Noonan Building Artists Fishing for a Place at the Pier

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The Noonan Building, located on Pier 70, has served as an affordable work space, with inspiring surroundings, for San Francisco artists for more than 35 years.  For most of that time the building was off-the-beaten-track, surrounded by such industrial activities as automobile wrecking and ship yards. 

In 2012 the future of the idyllic arts haven was threatened by redevelopment.  After years of neglect, the Port of San Francisco, in conjunction with real estate company Forest City, revealed plans to develop “a vibrant and authentic historic district with new waterfront open spaces, creating a center for innovative industries, and integrating ongoing ship repair operations.”  Although the land use strategies seemed geared towards fostering an artistic and creative environment, retention of the Noonan Building wasn’t included in the proposals.  The artists feared they’d been overlooked. 

Throughout the years, the Noonan Building has hosted hundreds of artists, spanning a wide range of mediums, including fine arts painting, photography, music, printmaking, jewelry, and even film making.  Abstract expressionism pioneer Frank Lobdell had a studio in the building from the mid-1980’s until 2012.  It was home to a weekly women’s painting group, co-founded by longtime tenant Barbara Winkelstein, from 1978 until 2012.  Famed beat poet and City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti had a studio on the site for a short time in the 1980’s. The building currently houses roughly forty artists, many of whom have been in their studios for more than fifteen years.

Although the building is the only surviving large wood framed structure on Pier 70, under current plans it will be demolished. According to Jack Sylvan, Forest City Enterprises’ vice president of development, to accommodate projected sea level rise the developer will have to raise the grade of much of the waterfront site, including where the Noonan Building currently stands.  This, and that the structure has fallen into disrepair over the years, means that Forest City would effectively have to rebuild the Noonan Building from scratch.  “There’s really not a scenario that makes sense to restore that building,” Sylvan said.

An article in the October 2013 issue of the View – “Future of Pier 70 Noonan Building Artists Still Being Sketched” – detailed the tenants’ campaign to save the structure.  After those efforts failed the artists refocused their energies to secure a continuing viable presence at Pier 70 as development progresses.  Though the pier has been slated for development since 2012, it could be up to ten years before the Noonan Building is demolished. 

“What we’d like to do and we think it makes sense now, is to sit down with the Noonan artists and start talking about what a program for the new building would look like,” Sylvan said. 

“It was really, really hard to let go of the idea of saving this building, we just held onto that for a really long time, but it’s facing reality, and you’ve got to focus your energy where it’s going to make a difference,” Noonan tenant Kim Austin said.  “This place was meant to be torn down, no mention of the artists or the building.  At the very first meetings about it, and in the master plan, there was no hint about this building, and that was about five years ago.  Between that time and now things have changed dramatically,” Austin said, referring to improved relations between Noonan Building artists, Forest City, and the Port.  Now Noonan Building artists feel that their voices are being heard, though they remain wary of the upheaval that’s eventually to come. “It’s going to be a huge transition, and it’s going to take a lot of time,” Austin said.

Austin, who engages in photography and letter press printing, has maintained a studio at the Noonan Building for seventeen years. “Having a space like this to work in is just such an amazing thing for an artist.  This has been something that I’ve always treasured and wanted to keep hold of, and I’ve managed to do it through all these years.  I’m really looking forward to continuing that, and keeping the tradition of the Noonan Building going into the future.  So many spaces like this have unfortunately come to an end,” she said.

According to printmaker and longtime tenant Marti McKee, there was initially tension between Noonan Building artists and Forest City representatives. But longtime tenants, including McKee and Austin, have been assured by the developer that there’ll be a place for them at the pier.  They’re happy with the way that things are now, but if that has to change they want to be a part of the future rather than being swept aside.

“What we have committed to doing is providing new space in a new building that would have a mix of other complimentary creative uses.  It could be educational uses, it could be galleries, it could be an indoor or outdoor performance venue, it could be a cafe, it could be local manufacturing.  The idea being that there would be cross-pollination that happens.  What we have to keep in mind is that we are many, many, years away from doing any architecture of specific buildings,” Sylvan said.

“I moved here because it’s off the map.  Because it’s not in the middle of Jackson Square or someplace,” graphic designer and musician Mark Abramson said. “I want to be off the map, and they’re putting us right in the middle of the map.  It’s almost going to be like we’re animals in the zoo.  I’m not sure how that’s going to work out.  But things change and sometimes you have to roll with it.  We don’t want to be just another example of being pushed off the map by gentrification.”

McKee is pleased that Forest City and the Port have promised to keep art studio rents low into perpetuity.  “The Port manages 20 million acres or something like that, a lot of property, and there’s only two buildings that have a rent scheme that is below market, and ours is one of them, and we’re getting a promise to be able to take that into the future,” McKee said.  “For me it’s important to let people know that we are fighting for this community.  And we’re really fighting against all odds, because artist studio spaces are very rapidly disappearing.  We’re fighting for ourselves, and we’re fighting for the future.  We’re fighting for the young artists who come behind us.”

Artist Connie Harris moved into her studio in 2003, and has been painting abstract impressions of the view from her window ever since. “I started to notice this view out of the window, which is obviously a wonderful feature of the building.  I became mesmerized by what I saw, the changing light and the ships, which are things that we just kind of take for granted,” Harris said.  Over the years her paintings have shifted from direct representation of the water and vessels into something more expressive of the emotional scape that these images evoke.  “I’ve been able to focus on one theme for all these years.  I have this incredible Noonan Building vantage point, that just was serendipity, and it enabled me to go deeply into this narrow range of subject” Harris said.  “It’s a special building, and we’re all very attached to being here. It’s a special sanctuary.”