Portlander Ken Unkeles has been renting space to artists in his rough-and-ready warehouses for four decades.
At places like Carton Service and Northwest Marine Art Works in industrial Northwest Portland, he typically sheetrocks them into three or four hundred-square-foot studios and charges a dollar per square foot per month.
Now, however, he is doing something more ambitious.
He is converting Building 5 at Northwest Marine Art Works into a permanent artist and maker space. The first tenant will be the FLOCK dance group, which, faced with rising rents at Disjecta in Kenton, was about to shutter for good. However, longtime Unkeles renter and sculptor Dana Lynn Louis heard of FLOCK's plight and went straight to him with a proposition. Turn the empty Building 5 into a dedicated movement arts-friendly space, and he would not have to worry about managing the artists or the nonprofits that inevitably accompany them.
A walk around the complex shows a thriving ecosystem of artists. At their twice-yearly open house in December, Northwest Marine Art Works was packed with printers, painters, sculptors, and photographers, all trying to tempt visitors with drinks and nibbles to see their methods and maybe buy a holiday gift. Most of the art on display with high caliber, original and well-crafted.
Building 5 is around the back from the main artist spaces. It has been empty for four months. About a quarter of Building 5 will be built out for FLOCK to use for dance lessons and rehearsals. This means it complies with the zoning code as an art production and retail space (not a residence or office) because they are making choreography and selling lessons.
FLOCK founder Tahni Holt is bringing FLOCK's $30,000 sprung wooden floor from its current home in Kenton to lay over the concrete. About three inches deep, the floor rests on rubber bumpers and has the type of give that is easy on dancers' joints. It will cost $15,000 for skilled labor to break down and reinstall in the new space. The rest of Building 5 will be an open-plan art space for makers. Russell Construction will be his contractor, a former tenant whom Unkeles met 35 years ago. He expects the space to be ready in fall 2020.
Northwest Marine Iron Works thrived after World War II as a place where metal parts were made for ships and dams — huge pistons,
cogs and propellers were cast in
steel and then machined. Wooden molds for some of these parts still adorn the walls. The next generation of the family who ran the business spent money building on Sauvie Island, but the company went into a tailspin.
Unkeles bought the 65,000-square-foot complex of 15 buildings in 1992 for $150,000. Until four months ago, his tenant in Building 5 was Jason Jones, a sculptor who does historic renovations and large public pieces, such as the fallen Oregon state police memorial in Salem.
Building 5 is now being remodeled. The white paint on the walls is matte or missing from being sandblasted off by another artist tenant, Dale Mills, who also painted the sign above the main entrance.
Unkeles has an eye for raw space. As he walked around Building 5 with Louis and the Business Tribune, he talked about how 60 years of add-ons have been removed. Walkways and platforms and obsolete electrical and plumbing are all being removed. The first fire inspector he spoke to skeptically asked, is it sprinklered and current? (Fire marshals see a lot of dreamers trying to convert spaces without following building code.)
Yes, said Unkeles. "We tested it last week."
"This is an extraordinary opportunity that wouldn't really happen anywhere else," said Louis talking about FLOCK. "This 1,600 square feet is going to be a big community asset."
Louis continued about the parlous state of academic arts venues.
"Especially in the last couple years, as we watched Oregon College of Art and Craft go down, and Lewis and Clark (Hoffman Gallery) go down, and Marylhurst (and the Art Gym) go down, and White Box go down, and all these places just down, down, down...We have nothing left to have the big, imaginative, creative spaces where who knows what can happen in it."
Louis will be the creative director of Building 5, but other leaders will help her. She stresses, "Were not taking proposals. It'll be crazy, everybody that hears about it...."
She also stresses that it will not be a performance venue, although that can be arranged with one-off permits, like with the biannual studio open house.
Instead of cutting it into cubes, Louis and Unkeles talked about creating a space that "could be ideally funded by the community and some creative ways, and be something that people can really dream in."
She compares it to Beth Sellers' Suyama Space in Seattle, which was in the foyer of an architect's office for 19 years and produced some seminal dance work.
Unkeles managed the business Carton Service, reusing old cardboard boxes, but he sold it in 2005. Now he makes money renting affordable space to artists because he owes nothing on his buildings. The rent is gravy. But he is not interested in being part of the administration of Building 5.
"I build something. It costs me that. And typically, I make that back three to eight years on the rents....Being they are old, crummy buildings, I've got a low basis, and I can keep it affordable. So I stay pretty full, with hardly any vacancies."
He's had bad experiences. Standing in the central area of Northwest Marine Art Works, he pointed to the large steel staircase that he added indoors five years ago. Building code required second access to the higher level.
