.Noodling Around

After nine years of financial wrangling, Oakland's Noodle Factory may finally have an enduring future as an art space.

When Dana Harrison bought the Noodle Factory warehouse in 1999, it was a dump. The roof leaked. One downstairs bedroom was landlocked in a back interior corner, leaving no possible escape hatch if a fire broke out. And she inherited a big stack of what must have been two decades’ worth of tenant complaints. “It was an absentee landlord from Hong Kong who obviously bought the place as an investment,” she said, adding that the old warehouse — which had indeed served as a noodle factory during the 1940s — had become “a serious slum hole.”

Harrison and several dancer friends had designs on turning the 19,500-square-foot piece of real estate into a habitable live-work space for artists, with common areas that could serve for live performances, exhibitions, and film screenings. They came up with the idea while having an extended moment of clarity on the Burning Man playa. At the time, Harrison was a refugee from the corporate world with tons of vision and not much pragmatism. She had worked at Charles Schwab before the market crashed, and thought she actually had a nest egg from the dot-com boom, which she said turned out not to be true. Like most heady, well-intentioned, but perhaps-a-little-unrealistic visionaries, she loved the idea of creating an artists’ haven in the middle of West Oakland and running it collectively. She just didn’t know an effective way of doing it.

Nor did she realize that the whole project would be launched on her dime. “I thought that we were all going into this holding hands,” she said. When it turned out that her friends were more interested in pursuing their own creative work than sustaining the collective, Harrison was left high and dry. It would take nine years of financial missteps and wrong choices to come up with a viable plan for the Noodle Factory that more or less resembled their original idea.

Harrison is a tall 48-year-old, with long multicolored braids and sparkly blue toenail polish. She spent eighteen years being what she called “schizophrenic,” working as a corporate manager by day and a dancer by night. Then on August 5, 1997, she got hit by a car running a red light on Ashby Avenue. She walked away from the accident with a torn rotator cuff, a bruised ribcage, and lots of soft-tissue damage. It was one of those near-death experiences that lead a person to completely rethink everything.

Harrison decided to leave the corporate world for good. She formed a nonprofit, Planet Care, which does humanitarian work for children in Burma. In 1998 she became an organizer for Burning Man — a post she would hold for seven years. In 1999, she and several other dancers — members of a group called Body Cartography — had the Burning Man-inspired epiphany that would eventually birth the Noodle Factory collective. “On the way home we stopped off in the woods and had this total brainstorming experience,” Harrison said, explaining that all the dancers put their heads together and tried to think of a way to collaborate “without limitations of time and space,” even outside the magical world of Burning Man.

Back in the Bay Area, they found a real estate agent who specializes in live-work spaces. Of all the places they considered, the Noodle Factory seemed particularly attractive, because it had been used for food production, making it a lot cleaner than other industrial buildings in West Oakland, Harrison said. Yet its location — right next to the railroad tracks on 26th and Union streets, in an area that’s still a long ways away from being residential — would allow the tenants to throw late-night events and make as much noise as they needed to. Harrison paid $650,000 for the building, a price so cheap that the owner in Hong Kong later tried to renege, resulting in a court battle that would take much of the following year to resolve. When the deal finally closed, Harrison was left with an illegally converted warehouse that had served as a residential space for about two decades, even though it was barely habitable.

The transition was amicable, she said. “We met with everybody, sent a letter out, and said we’re trying to make this thing livable.” Several people moved out, a couple stayed, and Harrison compensated the couple who were living in the landlocked unit downstairs, where there was only about nine inches of clearance between the Noodle Factory and the buildings to the south and west of it. Still under the illusion that she had money to spare, Harrison fixed the roof, replaced several windows, and installed working heaters in several units. She went through a long process of city inspections and permits to render the Noodle Factory a viable arts and performance space. Having seen other artsy warehouses spring up in West Oakland and then shut down once city officials got wind of them, Harrison decided she didn’t want her space to become another statistic.

Yet, despite honorable intentions, Harrison still was an artist and not a deep-pocket investor. She bankrolled everything herself but still tried running the Noodle Factory as a collective. “We were completely open book about the expenses,” she said, referring to “we” as the group of dancers who’d dreamed up the idea at Burning Man. They came up with rent prices by multiplying the square footage of each unit by how much it cost to maintain the building and pay expenses. They even tried revenue-sharing when Noodle Factory residents put on events. Not surprisingly, that financial model didn’t work. “That whole way of doing it with initial dancers wasn’t enough to remain solvent,” Harrison said. “Nobody there had experience as promoters putting on events. Either they made their own art or they were part of someone else’s company.” Pretty soon, the Noodle Factory had hit hard times.

