A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Landlord

Marco Cochran founded the Creamery as a place for artists like himself to share a home. But city officials didn't share the same vision.

Along with about ten thousand other things, the parable of St. Francis of Assisi weighs heavily on Marco Cochran’s mind. Born to middle-class parents in the Italian township of Assisi, Francis basically spent his youth partying with buddies before a series of epiphanies led him to abandon all material possessions and marry himself to poverty. Sometime thereafter, he encountered a leper while crossing a river. Initially repulsed, Francis’ magnanimous instincts ultimately led him to embrace the diseased man and bestow all his money upon him. This he did, thus beginning his commitment to asceticism.

“During this whole process, I’m doing a sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi having an epiphany while helping a leper,” recalls Cochran, who is standing outside the Creamery, his community of live-work artists studios on a seedy stretch of San Pablo Avenue near downtown Oakland. “The whole time I’m sitting here going, ‘What am I? Which am I? The leper?’

“I feel like the leper. But the intent of this place is to be a St. Francis.”

The process to which Cochran refers is the gradual disintegration of his lifelong dream: creating and maintaining a progressive arts community that would live, work, and play together under the same roof, sharing ideas, supporting one another, and bringing art and arts events to the surrounding community.

Located since 1999 in a neighborhood plagued by crack houses, prostitution, and violence, Cochran’s project has been one of the few beacons of hope on an otherwise dowdy thoroughfare. Providing housing for two dozen artists, in addition to communal studios, a library, gallery, performance space, and dance studio, the Creamery offers affordable living and working spaces for artists of all disciplines.

From an urban renewal perspective, it has been a grand success. Before Cochran bought it, the building was just another abandoned warehouse. Afterward, it housed a group of professional artists who were taking the first steps toward turning an otherwise neglected neighborhood into something the city could be proud of.

Accepting Mayor Jerry Brown’s invitation to artists to choose Oakland as an alternative to San Francisco’s skyrocketing rents, Cochran founded the Creamery thinking he would be safe from the rising rental prices that chased so many artists out of their spaces during the dot-com boom. He had vision and guts, but he lacked a certain legalistic savvy. When he bought the old brick building, he knew it needed a seismic retrofit to be considered safe for occupancy. Nevertheless, he moved forward, building 22 studios within the Creamery’s 18,000 square feet, gambling that the city of Oakland would remain unaware of his actions until he could afford the costs of permits and additional construction that would meet the requirements of city code.

For three years he stayed below the radar and established one of the most successful artists’ communities in the city. But when an angry tenant reported his activities to the Building Department, it all came crashing down.

Cochran’s situation is far from unique. All across Oakland, illegal yet affordable live-work spaces have sprouted in neighborhoods from Fruitvale to West Oakland. Just a few blocks away from the Creamery is a space that sponsors monthly art exhibits. Up the street is a warehouse that hosts weekly concerts by bands from around the world. A short drive away is a warehouse colony of filmmakers who use their space as a soundstage.

All these places are distinct from what architect Thomas Dolan derides as “lifestyle lofts” — those faux-industrial buildings mainly designed for people who are neither artists nor plan to work at home. “My synonym for lifestyle lofts, particularly as they were done in San Francisco, is Substandard Luxury Housing,” says Dolan, a designer of Bay Area live-work buildings who has worked with the city of Oakland to pave the way for more such compounds. “Substandard as in they were built to reduced codes, Luxury in that it seems pretty darn expensive, and it’s Housing as distinct from live-work.”

True live-work spaces, on the other hand, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While some house more than fifty occupants, they seem to average about ten to fifteen each. Some are surprisingly palatial, housing an array of working artists who pay competitive rents for comfortable surroundings and amenities including high-speed Internet access, gated parking, laundry rooms, skylights, and even Jacuzzis. Others are veritable rats’ nests, congregations of drunks, dropouts, and drifters paying as little as $50 to $200 a month for rickety shoeboxes in degraded industrial surroundings. It is these latter buildings that give the term “illegal warehouse” a bad name.

