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Artist-Developer Creating New Paradigm

To encourage the development of the city’s first live-work complex for artists, the city council got creative; voting unanimously last week, the council decided to absorb half the fees on the project and postpone payment of the other half until building permits are issued.

“I hope we’ve found a way to make artists’ live-work actually happen. The things we’ve seen to date are just too darned expensive for artists,” said Council member Verna Rollinger.

As part of efforts to reverse its image of being a difficult place to do business, the city green-lighted the reduction of $23,000 in estimated zoning and planning fees to $11,500, which includes a $7,000 reduction for offering two low-income units.  Deferred payment of that amount until the project is approved for bank loans was also granted.  The amount is a fraction of total project fees to the city, estimated at $135,000.

“Banks and lenders have said, ‘We will not even look at you unless we know the city will allow you to build,’” Louis Longi, the local sculptor designing and developing the project, told the council. “All I’m asking is for you to cut in half the $23,000 public hearing fees to go in front of zoning and planning.”

Longi said he will pay the deferred fee of $11,500 when bank loans are finalized. In an uncertain, post-credit-collapse economy, banks are hesitant to finance projects until building plans are approved, according to the city staff report. Conceding that building in coastal communities requires the added consent of the California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, Cal-Trans and the Environmental Protection Agency, Longi is anticipating the approval process to take several months and hopes to start building in less than two years.

His 14,000-square-foot “live-work-create” artists’ space located between Laguna Koi Ponds and Laguna Canyon Animal Hospital on Laguna Canyon Road will offer nine 500 to 1300 square-foot studios and a communal workshop in a modern, canyon-view inspired building.

Longi said he put $650,000 down in 2008 to buy the $1.65-million lot just under an acre in size, and has spent $500,000 in pre-development costs, including design and technical reports required by governmental agencies. Living in Laguna for 12 years, now onsite in an 800-square-foot house that also serves as his studio, he said rents for the new units will be below or at-market value.

“Knowing that Louis is the first person to come up with an idea to rent these houses rather than trying to sell them…I’m willing to take that chance because I know what he has invested in it. The last thing he wants to do is ever lose his major investment that he’s got going into this project,” commented council member Kelly Boyd.

“My art is making money,” said Longi, who has several public sculptures in Laguna and 11 others in California and Nevada including a 40-foot sculpture for the Nevada Cancer Institute and other pieces for Cirque du Soleil. “But my project is sucking it out of me.”

Boyd added that the council has been frustrated in its efforts to promote an artists’ live-work community for the past two years. After delaying Longi’s request since August, the council directed the city to essentially make less money on the project.

Longi said his concept is groundbreaking and goes beyond city limits. “No artist has ever developed a site where there will be nine artists as well as communal space to create art and collaborate. It truly is an artist building.”

Comparing it to Soho, in NYC, he added, “The reason why artists get pushed so much there and are breaking new ground is because they’re challenging each other. They’re living near each other, they’re hanging around each other, they’re around the art. That’s what I want to do here.”

Longi, whose rough-edged, rag-wrapped bronze sculptures are known for missing body parts and the suggestion of uninhibited motion, sees the live-work colony partly as a place to display more of his art. In addition to that it will be a free resource center replete with kiln, welding torches, and plenty of industrial-size room for creative expression and larger-than-life results.

“This isn’t just a building, it’s a new community for artists,” commented local sculptor Gerard Basil Stripling, who sees added value in inviting students from nearby Laguna College of Art and Design to observe artists on the job.

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