In 2002, Harrison rented six of the residential units and all the common areas to the Sacred Land Project, a rave collective that had loosely coalesced around Ryan Quintana, a promoter from Santa Rosa. The group called itself “Sacred Land” because its members had vague plans to buy a piece of land somewhere, take it off the grid, and use it for retreats or shamanistic rituals. Harrison let the ravers throw their own events and keep all the profits as long as Quintana kept paying the rent each month and assumed total financial responsibility for the space. Harrison said the arrangement helped her break even for two years while she continued working with architects and structural engineers to “make the place legal.”

By allowing Quintana to become her new master tenant, Harrison unwittingly turned the Noodle Factory into Oakland’s premiere underground party joint. For two years the place became a ravers’ Garden of Eden right in the middle of industrial West Oakland. DJs would come from as far away as Europe or the Middle East to spin trance and break-beat sets at the warehouse, often from midnight until 10 or 11 a.m. The ravers built DJ booths, carved holes in the wall to create “rabbit doors,” and set up a trapeze. Residents decorated and opened up their apartments so the crowd could spill in. They hired fire dancers and staged ritual performances. Popular East Bay performers like DJ Bassnectar became regular fixtures at Noodle Factory, and well-known bands came through all the time. At one party in 2003, the Lovemakers played for a packed house at 3 a.m.

The parties would often draw between 600 and 800 people, said Brandon Lars Solem, who moved into the Noodle Factory in 2001 and lived there for five years. When Solem first arrived at the warehouse, about five people lived there. It maxed out at 36, he said. “During the winter time we would kinda pack the place,” said Solem, indicating that there was kind of a low-level party going on at all times. “There would be people sleeping on couches, dogs and cats everywhere. We kinda warmed the place up with body heat.”

Then in 2004 Quintana had a falling out with his group, and left the Noodle Factory under a dark cloud; he’s since quit the rave scene for good and now works as a massage therapist. Harrison explored various alternatives to ensure the Noodle Factory’s survival, including the possibility of leasing it to another raver who had pretty deep pockets. “After talking to him for a while it became clear that he was looking at the space as a permanent rave space,” Harrison said, adding that she ultimately viewed the ravers as only a short-term solution for the Noodle Factory. “I really saw all that stuff as a legitimate interim way to keep the doors open and the lights on.”

Once again it was back to a phase of “best intentions but never working out financially,” Harrison said. By that point she had managed to hold onto the building for five years and obtained all the proper city permits. The building wasn’t yet up to code, though it had been inspected by the city and deemed not to pose an immediate danger. “They were comfortable with its use as a residence given that we were working on regularizing it,” she said.

Still, she didn’t know enough about commercial real estate to supervise a major construction project. Nor did she know how to obtain the $1.2 million she would need for earthquake retrofitting. “Yeah, excellent question,” said Harrison. “I was gonna do a bank construction loan. I’m not sure exactly how I would have gotten my bank construction loan, but I probably would have had to secure my house, for example.”

Harrison found out about the Northern California Land Trust from a flier advertising some event sponsored by the organization. Once she met the trust’s organizers and heard their raison d’être — to acquire properties and make them permanently affordable, using a limited-equity model — she was hooked. The basic idea is that a nonprofit organization (the land trust) gets title to the land and leases it out to residents, such that the property appreciates at the rate that income increases in the area. Ergo, something that’s affordable to a low-income household in 1990 remains affordable to a low-income household in 2008. “My whole vision was to have it be collectively owned and permanently for arts use, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen,” Harrison said. “The land trust model covenants the space.”

In 2005, she bequeathed the Noodle Factory to Northern California Land Trust by taking a subordinated mortgage behind the construction loan, which she said basically means that she won’t recoup any money until all the units sell and they figure out what to do with the cafe and theater. The land trust then planned for what would be not only the second iteration of Harrisons’ artistic vision, but also the second iteration of the building proper.

There was nearly a $1 million difference between Harrison’s construction plans of $1.2 million and the land trust’s redesign of about $2.1 million. The new, more meticulous version included radiant heating, laundry hookups in every unit, an elevator, double sound walls, a reconfiguration of the units, solar panels, and changes in the roofline, which was raised five feet to create a public theater in the Noodle Factory’s south wing. “Basically our version was essentially the existing building made legal, so just the very, very minimum amount of change that had to do with earthquake retrofitting,” said Harrison. “We were gonna have to make it affordable by doing a cheap, crappy job. They’re making it affordable by doing a beautiful job and getting grants.”

