By Rita Robinson | LB Indy
Looking not quite as shredded as his bronze sculptures of rag-wrapped human forms, Louis Longi slumped over his notebook, jotting down points he wanted to make.
His 800-square-foot cottage-studio, the seed of a $6-million, glass-fronted artists’ live-work colony, was nearly washed away by muddy waters that raged through Laguna Canyon 14 days earlier. To him, it still felt like yesterday.
His tools – a $12,000 electrical welder, scaffolding, grinders – were lost or damaged by grit and now lay rusty from rain. “I lost half of my scaffolding; I don’t know where the hell it’s at,” he said. Sketches of his sculptures were ruined with water stains.
Longi attended the City Council meeting on Jan. 4 to hear arguments for a proposed moratorium on artist live-work projects, a housing concept the city has engendered with little result for at least a decade. Like his ironically uninhibited sculptures, Longi’s spirit was still intact.
“I don’t understand the sense of urgency when it’s just semantics,” he contended. “There’s got to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and I don’t know where it’s at.”
There was no wolf, according to Linda Dietrich, a member of the planning commission, which requested the moratorium to clarify the policy. Commissioners want to ensure that live-work units in the canyon’s light industrial zone are affordable and restricted to income-qualified artists.
Yet revising city policy to benefit low- or moderate-income residents creates other complications. By legally mandating a developer to include rent-controlled housing in a project, the city must offer financial compensation to the property owner, said the city’s principal planner Carolyn Martin. With current fiscal and legal constraints, the city isn’t prepared to do that, said Martin.
The resulting “conundrum,” according to planning commissioner Anne Johnson, is figuring out how to encourage living-and-studio spaces for emerging artists who cannot afford to buy. “The objective is to accommodate upcoming artists, to keep them in town so they will feed into our long tradition as an art colony,” she said.
The commission also wants to clearly define the term “artist” as it applies to live-work projects.
“I hate to use the example, but we joke about the spouse of an attorney who has a spinning wheel, that could be an artist,” said Dietrich. “That’s not really what we’re looking for as far as artist work-live.”
The council unanimously agreed to place a temporary moratorium on future artists’ live-work projects while exempting four plans already in process, one of which is Longi’s.
The council gave the planning commission 45 days to redefine its policy with two years as the maximum time limit. But, according to councilman Kelly Boyd, “we’re not going there.”
“We have been begging people to do artists’ live-work projects,” added councilwoman Elizabeth Pearson. “I think it would be very difficult for the applicants in process to change the rules on them…. I just don’t think it’s fair.”
Although existing plans can still progress, it’s unclear as to whether the exempt projects will need to adhere to new definitions and affordability requirements. “It depends on how the rules change,” said John Montgomery, city director of community development. “Historically, we just haven’t had that many come true.”
As an incentive to developers, artist live-work projects are currently subject to less-stringent requirements, such as fewer parking spaces, which allows for greater density and potentially higher profits. One parking space per unit is required under the current policy, compared to a minimum of 1.5 spaces in traditional rental or multifamily residences. In commercial projects, a parking space is required for every 250 square feet of floor area.
Architect Horst Noppenberger said his dream was one of those yet to come true. His condominium complex, known as The Sheds at 2745 Laguna Canyon Road, was stymied because it lacked the required number of low- or moderate-income units and in-lieu-of fees totaled more than $300,000.
“The experience of navigating the approval process on our particular project was extremely daunting,” said Noppenberger, who plans a redux with affordable units in hopes of qualifying for reduced building requirements.
Longi said that if he was building traditional apartments or commercial property using his 1,400-square-foot blueprint, up to 55 parking spaces would be required, which would make his project financially unfeasible. “I’m an artist trying to build my livelihood here so I can live and work,” said the sculptor, who’s put $1.2 million into his project. “The only way for me to do that is to build eight other units so I can rent those out and pay my mortgage.”
Once his project, which is elevated on stilts to avoid flooding, is built, Longi forecasts another kind of storm: “People are going to see that it’s possible to build responsibly out here in the canyon out of the flood waters. Once someone figures out how to do it right and do it economically, it’s going to open up the floodgates. Unless they get the rules nailed down and hold the developers to using the property as artists’ live-work, you’re going to see a lot of abuse. That’s what they want to prevent.”
Photos by Ted Reckas
2318: Sculptor Louis Longi starts his workday amid a live-work space where drywall has been cut away from above the apex of the floodwater.
2364: Louis Longi asserts floodwaters from across the highway destructively spilled into his property, which he still intends to develop as artist live-work colony.