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Temple Art Lofts & Activists

By Paula McConnell


It has been well documented that the citizens of Vallejo have often stepped up to curtail certain catastrophes facing the city. In the 1980’s a bevy of activists fought to maintain the Vallejo Ferry when the then sitting mayor stated he was against it. After much hard work, with a compromise agreement to ultimately name a ferry after himself, the mayor and his council capitulated to the activists. And then along came the idea of a Liquid Natural Gas Plant proposed to be placed on one of the most pristine points throughout the Bay Area (the southern most tip of Mare Island). Once again, several activists helped to beat that idea into oblivion.

And we must never forget the topic of Binding Arbitration wherein for many years the safety unions (both police and fire) were automatically granted annual compensations by way of an agreement from an out of town arbitrator. Ultimately the Vallejo police and fire compensations ranked among those highest in the nation when compared to similar positions in the country. Again, concerned Vallejo activists managed to help change that arrangement, too. Unfortunately, citizens were not active enough to deter the 1960’s destruction of parts of Vallejo’s downtown, nor in fighting the city in allowing Lennar Corporation to take over much (too much perhaps) of Mare Island. Nor were they successful in avoiding Touro University from being given some forty plus prime property buildings on Mare Island including a concert hall, and the cherished Officer’s Club & restaurant with grand, sweeping views. But citizens cannot follow politicians around twenty-four – seven to clean up their messes. That said, however, without due diligence, the Temple Arts Lofts housing project still has the potential to become yet another catastrophic debacle right in the midst of Historic Downtown Vallejo. More concerned activists have now entered into the picture to address this issue, too.

The Temple Arts Lofts building is located at 707-715 Marin Street, (at the corner of Virginia St.) in downtown Vallejo. It comprises the historic 1917 Vallejo Masonic Temple, and the portion which had originally been built in 1872 to house the original City Hall which included the Vallejo City Mayors’ Office, Fire Station, Police Station, and the City Jail. (The dismal jail remains in tact to this day.) This use remained in place for over fifty years until 1925 when a new City Hall was constructed down the street at 734 Marin St. (which now houses the Vallejo Historical Museum). In the latter part of the 20th century the building was occupied by an owner who allowed massive parties/ dances and even ‘raves.’ Local police were frequently called to break up fights outside and within the building. By the turn of the 21st century the building was purchased by a colorful Oregon investor who dubbed it the Vallejo Performing Arts Center, complete with a lighted marquis. That investor had high hopes of transforming the building into a center which would have featured all aspects of visual art galleries and performance spaces. But the economy fell, and so did his dream to transform the architecturally beautiful building; so he moved on. Unfortunately the building then fell into grave disrepair. Pigeons and other critters took residence, plumbing problems erupted, pipes were broken, small fires were started and to quote Susan McDonald of the Empress Theatre “there was practically a river running through it.” It was then that Domus Management Company entered. The Temple Arts Loft project was approved in July 2010 by City Council Resolution No. 10-198 N.C.

Domus Management Co. is owned by Meea Kang (pronounced Kahn). Kang’s vision for the former city hall and Masonic Temple was to create artists’ residences for what some might refer to as ‘starving artists.’ The building will house some twenty-eight artist apartments, with a 29th apartment made available for an on-sight manager. There will be approximately eight two bedroom apartments as well as one bedroom and studio units. On the third floor there remains a large space for performances to be held. There is also a dedicated studio for artists to work or rehearse. In addition, there are plenty of storage spaces available for use by residents. Kang has maintained the historical architectural features, and has even registered the building as a certified historic landmark. According to the Domus application, in order to qualify, one person must show proven income of approximately $28,950 annually. If four people are considering a move into a two bedroom, they must have a combined income of no more than $41,300. “If you sell a piece of art for $200k after you move in, that is o.k. But you must meet the (monetary) criteria guidelines in order to qualify for residence,” Kang said. On average, a studio will be rented for approximately $684/month according to representatives sent by Domus to discuss the project. In addition, applicants must have two years of positive landlord history, cannot have a criminal record (that’s good news), and cannot have more than $2k negative credit on a report (excluding medical or other extenuating circumstances).

When Kang was questioned as to how she managed to enter the world of development & management, she responded, “I have vision. I can see a building and figure out how to make it successful.” Kang has a Masters Degree in Fine Arts and Architecture from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She also boasts of having taught Fine Arts at the university level. Kang hastened to mention that she too is an artist, “I even took a welding class and learned metal sculpture,” she said. But she soon learned business savvy too: “how to find money.” She wanted to find a project that would be suitable for artists of all types – writers, photographers, graphic artists, other visual artists as well as performing artists – i.e. actresses, dancers, musicians and singers. Her company, the Domus Management Company, was created and Kang prides herself on how to find people willing to invest in major projects for the “underserved.” Translate:’ the poor’. She has also developed a low cost Senior Housing project in Pittsburg, Ca. among others. Kang’s corporate offices are in Lodi, California and she obviously tends to hire and favor women in major management positions.