But while the Creamery may be illegal, it nevertheless is the jewel of the genre. Located in the old Willowbrook Creamery, the facade is two austere stories of brick, inlaid with cream-colored masonry complete with carefully etched vines. Step through the iron doors and you’re in the Live Culture art gallery. With its library, communal kitchen, recording studio, Cochran’s giant sculpture workshop, and a recreation room complete with dance floor, trampoline, and entertainment center, the Creamery has undeniable charm.

But the building now exists mostly in a state of suspended animation. Once home to regular art exhibits, the gallery contains mere reminders: a sculpture lying on the floor, and an old brochure hanging on the wall. When the city showed up here a year ago, officials swiftly put a stop to Cochran’s never-ending list of improvements. Consequently, some walls remain unfinished and debris clutters some of the hallways — most of it stuff left behind by tenants who have moved out as a result of the uncertain times.

Although city officials immediately realized the building was illegal, they have never closed the doors on the Creamery and have given Cochran an entire year to obtain the financing to legalize it. After all, city officials understand the delicate political nature of their position: If they shut down the building, one of Oakland’s most revered, if clandestine, art spaces, it might send a signal that Oakland is incapable of honoring Mayor Brown’s noble desire to attract such housing.

Artists often play a role in rehabilitating communities that have fallen into disrepair, and few neighborhoods better fit that description than Oakland’s battered Uptown. Dolan cites New York City’s SoHo and TriBeCa neighborhoods as once-decaying communities that were revitalized by artists. These days, those neighborhoods, along with others in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and even places such as Little Rock, are fully developed, über-trendy districts that have all but forgotten the pilgrims who originally settled there.

“There’s a certain social justice issue around the fact that artists and the pioneering that they do has tremendous effect on real-estate values,” Dolan says. “And yet they often tend to get nothing other than an eviction notice.”

Which is exactly what Cochran has been fighting for more than a year. Right now, city officials are deciding whether to shut down the Creamery and evict its tenants or continue to work with Cochran toward a compromise. Their dilemma is complex. On the one hand, projects such as the Creamery may be the city’s best hope for creating a more artistic community and sprucing up certain neighborhoods. But on the other hand, if you strip away the artistic veneer, it could be argued that Cochran is merely another slumlord who has potentially endangered his fellow tenants by ignoring city building codes. With Oakland’s image on one side of the scale and the safety of two dozen people on the other, the city’s decision will affect not just Cochran, but hundreds or thousands of other artists living in similar situations throughout the East Bay.

On a bright afternoon in late February, Cochran, 40, and his wife, Inge Halliday, 24, are sitting in the library of the Creamery, where a cool breeze blows in through the barred windows. Both are exhausted. Earlier today, after three weeks of effort, negotiations with yet another potential investor had soured. With sufficient resources, the couple could have renovated the building and kept the city from locking its doors. But now the investor is gone, and after a year of fighting, it looks to Cochran like the Creamery is screwed.

“I’m trying to imagine why I even thought of this,” he says with an almost maniacal chuckle. “I mean, it seemed like it’d be fun.”

“It has been fun,” Inge adds wearily. “But the times that are bad have been crippling.”

Cochran has the look of a guy who can hold his own in a bar fight but is unsure who to hit first. Standing over six feet tall, with short blond hair and broad shoulders, he’s a man who always has worked with his hands. Prone to wearing jeans, white T-shirts, and a black leather jacket, his baby-blue eyes are almost lost in his worn, leathery face. Halliday, however, is like a spring flower — the calming yin to Cochran’s overwrought yang.

Cochran never planned to be an artist. Born in Venice, Italy, he and his brother were raised by their artist parents in Santa Cruz where, as a young man, he worked as a surfboard shaper and boat builder. It was there, two decades ago, that he first had the idea for a live-work community. Observing the bonds within the community of laborers who built the boats, he discerned a special connection between community, productivity, and quality of work. If everyone feels like they’re in it together, then everyone does better work, he believes. Marco was reluctant to embrace the uncertainty of his artistic parents’ lifestyle. But sometimes your calling finds you.

“I was working making amusement park rides and they hired some people to do some sculptures, and I thought I could do better,” Cochran says. “So they threw me some foam and they were like, ‘Prove it.’ People were always saying that: ‘You think you could do better?’ And I realized that I could. Then I realized I probably should.”

