Last summer, an East Bay-based nonprofit called Firehouse Art Co. was poised to open a gallery/workspace at 1543 Pacific Avenue, the former site of The Velvet Underground Clothing Co. Along with being an art gallery, Firehouse Art Collective Ocean Pacific House was to be a studio space offering 24-hour access to artists working in various media.But almost literally at the last minute, Firehouse director Tom Franco (brother of the famed actor James Franco) was told that the permits to open the Santa Cruz studio had been denied.
“We got the news about an hour before we were supposed to sign the lease,” Franco recalls with a sporting laugh. “I asked one of our people to go and just get the sign-off with the City out of the way, and when she went in, they said, ‘No, that’s incorrect. We’re not on board for this.’ That was the opposite of what we heard them say the first time we went in just to test the waters out. So there was some kind of miscommunication there.”
Miscommunication, indeed: According to City of Santa Cruz Principal Planner Eric Marlatt, no permits were ever denied, because this project never made it past the inquiry stage. As he explains, the building at 1543 Pacific is a part of the Pacific Avenue Retail area of downtown Santa Cruz. Zoning regulations “seek to encourage high volume pedestrian-oriented uses that reinforce this area as an active public space,” he says, adding that the bulk of the ground level uses allowed in this area extending 75 feet from Pacific Avenue are retail and food service. “Art galleries or museums that are orientated and open to the public” are also allowed. “As I recall, the business model [that Firehouse proposed] had individual studio spaces that were more private in nature,” he states.
Although there was a strong retail component to the proposed studio, the Planning and Community Development Department wanted a more open-floor retail model than the one Firehouse had presented. “We were offering full retail presence, but on paper, it looks a certain way when you have studio/retail,” Franco says.
Marlatt recalls, “Consistent with the [Downtown Recovery Plan that was instituted after the Loma Prieta earthquake], we suggested a floorplan that had the front portion of the ground floor space devoted to a gallery open to the public, with the rear portion of the ground floor space, as well as the upstairs to include the private studios. [The Firehouse representative with whom we spoke] indicated that this was not financially feasible, which is where it was left.”
Franco says Firehouse hasn’t given up on this project. “Everybody we’ve talked to is still interested,” he claims. “I don’t think the City is saying, ‘We don’t want to do that.’ There are just protocols and logistics that they have to abide by. So it’s just: How do we maneuver with it? We’re open to making it work in any way. It doesn’t have to be art studio/retail; we just want a community space.”
Regardless of outcome, this experience has been a learning experience for Firehouse, which currently provides spaces where artists in areas like Berkeley and Oakland create, display and sell their work. “It’s a good test model for us to say, ‘Well, what do we need [in order to expand beyond the East Bay]? What are the challenges that are going to come up to be able to expand in this way and broaden the team significantly?’” Franco offers.
That being said, Franco, a former UCSC student, feels that Santa Cruz would make an ideal environment for a Firehouse studio. He reasons that in light of the City’s recent efforts to reduce the amount of vending on the part of Pacific Avenue street artists, a downtown Firehouse space would be a win-win: Local artists could continue to sell their works on Pacific without taking up street space.
The director adds, “There’s such a strong art community in Santa Cruz that you can’t have enough art spaces. That’s how Firehouse Art Collective was born and thrives, because it’s a similar case in the East Bay. If that’s the case, then this is a no-brainer: This is something that will blossom.”