For around 100 years, one small family has owned an entire block of businesses and arts spaces in southwest Berkeley.

The occupants have fluctuated over the years, from furniture and fabric stores, to the original iteration of the Crucible and a custom glass company. And for the past two decades, a group of artists built the kind of space there that became a locus of the underground arts scene but was invisible from the countless cars that zip down Ashby Avenue daily en route to the freeway.

With the great-grandchildren of the original property owner reaching retirement age and preparing to sell the block, the future of the site and the people connected to it are in question. The property is a rare one where multiple interests have coexisted for years, and those involved hope that can still be the case as new opportunities arise and developers draw up plans.

In some ways, the changes to that one small stretch of southwest Berkeley represent tensions at play throughout the neighborhood and the whole city, where housing is in high demand, artists feel squeezed out, zoning rules receive new scrutiny and longtime institutions shutter.

“Puppets and Teslas”

“I’ve been going to the property since I was a little kid,” said Steve Cohen, who’s managed the buildings on the block for around 40 years.

When Cohen’s great-grandfather bought the building at the corner of Ashby and San Pablo avenues in the early 1900s, there was a furniture store there — according to family lore, at least. The great-grandfather and his son later got into the mattress wholesale business, and eventually built out some storage space at the site along Ashby and Murray Street and another building on the west end, near Ninth Street.

When Cohen’s father died at a young age, the son was only in his twenties and living in Sacramento, but he began managing the Berkeley property and hasn’t stopped since. Cohen’s tenants have often stayed for decades, like the Papy Boez Outlet. And some, like the artists in “Xian Space,” have enjoyed rents far under market rate.

“I had the good fortune of having had no debt on the property, and the ability to have a win-win,” said Cohen. “I’ve really enjoyed supporting the arts.”

That legacy of support began when an artist named Michael Sturtz approached the landlord about launching the industrial arts organization that would soon become the Crucible in the Murray Street-fronted warehouse space in 1999. A few years later, the artists left for their current West Oakland home after reportedly sparring with the city over zoning and use issues.

“That should have been a Berkeley institution,” Cohen said.

But during his short tenure there, Sturtz introduced the landlord to another Michael — sculptor and metalworker Michael Christian, who went on to rent the property for 17 years, bringing in more than 100 other artist tenants, usually eight or nine at a time, over the years.

Today, Christian is the only artist still left there.

Everyone else had to leave earlier this summer, as Cohen readies the site for likely turnover. The owner is in talks with developers Morgan Read and Kasey Stevens, and architect David Trachtenberg, about their potentially building a mixed-use project on part of the property.

50-something man in a bright yellow decorated jacket stand, smiling, next to stacks of scrap metals and tools.
Michael Christian was the original tenant at Xian Space and is the last artist left there too, as the block-long property gets prepared for potential sale and development. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cohen and his siblings first thought about selling the block years ago, after their grandmother died, but they hung onto the property when the Great Recession hit. More recently, the owner looked into fixing up and converting the aging property himself, but felt that wouldn’t be feasible and wouldn’t end up protecting his tenants anyway. Plus, his siblings wanted to sell.

“The reality was, anything I was going to do was going to involve, for one, upgrading those buildings to be up to code,” Cohen said. “Or we could go down the path of trying to do something different there, whether housing or a new artist space, but it was going to involve dislocating tenants and taking on debt which we’ve not had. And another buyer was not going to subsidize Michael’s space the way I was.”

While some tenants on the block, like Wilson Glass and Discount Fabrics, are still renting there — albeit on short-term or under-market leases — the artists in Xian Space (an abbreviation for Christian) are all moved or moving out. (Christian himself got an extension until the fall.)

While some of his subtenants are very upset, Christian doesn’t resent his landlord. In fact, the artist expressed gratitude for years of low rent and the accommodation of his unconventional set-up.

“There are no complaints on my end for unfair practice,” Christian said. “I don’t even remember last time they raised the rent. And they paid for us to paint a mural on the wall when people were tagging it. I think [Cohen] was excited that we were in the space and were responsible, because that doesn’t always happen.”