So Cochran became a sculptor. He eventually moved to San Jose, where he worked at a foundry. When the business relocated, Cochran and a couple of buddies took over the building, all 12,000 square feet of it. Inhabited by an all-male cast of construction workers and artists, the place was an industrialized frat house, with parties raging all week and little or no respect for cleanliness, order, or any particular vision. Once again, Cochran thought he could do better.

He envisioned “a place that you could live in for years and years and years. You could have kids there and it’d be healthy for them. They wouldn’t just be stumbling over beer bottles.”

When his mother died in 1998, Cochran inherited enough money to act on his dream. Believing Oakland to be an artist-friendly town, he started his search here. When a friend told him about the old Creamery at San Pablo Avenue and 25th Street, he wasted no time in dropping $60,000, almost his entire inheritance, on a loan that required no payments for one year. It was a risky move. The building needed work, and Cochran knew he’d be inhabiting it illegally. He also knew he would single-handedly have to build enough rental units during the next twelve months to cover the five-digit monthly mortgage payments. Given the building’s condition and his lack of experience with plumbing and electrical systems, the following year promised to be quite intense.

Just days after he’d signed the final paperwork, Cochran took Halliday to the Creamery. It was their third date. Together, in the wee hours of the night, they walked through its big door. Since all the windows were covered with steel plates, not even the moonlight could get in. There was no bathroom, no kitchen, no power, and no furniture, just an empty building the size of a high school gymnasium that needed a whole lot of work. Halliday was smitten. That night, she sat holding a flashlight and watching the man she would soon marry sweep the floors of their future home until the sun came up.

For the next two months, along with Halliday’s two younger sisters, the couple spent their days working on the building and their nights sitting around candles or flashlights, typically on the roof, looking down on the ghetto that surrounded them. Because they had no running water, they had to make regular field trips to nearby coffee shops to use the bathroom. Because they were worried about bullets flying through their window, they built their rooms near the back of the building. Anxious to attract some tenants, Cochran put the word on the street as soon as the place was relatively habitable.

Cochran would show prospective tenants an empty space and ask them what kind of room they would like, down to specifics such as the location of shelves and which way they’d like the door to open. If they signed a lease, he told them to come back in a month, when they would find their room ready and waiting.

“I looked at my future space, which at that point in time had no walls,” says quilter Heather Johnson, one of the Creamery’s original inhabitants, “and [Cochran] was like, ‘You would live here.’ And I said ‘Here’s my check.'”

In less than a year, the building was filled with artists whose disciplines ranged from filmmaking to painting to armor fabrication. On March 31, 2000, the Creamery had its first art exhibition. “It was amazing,” Halliday recalls. “You could stand on the top of the building and look right and left and there were people walking down the sidewalk in both directions. There were about five hundred people.”

The exhibition featured a sampling of the diverse talents who had come to live in the building. Paintings and sculptures were on display, as well as an array of less common art forms, such as pottery and quiltery. DJs spun records upstairs in the dance studio, while downstairs, in the gallery, one of the Creamery’s in-house bands performed alongside clowns and fire-jugglers.

Thus began the golden age of the Creamery. Regular exhibitions and concerts were planned, as well as the occasional underground rave. But given the state of the neighborhood — there was a crack house nearby, as well as rampant prostitution and gang violence –certain obstacles remained.

“This was a completely nonintegrated neighborhood,” Cochran says. “And it’d be shocking. You’d walk outside and guys would be like, ‘What are you looking for? You need something?’ And you’re like, ‘No.’ As if we were trying to buy drugs. Because why would a white person be here, if not to buy drugs?”

A favorite story of some residents is when a huge, belligerent guy used his head to break down the front door at 3 a.m. “It was like BAM, and then BAM, until the door just crashed,” Halliday says. “An exterior solid door! And then he came in.”

Johnson chimes in: “He came up the stairs and actually beat down the door of the woman whose studio is next to mine and was threatening to kill people, which is extremely frightening.”

