerial silks, from Art Outside to Silent City Limits silent discos to Halloween trails. "That's my favorite," said DeLoach. "Nothing like scaring the hell out of people."
The problem was purely financial. Over the last few years, the site's property taxes accelerated, and DeLoach and his family struggled to keep up. Finally, he faced a tough decision: Find $30,000 for next year's bill, or use that money to get the property into a sellable state. "It's not just me," he said. "All the different art collectives that I know from the Eighties have pretty much vanished or moved on." He could have made different commercial choices, selling beer like the newly opened Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. down the road, "but I tried to create an environment where there's more artistic stimuli than you can process, and therefore you can create that euphoria without being all fucked up." Besides, he said, "I like my friends so much better when they're behaving and sober."
DeLoach doesn't necessarily look like a patron of the arts. A closely-trimmed beard, with a few strands of gray, and blue mechanics overalls, he looks more like a steam train engineer than a champion of creativity. But the forest was always his dream. According to local lore, the property was one of the last true hobo camps in America, and DeLoach can believe it. He said, "Some of the stuff that we drug up here was definitely from the Fifties. Car hoods and doors that were used to make shelters." But underneath that, he said, "I saw the beautiful potential of environmental artistry and creation."
There's a lot of sweat equity in the forest. When DeLoach moved in, it was overgrown with ragweed and the creek drained into a broken sewer line, and it took a decade to clear out all the trash. Now it's an unofficial nature reserve, with herons in the stream, three kinds of owl, a mating pair of wood ducks, plus a small hawk that he has yet to identify. There are possums, and just the other day, a raccoon took one of his chickens. "Those chickens refuse to go in the coop," he said.
He admits the decision to sell was tough on his family. After all, his children and grandchildren played in the woods, and they've been through the grieving process. Now they're on to the hard grind of dismantling a dream: relocating structures, taking down art installations, and seeing the community that gathered around disband. DeLoach said, "They aren't able to find inexpensive enough space to be able to not work 50 hours to afford their rent, and not have time to do their art." There's been a diaspora out to Elgin, where some of the regulars hope to establish some kind of mini-Marfa. Others have returned to the coasts, and cities like Asheville, N.C., "places where you're appreciated for your art." It's an experience with which DeLoach can empathize. He said, "The last few years, I've been spinning my wheels just to make enough money to keep up with my ever-increasing tax burden. At some point, it's hard to justify doing that."
Keeping the forest open was increasingly difficult over the last half decade. In 2008, DeLoach was informed by the city's newly formed Public Assembly Code Enforcement unit that the forest was in violation of several of its permits (see "Permit Woes," Aug. 1, 2008), and after many expensive changes, he took the painful decision to stop holding public events. DeLoach doesn't blame PACE. In fact, he praised them for working so closely with him to find solutions. However, the effort had been enormous. For the last major event, a silent disco, DeLoach actually rented sufficient off-site, off-street parking to placate the city. Yet the parking issue had always been a problem for the forest. In its early days, with smaller crowds, the traffic generated could be easily absorbed. But as the numbers of visitors hit the thousands for big, multiday events, and as Lamar became more densely developed, parking became more of an issue. So finally it was just one more step towards selling. DeLoach said, "I'm not cutting my trees down, which ironically is why I'm having to let someone else chop all my trees down."
This isn't a simplistic case of artists versus developers, or locals versus evil condo builders. In fact, as taxes rose, he considered developing the property on his own terms, keeping as much of the land untouched as possible. Yet while there were plenty of potential investors for the construction, it was difficult finding anyone to get involved in the planning stage. However, DeLoach said he believes that he has found a buyer who sees the creek's ecosystem "as an asset and not a liability."
As for DeLoach, he exits the property just as he entered, with clearing and cleaning. Then he might take a year off to go sailing with his family; after that, he plans to move from the arts into a commercial sustainable food operation, out beyond the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, "which feels slightly liberating." He said, "There's so much of the crop that is thrown away because there might be one insect bite. But you cut that bite out and you can make pasta, stews, everything." Yet he still fears for what the loss of the forest and other similar affordable spaces means for Austin's creative class. He's talked to policy experts in cities like San Francisco, where there's a desperate scrabble to attract back the same artists that urban renewal and gentrification forced out. Now urban planners are contemplating projects like collaborative spaces and rent control for working creatives. DeLoach said, "That's their big discussion: How much is it going to cost us to get the artists back, now that we drove them off?"