He even understands the decision to kick out the artists before the other renters.

“From the outside looking in, it’s pretty chaotic,” he said. “It’s an art space, not your standard commercial space. I”m sure after Ghost Ship there’s hesitation on all levels.”

The 2016 fire that killed a stunning 36 people — many adjacent to the Xian scene — in the labyrinthian Ghost Ship warehouse in East Oakland inspired new concerns about the safety and legality of the DIY artist warehouses around the Bay Area. The tragedy also immediately prompted evictions of residents at other nearby creative spaces.

Cohen said no major upgrades have been made to the probably 100-year-old property he manages, and acknowledged that the electrical wiring is probably not up to code. On top of that, Christian and his crew built some additions to their space over the years, though the artist noted that the in-house welders, woodworkers and engineers who did that work had deep experience in creating secure structures.

While most of the artists and their creations are gone, many vestiges of the space Christian and his community created remain throughout the building. Huge puppet heads, by artist Jonathan Youtt and others, peer down at the people walking through the studio. An old DeLorean — which engineer Phil Sadow is working on electrifying — hangs from the ceiling, and a shiny blue Tesla sits on the ground, hood propped up. Around the corner, half-clothed mannequins confront passers-by.

“Puppets and Teslas,” said Christian. “It was pretty much the gamut.”

A De Lorean hangs from the ceiling
Xian tenant Phil Sadow worked on restoring Teslas and electrifying old cars, like this DeLorean. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Upstairs is the yellow kitchen and lounge area the artists built themselves. The high-tech creatives also decked the space out with a serious security system and super-fast internet. Christian recalled a time when the surveillance cameras caught a guy sneaking into the property, gun-first. The intruder left almost immediately, probably spooked by all the heavy-duty equipment and massive metal installations crowded in the space, the artist suspects.

Christian never planned for Xian — also the name of his corporation — to become the community arts hub that it did. It happened organically, he said, and over the years the property hosted countless book launches, film screenings, performances, parties and late-night work sessions.

The neighbors never complained, according to Christian, likely in part because the location was a bit removed from residential areas.

“It was up to our own self-regulation. We were responsible,” he said. The events were all promoted through word of mouth, and never had an entrance fee.

“Of all the mega-millionaires, where’s the support?”

That flexibility allowed now well-known artists and performers, like electronic musicians Beats Antique and an artist who makes headdresses for pop stars, to rehearse and develop their crafts at the Berkeley site, Christian said.

Christian himself has the biggest studio space — 5,000 square feet filled with steel rods, scrap metal, wooden work benches and massive sculptures at various stages of completion. The 53-year-old artist, who made the globe sculpture currently at the downtown Berkeley BART plaza, also creates huge installations for Burning Man and other festivals.

Nearing two decades at Xian, the artist has been feeling ready for his next move for some time.

“By the time this rolled around I was not putting up as much of a fight,” he said. “The only part I’m sad about is there’s not a continuation of some sort to carry this on, or space available for the arts.”

Christian looked for a new studio around the Bay Area and came up with nothing.

“It’s tragic,” he said. “There’s been a migration out of the city for years now. We came to the East Bay and it’s pushing out of the East Bay now too. Go to Richmond, Vallejo, elsewhere, there’s not a lot of options. I looked in Sonoma and Petaluma but it’s expensive there. Even Sacramento is getting a push. I’m actually looking at Las Vegas at this point.”

Cohen agrees with his longtime tenant.

“In all my life I’ve watched that whole Bay Area going kind of crazy with cost,” he said. “What people have to pay where you live is insane.  Of all the mega-millionaires and billionaires that have been created in the Bay Area, where’s the support [for the arts]? It’s not fair to ask my family to do more and more and more.”

What’s next for this West Berkeley block?

Last summer, architect Trachtenberg put in a request with the city for information on how the Cohens’ property is zoned.

The response from the city shows that the portion at 3000 San Pablo Ave., currently home to Discount Fabrics, is zoned C-W. That’s the label for the West Berkeley commercial district, meaning that site can support retail — or developers can apply for a permit to build housing or something else on it.