By the time she deeded the Noodle Factory to the land trust, the building was worth substantially less than what she put into it. Still, she saw the land trust model as something akin to what she’d originally intended. “I really didn’t have a good model for the building going forward. I didn’t have any way to condoize the units. My vision was this affordable art space but I didn’t have any way of making it an affordable art space on my own other than continuing to rent the units for not very much money.”

And, she said, entering a traditional landlord-tenant relationship was not part of her original plan at all. “Maybe I would have a reputation of being a cool and understanding landlord, but in terms of people having any genuine security, the bottom-line truth is I would be the owner of the building and they would be the renter of the building at my discretion,” she said. “And that would not be my sustainable long-term vision.”

On August 14, Harrison rolled up to the Noodle Factory in a green Chevy Suburban, braids streaming from her head like tassels on a lantern. Glimpsed from outside, the place was still a maze of rebar and plastic tarp, though it’s apparently well on the way to completion. “In about ten days we’ll have a sidewalk and new street trees,” said land trust Executive Director Ian Winters, who greeted Harrison at the southeast entrance of the building, where they hope to open a cafe in early 2009. Winters is also an artist, and will commandeer the 2008 MilkBar Film Festival, slated to screen at the Noodle Factory from September 12 to 14. “We have water as of yesterday,” Winters added. “We’re currently just waiting on gas.”

The Noodle Factory now comprises eleven work-live spaces ranging from $225,000 — with the possibility of $120,000 to $140,000 in down-payment assistance — to about $559,000 for one of the large market-rate units. A large theater that abuts the residences will open September 4, with the premiere of Richard Talavera’s Richard Wright Centennial Project. Winters said the cafe should follow a few months thereafter, hopefully under the auspices of a local restaurateur. Nine units are priced below market rate and require prospective residents to qualify as low-income — which, in Oakland, means earning $46,350 as a single person or up to $66,250 for a four-person household. Several will be allocated as rentals for the time being, though Winters ultimately envisions a more traditional condominium arrangement where everyone owns his own unit on a shared piece of land.

As of the third week of August, no Noodle Factory units have sold. Three of four were “on a positive trajectory,” and waiting to get the banks’ approval, Harrison said. Winters said the Land Trust couldn’t officially close any sales until its occupancy certificate was in place, which should happen in a matter of days. He expects to sell two to four units in the next few months, then lease the remaining units to buyers who intend to purchase once the mortgage market improves. The land trust has set an internal deadline of mid-September to see how many deals it can close — or, for that matter, to see how many people can actually get a mortgage. Once that deadline arrives, they will put the remaining units up for rent, and offer tenants the opportunity to purchase as the mortgage market changes. According to Winters, there’s actually been a tremendous amount of interest in the units, but most qualified buyers have been stymied by the current market.

“It’s the worst time to get a mortgage that anyone that I know has ever seen,” Winters said. “We have no shortage of people who want to buy the spaces and would have gotten mortgages very easily eighteen months ago.” But taking the reality of credit markets into consideration, and then factoring in that most prospective Noodle Factory residents are self-employed or low-income, it’s no surprise that the units aren’t selling that fast. Moreover, the Noodle Factory requires that applicants have at least one working artisan in their household. That extra wrinkle is essential to Harrison’s vision, but she’s the first to admit that it makes the process infinitely more complicated. “If you’re a low-income working artist, by definition you can’t get a mortgage right now,” she said.

Nevertheless, Harrison is adamant about those conditions. “I’m probably impolitic about this, but these are not lifestyle apartments,” she said. “These are not for accountants who think it would be cool to live in an artistic space.” Nor is it a space for transient twentysomethings looking to find themselves. Harrison indicated that the newly reincarnated Noodle Factory will house a different demographic than the Sacred Land ravers, or the loose-knit collective of artists who lived there between 2004 and 2006, when the building entered its first phase of demolition. Up until then, the warehouse was not the kind of place where any stable working adult — even a countercultural working adult — would want to live.

Even during the interim period that followed Sacred Land, it was still one of the best after-hours spots in Oakland, home to a monthly queer dance party, the Living Room, the occasional hip-hop event, Club Nocturnal, a few popular spoken-word nights, and Leftist Lounge DJ benefits that would pack hundreds of people into what became an incredibly tight space. It was still a place where parties went well past 4 a.m. and the phrase “deodorant optional” gained new currency.