"This stairway was my first interface with the city. All-in, it cost me virtually the same thing I paid for the entire complex in 1992." On top of having it designed and made, the city charged him $20,000 in fees.
Unkeles agrees that other cities might be the same. "Some cities, I understand, you can just pay the bribe! San Francisco. But that might be different now because ever since the Oakland fire, everything's under review."
The Ghost Ship studio fire of December 2016, which killed 36 people in Fruitvale, Oakland, is rightly on the minds of every studio artist, landlord and fire marshal. Unkeles just wants a little more common sense in the permitting process.
He finally got that with Cassandra Scholte. Unkeles has a soft spot for City Hall again.
"We're getting some help from Cassandra Scholte, the new arts liaison at the City of Portland. She's a direct descendant of (the late commissioner) Nick Fish's work. Nick and I had a conversation right here, in Building 7, about what do we need, about five years ago. We agreed that an arts concierge was called for and three, four years later, he made it happen."
The concierge, Scholte, goes between the city's planning office and the landlords who want to fix up old buildings for artists.
Unkeles explains a frustration common among developers.
"There's no common-sense mechanism. At work, they're looking at the code, they go by the code, they have their attitude. They take that code and interpret it through their attitude and their response to you is what you're bringing them. And sometimes that's a horrible situation. Sometimes it's good; sometimes it's neutral. But they won't leave their office," Unkeles said.
He was pleased to learn that Scholte wants to bring the plans examiner out to see the space.
"She brought out some other people a couple of months ago from the Fire Bureau. This is the fourth phase of this project, and each one has just been an expensive teeth-pulling proposition because it's just hell working with the City of Portland. It just is, for a guy like me trying to do stuff and not do it in a big development way, just trying to make something happen."
He says the inspectors were reluctant to visit before an application was made, but once they did, they were thrilled.
In one case, they saw a beam that was two inches too low. The code said it must be 6'10" off the ground. They failed it on paper. But seeing it in person, they said just paint it a bright color, and it would pass. So long as there was an alternative egress for very tall people in an emergency, it would be fine.
"So we had to appeal that, it cost me $1,000. And then I had to paint it. That was a solution, a bright color so you notice it. When they went up there. they go, 'Hey, I remember that!' It was $1,000. $560 for the cost of the appeal. I have to pay an architect $100 an hour to write the appeal. And I have to pay the architect $100 an hour to go and spend time with them and discuss the appeal....Well, they came inside, the benefit that came from them, making a good decision, a community decision."
The city still has to approve the project, but he is more confident than usual.
"It's still conceivable that they could trash this whole project. I don't think that's going to happen. They've got a different feel about it now."
Unkeles says he's been to hell and back.
"I don't network with politicians. It's the first time I've really had architects. It's just put me through hell and I have no appetite for more. Before we just did it and asked for forgiveness afterward. There was a wonderful small business liaison at the city, Suzanne Vara. She would cover my tracks for me and find a way to do it to make it legal, whatever I did."
Unkeles adds that the arts in Portland is collector- and donor-starved. There will always be a need for rough and ready artist space.
"In a city this size, there should be half a dozen big-shot developers with their chests puffed up, bumping into each other, trying to outdo each other for right biggest contributions. And there's nobody. Jordan (Schnitzer) does that. And whatever he's thinking of that day is what he'll do. It's a different place. It's just so much more low-key."
The Ken Unkeles Art Studios Empire
The 15-building Northwest Marine Art Works complex at 2516 NW 29th Ave., is not Unkeles only space by far.
• 75 studios at Northwest Marine Art Works
• 55 studios at Seed Building
• 20 studios at Carton Service
• 20 studios at River Street Studios
Unkeles estimates most artists double up, so he probably has 400 artist-tenants.
Unkeles also once owned the 120,000 square-foot former Columbia Sportswear/Jantzen storage building in St. Johns, which had 120 studios and hosted the Modern Zoo art show in 2003.
"My dad and uncle bought on Northwest 13th Avenue and Hoyt, and on Flanders, and I bought on 12th and Hoyt and started renting them. It was cheap back then."
He was Mr. Pearl before it was called the Pearl District.
Unkeles and David Gold bought 224 N.W. 13th Ave. when it was a cold storage facility. To save electricity, they turned off the power and it rained inside for a month while the ice melted. Pretty quickly, they turned it around and sold it to Mark Edlen, who, with architect Brad Cloepfil turned it into the Portland home of Wieden + Kennedy.
His friend Gold just opened the Pickle Factory on Columbia Blvd, an old foundry that went out of business. It's businesses and artists mixed.
Northwest Marine Iron Works (NWMIW) was empty for three years, then Unkeles bought it from the Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan in 1992 for $150,000.