Apparently the guy had just been released from jail and was looking for an opportunity to go back. Allegedly high on PCP, he was chased by a group of tenants armed with baseball bats and medieval weaponry (it pays to live with an armor enthusiast). He eventually jumped out a second-story window and stranded himself in the Creamery’s gated parking lot until police arrived. Rather than let the incident deter them, the tenants drew together over it. “It was a scary experience,” Johnson recalls, “but it was also amazing to see the community come together afterward to comfort each other and still be willing to be in the neighborhood and reach out to the folks here.”

Eventually, the neighbors warmed to the Creamery. And when its residents started hosting jazz and blues concerts in addition to their regular gallery events, some of them began sticking their heads in to join the fun. “Seeing the dream come to fruition in the first initial shows, and having people come in and see what we were doing, particularly people from the neighborhood who aren’t necessarily exposed to a lot of art and the idea of an art opening, that was something that was very special to me,” Johnson says.

Meanwhile, Cochran set his sights even higher. In an attempt to attract investors who could help him finish the renovations, he drafted a mission statement that presented the Creamery as a model live-work space. His manifesto even imagined after-school programs at which neighborhood kids could hone their own artistic skills. Everything was coming together nicely. Which was exactly when everything fell apart.

Code Compliance is the department that enforces Oakland’s building codes. If you own a house and you want to improve it, you are technically required to apply for permits before beginning construction. But inasmuch as this entails inspections, fees, paperwork, and visits to the Oakland Building Department, people building a backyard deck or renovating a kitchen often skip this process and do the work on the sly. If the work is done safely, and Code Compliance never finds out about it, everything might be cool. But if the city does find out, things can get ugly. If the construction project is not a deck but, say, 22 live-work lofts, things can get downright gruesome.

Code Compliance first came knocking on Marco Cochran’s door in February 2002. As is usually the case with illegal live-work units, a recently evicted tenant had tipped off the department. When inspectors arrived, they were no doubt struck by the amount of construction that had occurred at the Creamery. After all, city records indicated that it was an industrial building not suitable for habitation. More inspections followed, each more foreboding than the last.

Soon, official letters began darkening Cochran’s mailbox. The first, dated April 23, 2002, from Specialty Combination Inspector Rich Fielding, begins thusly: “Dear Property Owner(s): Our inspection on APRIL 4, 2002, of your subject property (refer to attached list of Violations), confirmed that Life/Safety conditions on the premises have deteriorated to an extent that the health, safety, and welfare of (potential) occupants and the public is jeopardized by these hazards.”

The letter goes on to list the building’s various problems. Safety hazards included a lack of emergency exits in individual units and unreinforced masonry in need of a seismic retrofit. Lesser violations included a lack of heating, alterations made without permits, and dog feces on the roof (a legacy of Cochran’s pit bull). “Corrections shall not commence without issuance of a Compliance Plan, submittal of a performance security deposit, payment of all assessments and business tax license, field check inspection, and issuance of all required permits,” the letter concludes.

A compliance plan is essentially a mutually agreed-upon timeline that stipulates when violations must be fixed. To negotiate such agreements, property owners must first prove they have the money to meet those deadlines. Tallying the finances needed to fix the Creamery — the inspection fees, the deposit, and all the work the city was requiring — Cochran concluded that he needed something between $100,000 and $500,000.

The city gave him fourteen days to find it.

Cochran couldn’t comply. As it was, he was barely scraping by. The city drafted a compliance plan but Cochran was in no position to execute it. He missed his deadline. Months went by with no new information, save for a few inspections during which city officials simply verified that their April abatement order was being heeded.

City officials say they didn’t clamp down immediately because they respected Cochran’s situation. “What we were trying to do with the Creamery, because we understood the issue that there were tenants there, was to see if we could work something out to aggressively get it legalized and still keep the tenants in there, provided Marco hired an engineer to do some of the work to see whether it was safe to occupy from a seismic standpoint,” says Calvin Wong, director of the Building Services Division of the Community and Economic Development Agency. “We were trying to work something out from a fire- and life-safety standpoint. But every time he gave us these proposals to do it, they kept falling through. The next thing we knew, weeks became months and months became years. We’ve been talking about this for a year now. I don’t want to vacate people unless I absolutely have to, but at the same time I need some assurance that it’s safe to occupy.”

