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LA-style studios crop up in East Village, as not-so-broke artists collect at The Ratner

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Co-founders Kirk Hensler (left) and Alexis Asquith created the studio Hale Productions in 2017 and grew so fast they had to move three times in 18 months. They landed at a loft space in The Ratner, a building that’s quickly becoming a hub for creative professionals.
Courtesy of Hale Productions

Out with the boho artists, in with the cash-flow-positive ones

A 100-year-old building in East Village is becoming a hot spot for digital media studios, attracting a string of Los Angeles-style production companies this year looking for posh city vibes at a bargain price.

The Ratner, an old textile factory on 13th Street, is now home to 11 production studios, special effects teams and other digital media types. Nearly half of them moved in during the past year after the building was bought by Paragon Real Estate Investments, a creative office developer that planned to transform the old building into a trendy workspace.

In white-washed studios packed with cameras and computers, tenants include virtual reality artists Look Mister, which makes high-tech digital ads; fire effect specialists Vapor Flame; and digital media startup Hale Productions, which specializes in Instagram-worthy photos, videos and digital ads.

Developers hope the collection of new tenants is an early sign that the once-derelict neighborhood (best known for housing cash-strapped artists) will become a creative commercial hub. But older tenants say the new studios are the latest sign of gentrification in East Village, which is taking its toll on the art scene.

Out with fine arts

The Ratner, formerly called Art Center Block before the owners rebranded, was once home to more traditional artists — painters and sculptors who needed space on the cheap. Designed during an era without electricity, the building’s stunningly massive windows and cavernous ceilings provide light and an aura that artists seem to like. The building was a last vestige of an affordable market whose rents are now inching north.

“Frankly, it used to be super cheap around here, but now folks who aren’t doing commercial work can’t afford to stay,” said Jeffrey Lamont Brown, a photographer and filmmaker who’s occupied the building for 15 years. “If you stand outside, almost every direction is filled with a new building.”

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The Ratner, formerly called Art Center Block, is directly adjacent to the NewSchool of Architecture & Design.
Courtesy of Paragon

Barbara Sexton, a painter and professor of fine art at San Diego Mesa College, is one of few artists remaining at The Ratner. She said her rent, fees and parking payment skyrocketed when Paragon bought the building. Her 1,000 square-foot studio (with no air conditioning, no heat and no water) went from $940 to $2,200 in one month.

But the building is still affordable compared to other units in the neighborhood, especially if you’re a “cash-flow-positive artist” working on the commercial side of things, said Kirk Hensler, who owns Hale Productions with his wife, Alexis Asquith.

In with the modern media

Hale Productions is a good example of the kind of creative companies developers want to attract to East Village. The fast-growing startup was founded in late 2017 in a tiny South Park studio, initially doing low-paying gigs like wedding photography. But the founders had big ideas to specialize in millennial-leaning lifestyle brands, transforming the company into the kind of studio more often found in Los Angeles than San Diego.

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Alexis Asquith, left, with co-founder and spouse Kirk Hensler.
Courtesy of Hale Productions

After scoring a few big commercial clients, the startup grew so fast they had to move studios three times in 18 months. Eventually, they landed at The Ratner, where they’ve built immaculate lifestyle sets covering several thousand square feet of studio space, including Scandinavian chic kitchens and urban apartment spaces for shoots. Among their clients are several successful local brands, including Boochcraft, Bonefide Provisions and Chosen Foods.

Hensler likes the idea of The Ratner evolving into a media production hub and says the tenants are starting to back each other up. When he can’t help a client with something, he’ll refer them to other studios in the building who can. He’s also actively recruiting more like-minded agencies and studios to the space.

The I.D.E.A. chugs along

The little hub of creative studios could be an early manifestation of the tech-forward neighborhood developers have been envisioning. The Ratner lies within the I.D.E.A. District (innovation, design, education and the arts), a 35-block region conceived by developers Pete Garcia and David Malmuth in 2011. The plan was to attract workers and companies to the neighborhood, with a focus on creative technology. If there are well-paid jobs nearby, then residents living in those new luxury condos won’t have to commute so far to find work.

The neighborhood plan was conceived during a time when companies like Apple and Airbnb were dominating headlines, touting the importance of creative design married with technology.

“Design and technology — that’s where we thought the world was going,” Malmuth said.

But the neighborhood concept has been slow to materialize. IDEA1, a six-story mixed-use project with 295 apartments and an upscale taco shop called Lola 55, opened in 2017. But other projects nearby have stalled, including the high-profile food hall Bottega Americano, which closed in 2018 citing low foot traffic. And the planned four-acre park meant to sit at the heart of the district, East Village Green, has had a slow start and debatable benefit.

Malmuth said the neighborhood concept — now 8 years old — is still a work in progress.

“It’s taken a while and hasn’t happened as quickly as people would like,” Malmuth said. “It’s in a state of becoming, but we think there are a lot of positive signs.”

Developments such as SuperBlock (and the slightly further Horton Plaza campus) are hoping to attract tech giants as anchor tenants. WeWork is said to be scouting an East Village location. Traction could be on the horizon for I.D.E.A.

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The I.D.E.A. District.
Courtesy of The I.D.E.A. District

Will art get squeezed out?

Brown said he hopes the development won’t stamp out the neighborhood’s artistic heart. It would make him a little sad, he said, to see beautiful old studio spaces transformed into tightly buttoned-up corporate offices.

That said, the efforts by developers have markedly improved the neighborhood, he said.

“It used to be really scary here at night; it was like a wild wasteland,” Brown said. “Now, families are walking around with strollers after dark. I don’t want to go back to stepping over syringes to get out of the door. I guess there will always be art casualties in the name of commerce.”

Malmuth said I.D.E.A District developers are trying to incorporate art into the new projects, employing local artists to paint murals and holding art-related events. But in the end, he knows artists who want to live in the neighborhood are likely not appeased by that.

“We can’t control the economics of our neighbors,” Malmuth said. “We understand there’s going to be trade-offs. People who like having lower rent are not necessarily going to be happy.”