But those days are gone. “No offense intended to the people who made things happen — I actually thought some of the events were pretty cool — but I never envisioned the space as a party space or a rave space,” Harrison said. However, residents will still have more latitude than they would in an average apartment complex. “Our idea is that people need space to make noise and do stuff that won’t be appropriate in a nice residential neighborhood,” she said. But she’s no longer allowing the whole panoply of inappropriate things that existed during the Sacred Land Project years. Current Noodle Factory applicants represent a wide age range from people in their mid-twenties to folks in their early sixties, and Harrison is relieved that middle-age, mid-career artists represent the majority. “Frankly, in the beginning we were concerned about people in their early twenties,” she said. “We wanted people who demonstrated a serious commitment.”

In its current, newly resurrected state, the Noodle Factory is completely energy-efficient. The floors are concrete with radiant heat; solar panels on the roof provide roughly 75 percent of the electricity and hot water; the downstairs bathrooms are wheelchair-accessible; and there’s even an elevator. The building is soundproofed well enough that when you gaze out the north side windows that overlook 26th Street, you’ll see cars and trucks pottering up the road, but you won’t hear them. The theater has a “floating floor,” meaning a wood floor that’s a little bouncy, so it can still be used as a dance studio. The patios will have native grasses and trees. It’s located in a neighborhood that’s still several years from what the average person would call “up-and-coming,” given that the mezzanine balconies all provide panoramic views of truck yards and industrial buildings.

Nonetheless, a few promising new businesses recently cropped up in the area, among them the popular soul food restaurant Brown Sugar Kitchen. One major selling point of the Noodle Factory is that it will bring eleven new businesses to West Oakland, Winters said. Recent housing applicants included someone who runs a piano and vocal school, a couple that owned a small record label, and another couple that operated a jewelry-making business. He foresees a more utopian version of the lofts in Jack London Square (in this case, “work-live” instead of “live-work”), wherein each home amounts to a small cottage industry.

Ultimately, Northern California Land Trust will provide an alternative to conventional forms of development in West Oakland. Normally a project would come in and invest a whole bunch of money in the neighborhood with the intent of driving its value up, Winters explained. The upshot is that community residents end up getting priced out of their homes, and are forced to move. “In a neighborhood that’s incredibly underinvested as a community you need to make some type of investment in it,” Winters said. “The paradox is that when you make that investment, you end up driving the prices up. You end up hurting the people you were trying to help in the first place.”

The land trust model tries to minimize the driving up of prices in an area. So far it’s been implemented in sixteen Bay Area locations, including a property on Linden Street in West Oakland, where the land trust rehabbed two burnt-out Victorians to create four units of housing and a community garden. The trust currently has two additional properties in the predevelopment phase, and a long list of consulting projects. Winters lives in the Fairview Limited-Equity Housing Co-Op in South Berkeley, where residents share a washing machine and buy bulk food together.

Harrison is currently the note holder of the Noodle Factory, and sits on its advisory board. She lives in the 1,000-square-foot bottom of a South Berkeley duplex, and has no immediate plans to upgrade. She’s still something of an idealist, but not the insouciant person she was nine years ago when she launched what would ultimately be a profit-losing operation. “For someone to be a successful artist in the Bay Area you really have to be self-interested and egocentric,” Harrison said. “There really is not a lot of room for generosity. I can respect that focus, and people’s commitment to getting their own work created and seen. But going into it I did not get that that was the case.” She added: “Sorry to be Pollyanna, but to me it actually was surprising.”

Looking at the whole thing in retrospect, Harrison said she now realizes that the “self-interest” component of the land trust — the idea that individual artists own their spaces, “but in a supported way” — is essential to the project’s viability. In 1999, Harrison was seduced by a vision and not concerned about its execution. “When we were sitting around eating and talking and brainstorming and being visionaries, I didn’t get that when push came to shove, people were not about the collective, they were only about their work,” she said. In fact, it was a pretty rude awakening. It took nearly a decade for Harrison to realize her vision, and come to terms with the fact that her collective was really a fabrication — that she was the only one with any skin in the game. She may never recover her full investment in the Noodle Factory property — or any of it. For now, she’s just happy to see it become somebody else’s domain.

It’s a dubious silver lining, she admits. But it’s better than being a million and a half dollars in the hole. “If I had any idea how stressful this was gonna be, I would never have started the project,” Harrison said. “On the other hand, thank goodness I didn’t know.”


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