If there’s an earthquake and the Creamery crumbles, or if there’s a fire and everyone dies, Wong shares the responsibility. So the longer the city knows about a problem and doesn’t correct it, the higher his blood pressure gets. Wong’s pulse has every reason to rise. In January, an early-morning fire damaged three units at East Oakland’s Vulcan Foundry artists lofts, hospitalizing one resident for smoke inhalation. And in the recent fires at nightclubs in Chicago and Rhode Island, city officials allowed building codes to be ignored, resulting in many unnecessary deaths.

Once it became clear that Cochran was not moving as quickly as officials had hoped, Oakland’s fire marshal inspected the Creamery to determine whether it was a death trap. He concluded it was not, but he did note unmarked exits, poorly lit hallways, an abundance of flammable liquids, and living spaces not clearly marked as such. Cochran claims he never received this report, but city officials consider his failure to make these prescribed changes an example of his unwillingness to cooperate with even their most simple requests.

For Cochran, the problem came down to money. Even if he wanted to heed the fire marshal’s orders, he now couldn’t under the terms of the city’s April letter. He couldn’t get a permit to install emergency exit lights because he had been ordered to stop all work until he obtained the money to finish everything. Suddenly, to make any improvements, Cochran needed $500,000 to do a complete retrofit. Even if he didn’t have the retrofit to contend with, his emergency exit lights would cost him the price of a “performance security deposit, payment of all assessments and business tax license, field check inspection, and issuance of all required permits.” Those expenses alone totaled close to $30,000.

“I can’t just do part of the work,” Cochran says. “I have to have $500,000 up front to start the building, to do anything. They won’t let me do part of it or start anywhere other than the very beginning with all the money up front. Then they blame it on me, going, ‘Oh, you’re not being cooperative.’ Well, I don’t have $500,000. That’s my noncooperativeness.”

Cochran tried to refinance, but no bank would lend him the money given that his property now carried liens and was surrounded by uncertainty. As tenants moved out and fines continued to roll in — the city charged Cochran every month when they inspected his property — his financial situation became more dire.

“They got the building department together, but nobody knew what to do,” he says. “They said, ‘Well, you have to get an engineer and an architect and that’ll cost you $40,000.’ And it’s like, ‘I don’t have $40,000. Do you have $40,000? I probably have less money than you. I don’t have a steady job like you. Is there any other way we can do this?’ And they’re like, ‘No.’ Then they had inspectors come in here over and over again and they had nothing to say. Nothing. Didn’t tell me I had to change anything, they just told me I had to change everything.”

Several meetings were held to discuss possible solutions, but both sides agree there was rarely any progress. “We’ve probably invested hundreds of staff hours already just trying to meet with him, work with him, and tell him what he needed,” Wong says. “And we feel, frankly, that it’s to no avail. I mean, if he’s saying, even after we spent hundreds of hours, that we’d never told him what to do, then this is really frustrating.”

Many city government officials were initially sympathetic to Cochran, including Erica Harrold, the mayor’s assistant. She was one of the first people Cochran called when the hammer came down, and for the past year she has worked to help devise a solution. But even Harrold claims that a spirit of mutual cooperation was not being upheld, even as she and her colleagues tried to heed the mayor’s desire not to pick on “people who are trying to make something good happen.”

“As a city, we have certain requirements that we demand of any builder-property owner, whether it’s fence height or fees you pay for inspections,” Harrold says. “Those are the things we’ve imposed as part of our bureaucratic structure. Those are things that the mayor could look at and say, ‘Okay, that’s silly — how can we get around this thing?’ And that was something we did, actually, as staff people from the mayor’s office, for Marco and Inge on several occasions. They got to a point where they were going to have to put a lien on the building and they were trying to get a loan. And I was like, ‘Don’t file this yet so that they can get this loan.’ We literally were doing these kind of things to try and maneuver for them, but they didn’t come through with any viable plan for actually getting the money to do some of the basics, like health and safety issues.”

