It’s two weeks before Gowanus Open Studios (GOS), an annual celebration of the artistic community in one of Brooklyn’s foremost industrial neighborhoods. But instead of putting the finishing touches on paintings, many artists with Gowanus studios are busy scouring real estate listings. A new developer has taken control of a building — or more likely a series of them — less than a block from the Smith-9th Street subway station and is methodically getting rid of the artists who work there.
“I kind of had an inkling of it, because I re-signed my lease last June, and normally they offer two-year leases; this time they didn’t,” says artist James Cabot Ewart, who’s had a studio in Gowanus for three years. “So I thought something was maybe happening, but I didn’t really think too much of it.”
Then June of this year rolled around, and Ewart arrived at his studio one day to find an estoppel certificate — a legal document that gives a third party information about an agreement between a landlord and tenant. In Ewart’s case, the letter detailed the terms of his lease, his monthly rent, and the amount of his security deposit. He dutifully signed it, got it notarized, and sent it where it needed to go: CH Gowanus LLC, c/o Industrie Capital Partners, attention of the developer Eli Hamway.
“That was the month my lease was ending, so I was kind of freaking out a lot, because it was short notice,” Ewart says. “They wouldn’t really give us any information.”
After multiple phone calls and emails, Ewart arranged a month-to-month rental agreement with his new management. “There was no end date, so I forgot about it again,” he says — until a phone call came on August 10 from the management company. “They said that everyone had to be out by November.
“I’m happy about it, because I get to do Gowanus Open Studio one more time,” he added.
“It first came on my radar [in] late spring that there were a couple of artists who were losing their leases,” says Abby Subak, the director of Arts Gowanus, which organizes GOS. “Some things in the past week have really brought it [to] a head — I guess a critical mass of artists losing their leases.”
It’s difficult to determine just how big that critical mass is. DNAinfo reported the number as “dozens,” an assessment with which Subak concurs. “Easily dozens, conservatively dozens,” she says, “because we would typically have 20 from each building participating in open studios, and I would never claim we had 100% of the artists.”
That “each building” hints at the tangled nature of the situation. The evictions thus far have affected artists with studios in 94 and 98 9th Street, as well as 75 and 75A 10th Street, while Subak thinks a fifth adjacent building, at 112 Second Avenue, might be safe “for now.” The trick, however, is that all five of these addresses feed into one big, connected complex that can be accessed from any of the entrances. Ewart, whose studio is technically located at 75A 10th Street, says he typically gives visitors the 94 9th Street address.
A document filed earlier this year with the New York City Department of Finance records a lease for yet another property — the “entire lot” — at 124 9th Street before going on to list the premises as 94 9th Street two pages later. It’s a $21.2 million deal, signed by 8112–8124 18th Ave Realty Corp, Maserati Realty LLC, and Ribellino Family Limited Partnership, acting “jointly and severally, as Landlord,” and Eli Hamway’s CH Gowanus LLC, as tenant. The initial term of the lease, effective April 1, 2015, is “approximately” 101 years and 6 months.
How many and which interconnected buildings on that block now fall under the purview of CH Gowanus remains unclear, as well as what the company intends to do with them. The area is zoned for manufacturing, and new residential development is not allowed, according to DNAinfo. Hamway could not be reached for comment, and a phone call to Maserati Realty went unanswered. (The latter company has sponsored GOS as recently as last year.) I was able to speak to someone at Ribellino Family Limited Partnership, who quickly told me “we’re no longer owners of this building,” without specifying which building. When I pressed for more information, I was told to send an email with my questions (I did, and have not received a response).
“I don’t want to write doom for Gowanus, I don’t want to say Gowanus is going to lose everything,” remarks Subak. “But artists are not finding comparable spaces in Gowanus. There are some available studio spaces, but they’re priced much higher. So those who have been already able to find new spaces tend to be in other neighborhoods.”
Indeed, the artist Iliana Emilia Garcia and her husband are now looking for spaces “past Industry City, in the 50s, in Sunset Park, that are still affordable somehow,” in her words. They learned on September 15 that their lease at 75 10th Street would not be renewed, and that they had to be out by October 31. “I ended up pulling out of the open studios because everything shifted after the news,” explains Garcia, who has worked in Gowanus for “four or five” years (her husband for six). “We went from preparing the studios to packing it and looking for new space. It’s really unfortunate for the community, because the open studios is the weekend when everyone gets together.”
Garcia isn’t the only artist who’s had to withdraw at the last minute from GOS because of losing her studio — there have been “several,” according to Subak. But the Arts Gowanus director says the impact will mostly not be felt this time around. “I mean, does it show right now? No. Would anybody notice it at this particular Gowanus Open Studios? No. But if this is writing on the wall for the future, it’s very scary.
“It’s such a common story these days,” she added. “It’s not even just artists — think about the senior housing near Prospect Park. All these groups of people, who are real people who we could be valuing and caring about, we’re allowing [them] to be pushed out of the way so that somebody else can make money.”
Update, 10/2, 3:31pm ET: Artist Kat Chamberlin, whose studio is located at 112 2nd Avenue, tells us that her side of the building complex appears to be safe for the next two years, and that she and other artists have recently renewed their individual leases. “Our landlord has a lease for our side of the building with Maserati for two more years. But our individual studios are subleased under one-year contracts (at least that’s what I signed).” She adds that the “middle part of the building adjacent to ours is all but empty” at this point.