Developer Read said it’s too early to talk in detail about what might happen to the 10,600-square-foot lot, but he said in an email that he’s been speaking with Cohen and evaluating the potential for a mixed-use development there.

Cohen said he’s excited about transforming the building.

“I’ve always been aware it’s a gateway to Berkeley,” he said of the block his family owns. “Quite frankly I haven’t been proud of the way it’s looked.” In recent years, he’s watched new developments, like the Higby apartment complex, spring up on the lots surrounding his.

He hopes to play a role in whatever eventually gets built on the site.

“The property has been in my family my entire life. It would be fun to continue to be involved,” Cohen said.

However, developers are limited in the scope of what they can build on the rest of the block.

The remaining 47,400-square foot lot, with several separate addresses on Ashby and Murray, is zoned MU-LI, or mixed use-light industrial.

Under the 1993 West Berkeley Plan, if a property was being used for industrial purposes at that time (manufacturing, wholesale trade or warehouse), 75% of the space must remain industrial in perpetuity. In 2010, updates to the plan made industry interchangeable with the arts, meaning something that was a warehouse in the 1990s could legally become an artist studio in 2019, or vice versa.

The rules were crafted to protect manufacturing and the arts in the neighborhood, said Rick Auerbach, one of the plan’s authors.

“These sectors weren’t favored by the market,” but had traditionally been clustered in the neighborhood, said Auerbach, of West Berkeley Artisans & Industrial Companies. “It’s important for the economic and ethnic diversity of the city to maintain these jobs.” Employees — like the thousands who worked at the now-shuttered Pacific Steel Casting over decades — can often get manufacturing work without extensive education, he noted.

Discussions around West Berkeley zoning were reignited last year when the Berkeley City Council changed the zoning of a MU-LI parcel at 10th and Parker streets, allowing commercial uses there so Kaiser Permanente could build a medical campus. The decision caused some consternation among those wanting to maintain the industrial businesses currently located at the site.

On another side, advocates have often called for more lax zoning rules across the board in increasingly unaffordable Berkeley, to open up more neighborhoods to residential construction and denser housing.

Berkeley’s letter to Trachtenberg says all of Cohen’s property, except the 3000 San Pablo Ave. retail site, falls under the West Berkeley industrial protections.

“We would not contemplate any change in use for the MU-LI portion of the property,” said Read.

Asked specifically about Xian and that sort of artist group, the developer said, “We would be open to considering all zoning-compliant uses for the industrial spaces going forward.”

In Auerbach’s vision, the San Pablo store becomes a profit-yielding housing complex, supporting a continued arts space in the western portion of the property. (Auerbach himself worked out of the building at one point in the 1980s.)

“I understand that if the Read brothers get ahold of it, they’ll probably want to bring it up to code, which costs something,” he said. “I understand that the space will probably not rent for what it’s renting now. But I think it can still end up being relatively affordable. We think potential win-win-win for everybody on this property, and Berkeley can keep this important cultural resource and a place for industry.” 

Christian, on the other hand, said he’s skeptical that once the space is renovated and the rent is raised to market or somewhere thereabouts, it would still be a home for him and his folks.

“If it’s an arts space, it wouldn’t resemble anything I would call an arts space,” he said.

Auerbach pointed out that Christian is the creator of one of the most prominent pieces of public art in Berkeley today.

“That artist is being evicted, that’s crazy. This is about gentrification and losing an important component of the cultural sector,” he said.

Christian said it makes sense that his landlord would want to sell the property and get a reasonable return. He said the challenge of keeping creative scenes thriving in cities like Berkeley is a problem that won’t be solved by simply preserving individual buildings here and there. But he does think it’s ironic that he’s finding himself in need of a new home base just as he’s “started to engage in a more civic-minded relationship.”

He actually got a call from the city the other day, inquiring about extending the big metal globe’s tenure at the BART plaza another year, he said.

Now his work might live in Berkeley longer than he does.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...