All the while, Cochran’s tenants lived with the reality that each month could be their last. As tenants moved out, his income dwindled, along with his hope that the project would survive. After months of failure hustling for loans or grants, Cochran concluded that his only hope to save the building was to sell it or find someone who believed in his vision enough to enter into a partnership with him.

It’s been more than a year since the Creamery went from thriving arts community to bureaucratic battlefield. On this brisk day in late February, Cochran has been relating his story for the last three hours. Now, as he sits back on the sofa, it’s all hitting him. There’s a new city deadline around the corner, and he must soon show proof of financing and finally sign that compliance plan he has put off for so long.

It’s getting dark in the library and the breeze of three hours ago has turned to a chill. Halliday sits quietly as her husband slumps down in the sofa, pinching the bridge of his nose and squeezing his eyes shut. The room is quiet and you can almost hear Cochran trying to figure out where he went wrong, how he allowed this near-perfect dream to slip through his fingers. Finally he sits up.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel that I can see,” he says. Tears inch down his weary face.

Cochran’s search for a partner has introduced him to a surreal cast of potential investors. First, there was Ron Zimmerman, the guy who originally gave him the loan to purchase the building. Zimmerman was willing to bail the Creamery out, but Cochran believed his true intentions were to turn the building into more profitable luxury lofts, which he was not willing to accept.

Then there was Yvonne Beals, a potential investor from San Francisco. After three months of trying to work with the city, Cochran says, Beals got nervous about the uncertainty surrounding the building: How much would the retrofit cost? Would the tenants be able to stay? Eventually, Cochran says, Beals offered a low-ball deal that would have given her exclusive control of the building, thwarting his goal of maintaining affordability. “She basically said, ‘Well, what are you going to do? You have no time.'” Cochran recalls. “But I’d rather lose everything than do this.”

Two days after he ditched Beals, Cochran became fast friends with the multimillionaire Henry Schiff, who proudly proclaims himself the “Bay Area’s largest slumlord.” Schiff dived headfirst into an attempt to purchase the Creamery. In a week, he had Cochran addicted to cigarettes and dependent on cell phones, but ultimately the duo never made it to the finish line. Schiff bowed out of escrow when he couldn’t quite get the deal he was looking for.

After that came the Romanian engineer, Dragos Badea, a man who, according to Cochran, insisted that he had performed similar renovations and knew how to deal with the city. But when it finally came time to strike a deal, Cochran says, Badea’s expertise was in building lifestyle lofts. And so the Creamery’s owner walked away again.

Now, three weeks later, Cochran is still holding on, although barely. He is talking to yet another investor, Everest Solomon, whom he claims is a Nigerian real-estate mogul and minister. Apparently, Solomon thinks of the Creamery as a monastery for artists, something he is eager to support. As of this writing, Cochran has signed escrow papers, but the mysterious Solomon has not.

In the meantime, city officials have upped the game’s ante. When Cochran missed a late-February deadline, they posted foreboding yellow notices, dated February 28, declaring the premises a hazard to all who enter. Wong later insisted that these notices were just a formality that the city should have observed a long time ago. Nevertheless, at press time, it was not clear whether the tenants would be allowed to stay much longer.

Some tenants are desensitized to the conflict. “You know, so much has happened, it doesn’t even faze me now,” says Lalia Tunson, the Creamery’s operations manager for the last year. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, another warning.'” But the yellow sign was the final straw for Heather Johnson, who is finally packing her bags after four sweet and sour years in the Creamery.

With his tenants moving out and his list of potential investors dwindling, Cochran’s hopes for saving the Creamery are all but gone. Exhausted and out of ideas, he awaits either a miracle or a call from the city telling him he has to be out in thirty days. From the looks of things, the latter seems more likely. And if that happens, Cochran’s only hope is to sell the building. He’s fairly certain that whoever ends up buying it will turn it into lifestyle lofts.

Marco Cochran got in over his head. Having spent most of his inheritance on a down payment and a vision, and all of his rental income on operating expenses and improvements, he had nothing left to spend on the experts who could have helped him get legal. Knowing nothing about the process, he tried to tackle it himself, but, for all his talent, bureaucracy simply wasn’t his arena. By naively allowing city officials to think that he was in a position to respond to their concerns, Cochran hurt himself in the long run and ultimately left the city with few options.

