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On August 16, when Mayor Willie Brown announced a 7.9 percent increase in San Francisco's Grants for the Arts, he proudly singled out "the work of our arts and cultural groups" as "representing the essence of San Francisco." That same day, a half-mile from City Hall, one arts group was representing that essence with an illegal occupation.

"This is the final dance," performers told a stream of supporters and gawkers at Dancers' Group Studio Theater in the once working-class and now embattled Mission District. A graffitied tangle of earnest protest covered every inch of the studio-theater's walls ("Art just lost its lease" in magenta crayon; "You cannot dance virtually" in blue). The Hotel Tax Fund's 7.9 percent increase in arts support was trampled by the studio's recent rent hike, from $3,100 to $15,500 a month. While Dancers' Group officially relinquished its lease, an ad-hoc group had one last performance to give. "It's called "`We're not leaving,'" key organizer Rachel Kaplan announced.

Outrageous as it might seem, the rent hike for Dancers' Group is typical in a city all but overwhelmed by the power of real estate. The same week that Dancers' Group was squeezed out, the owner of the 155-studio complex Downtown Rehearsal gave the boot to hundreds of bands and musicians, many of whom moonlight for choreographers; the huge complex will be converted into office space. Two weeks earlier, the new owners of the Dance Mission Theater building gave the theater and class space until November 2 to clear the premises. The rent will jump from $5,000 to $20,000 per month. "The owners didn't want to rent to a dance space," said Dance Mission artistic director Krissy Keefer. "They didn't even ask us if we wanted to stay." In January 2001, 50 percent of the leases of San Francisco nonprofit organizations will expire. But with the loss of Dancers' Group, the local dance community gave its own notice. Too much had finally become enough.

On August 15, from dusk until midnight, a "circus of resistance" spilled from the studio onto makeshift stages on the street below. Several hundred onlookers split their attention between three "rings." Onsite Dance Company founders Paul Benney and Jessica Lutes performed an elegiac dance with bicycles, while a wake staged by Keith Hennessy of 848 Community Space, another loft recently put up for sale, culminated in a black wall of stuttery dancers crying, "TH-TH-THTH-E R-R-R-R-REN-N-N-N-T IS TO-O-O HIGH-H-H-H-H-H-H-H!"

At midnight, when Dancers' Group's lease was up, thirty people re-occupied the studio to await arrest. The ten cops assigned to the action--they'd spent the evening watching and smoking outside the Happy Donut shop--went home. They didn't show up again for two days, long enough to allow the protesters to bring the studio temporarily back to life with a program of free dance classes and performances, and to issue a plea: that the city and private sector pitch in and save the 50-year-old studio.

Meanwhile, on the legislative front, two slow-growth initiatives jumped bureaucratic hurdles to make the November ballot. Neighborhood activists wrote Proposition L; in response, Mayor Brown brokered the more business-friendly Prop. K. While important distinctions exist between them, both initiatives set a moratorium (sooner or later) on office development in the Mission and require that dot-com office space (now listed as "services" or "research and development") be designated as office space and therefore be counted toward the city's cap on office construction. Perhaps most importantly, the measures give developers hefty incentives for renting to nonprofits at half (Prop. K) or one-third (Prop. L) the market rate.

At current prices, even half the market rate is too high for dance; a few enterprising organizations have created their own deals with developers. This summer, an arts-friendly developer approached Lines Contemporary Ballet, which had been searching for an affordable home for the company and its eclectic dance school for the last year. He offered a lifetime lease at cost (about $1 a square foot) on five state-of-the-art studios he hopes to construct in a downtown office building he wants to renovate. With the clamor around the decimation of artist spaces, Lines's participation may be key to his success in wooing the city's planning department.

Especially visionary is a plan from Cell art and performance space founding member Jonathan Youtt for a cultural land trust designated for endangered urban species--ranging from modern dancers and puppeteers to prenatal services for neighborhood girls. By definition, a land trust exists in perpetuity for whatever purpose its creators assign to it. "Here, [the purpose] is to preserve existing groups that are victims of displacement," said Youtt, who mentioned Dancers' Group and Dance Mission as two potential tenants. In the next few months, he has to assemble a bloc of community groups and have them elect trustees. Then he has to keep "building a bridge" to the high-tech industry that will pay for the 45,000 square feet of trust. At press time, the landlord was game to sell--and may even throw in a couple of million dollars in exchange for a huge tax break--and key dot-com players had pledged financial support. Youtt's idea is that they enlist their colleagues. "They could set an example for socially responsible participation in their industry," Youtt said hopefully. "They could preserve the social fabric of San Francisco."
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Title Annotation:San Francisco dance company fights rent hikes
Author:Scherr, Apollinaire
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000

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