But in the case of the Temple Artist Lofts soon to open in Historic Downtown Vallejo, more concerned activists have recently jumped in to help assure Kang’s local success. One of those dedicated activists is artist Erin Bakke who lives in Vallejo’s Historic District, and is a wonderful visual artist in her own right. Her studio is at the Coal Shed on Mare Island. Bakke is most concerned about just who will actually live in the Temple Arts Lofts. So a few months back, Erin Bakke, and a few other devoted Vallejoans, called a meeting with Domus Management Company to discuss the qualifications needed to live in the brand new Temple Arts Lofts. They also requested to know just how Domus might reach out to the artist community throughout the greater Bay Area. Artist Cima Dudum, Planning Commissioner Tony Adams, Councilman Robert McConnell, Vallejo graphic artist Rick Tringali, Ty Robinson of the Vallejo Housing Authority, artist/activist Marc Martin, Empress board member Tim McDonald, along with a few others, met with two Domus Management representatives, Ladasha Wheelan and Alicia Killings. Killings is the manager of one of Domus’ housing project known as Gateway Apartments. The major concern is that the Temple Arts Lofts, after all, is a low cost housing project. And with several HUD and Section 8 low cost housing projects already peppered throughout historic downtown, this newly created project could well devolve into a catastrophic disaster. So activists are vigilant!

The simple request from the activists is that Domus Management should make every effort to reach out to only artists to rent apartments in this building. “We will make artists a preference,” Kang said, “but we cannot guarantee that all residents will be artists. We have a responsibility to our investors,” Kang said. “The city council approved this project assured that you will do all that you can to bring artists to Vallejo.” Councilman McConnell then said. But already eight units have been set aside for the Buchongo lawsuit settlement against the city of Vallejo, and those specific residents are not mandated to be artists. When asked how many units have thus far been assigned to artists, Ty Robinson of the Vallejo Housing Authority had to jump through hoops to find that answer; immediate cooperation from Domus Management was not readily apparent. But Ty has recently confirmed that at least five units have been already committed to qualified artists, with five more highly likely to be approved. Yet other residents voiced hesitations. “The income requirement to qualify is pretty darn low even for artists,” said Vallejo artist and activist Celeste Smeland. And yet another concerned citizen had this to say during a recent weekday tour: “The city of Vallejo has committed upwards of almost $4million to this project, and it is our job to make it work the way it was designed to be.”

And then there is the issue of the ground floor. It was initially thought that there would be an art gallery on the ground level for artists to exhibit their work, and to hold opening receptions. “Artists will be welcomed to hang their works for sale on the walls of the café or coffee shop on the ground level,” Kang offered. During a recent tour, Kang said she was looking at the possibility of office space for VCAF (Vallejo Community Arts Foundation), and perhaps a Starbucks or similar coffee shop or café. She further said that she plans to rent a portion of the building near the alley (next to the jail) to an entrepreneur who specializes in selling lemon meringue pies. That is not exactly what the citizens of Vallejo had in mind.

Without activists like Erin Bakke, and many folks like her, this city would be in an even more sorry state. But with their help, perhaps the Temple Artists Lofts will become the success it was originally intended to be. It is incumbent upon each and everyone in Vallejo to tell an artist/performer friend that there are extremely affordable places for them to live right here in Historic Downtown Vallejo. There will be dedicated parking across the street from the Empress Theatre. And there is even a laundry room facility on sight, a feature important to many residents. As for the performing arts space on the third floor of the building, “We will not be charging a fee for use of this space,” said Kang. “Any artist can use it for an exhibit, for a performance, or even a wedding party. It will be a wonderful feature for this building, and a wonderful asset for the city itself. I am hoping that many people will realize the benefit of it,” Kang said.

The Temple Arts Lofts boast high ceilings, raised lofts, elegant architecture, high stately windows, a sweeping performance center, a grand staircase entrance and more. Some of the units have spectacular views of the downtown. They are light, airy and sunny. As for the ultimate curiosity as to how much Domus Management Company and its investors have put forth to make this effort a realization: “Over $12 million,” Kang said. And then there is still the matter that the City of Vallejo has invested upwards of $4million to help make the Temple Arts Lofts a success. “Trust me, this city will eventually be paid back their money,” Kang said during her recent visit. But if not done so in a timely manner, there are plenty of activists out there who will be asking questions. In the meantime, the jury is still out.