“This is why you’ve got professional developers, people who know the process,” Harrold says. “Not to say that the process isn’t Byzantine and difficult — it is — but the Creamery folks came in after they’d already been past steps one, two, and three, they’re showing up at step ten and saying, ‘Hey, no one told us how to do this!’ And it’s like, wait a minute, when did it become our job to tell you what you’re supposed to do?”

City officials believe they dealt with Marco Cochran in good faith. Nevertheless, the failure of both sides to permanently resolve the issue demonstrates the problem with Mayor Brown’s live-work vision. While Harrold may be right that it’s not the responsibility of city officials to walk people through every step of this process, illegal buildings such as the Creamery abound in Oakland, and unless city officials want to displace dozens of artists every time they find one, they need a new way of dealing with building residents.

“They’re very good at the enforcement side of things,” Halliday says. “They’re very good at saying, ‘No, you can’t do this and here’s some deadline.’ And that freaks you out. But there’s not clarity of how we can work together to make this happen.”

While there have been a handful of successful legalizations — buildings such as the Dutch Boy Studios near Fruitvale and the Oakland Noodle Factory in West Oakland — the rise and fall of the Creamery is the scenario that most tenants fear. It’s the reason they stay hidden, regardless of how dangerous their living situations might be.

Paul Palmer should know. He owns a building a few blocks away from the Creamery. Formerly a thriving live-work community, his Compound 1450 is all but vacant now. In response to the events that left it this way, Palmer recently sought legal counsel to consider whether he has grounds to sue the city. He also is attempting to form a coalition of owners such as Cochran and himself.

“As we visited many of the hundreds of live-work units around this neighborhood, we were astounded to learn that many of the people creating these units hide like criminals in order to avoid the oversight of the Building Department,” Palmer said. “Although I have no structural or health or safety issues, others do. Even if they attempt to deal with the problems which they themselves recognize, the Building Department has made a point of undercutting their financing and preventing their upgrading, just as it does with me.”

Even Wong agrees that the current system is less than ideal. “I know there are some tenants that are living in substandard conditions that are afraid to come forward because they’re illegal,” he admits. “And in some cases, people that started like Marco, they had no malice intent, but now they can’t even refinance, because it’s illegal. The traditional places won’t lend to them and they have to go to loan sharks. So ultimately it’d be a win to the city if we work out a better way to get them legalized with the minimum amount of grief from both sides.”

Dolan, author of the Web site “Live/Work in Plain English: An Official Guide to the City of Oakland Live/Work Building Code,” has thought at length about the challenges of sustaining successful live-work spaces. Having served on a city-sponsored committee on the subject and having consulted for a number of Bay Area projects — including the Creamery, Dutch Boy Studios, and Compound 1450 — Dolan has some suggestions for how the city might help artists keep their spaces. He advocates an amnesty program that would encourage the occupants of illegal buildings to comply with city codes. He favors a technical assistance program to help owners understand all the steps of legalization. Finally, he suggests a revolving-loan fund that tenants could use to cover the often-daunting expenses of legalization, and a loan-guarantee program that would enable owners to obtain refinancing for illegal properties.

“The problem is that, when these legalizations happen, they don’t usually happen voluntarily,” Dolan said. “They happen because somebody gets busted. That’s when they’re dealing with code compliance. I’m not saying that the code compliance people are bad people or that they do things bad. I just think that their process can be intimidating and scary. Like, ‘You do this or we have a fee-charged inspection every month or every two weeks. We can charge you by the day if you’re not in compliance, we can force you to vacate your building, you’re considered a public nuisance,’ etcetera.”

Dolan concedes that it’s very hard to distinguish between artists or slum dwellers when dealing with tenants who live in spaces that don’t meet building codes. But he believes such distinctions must be made. Residents of structures like the Creamery are doing a service to their community simply by being there and occupying once-abandoned buildings in neighborhoods most people wouldn’t even drive through. Sure, it’s important that these buildings are safe, but it’s also important that they are occupied at all.

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