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NIMBY artist Clody Cates outside of her studio days before packing everything up to move to Colfax, Ca. Photo by Jocelyn Tabancay

DIY art space closes, as cannabis industry edges in on Oakland warehouses

on September 30, 2019

NIMBY, one of East Oakland’s scruffy DIY artist warehouse spaces, is closing on September 30. After 15 years of making everything from towering sculptures to tiny jewelry, NIMBY artists say that after cannabis became legal, rent prices have skyrocketed and decided to not renew the lease this year. The landlords, Murray Hill Partners, have owned the property since 2016 and the artists believe the space will be used to grow marijuana next.

NIMBY sits on a 60,000 square foot lot composed of a massive warehouse and yard, where storage containers are stacked on top of each other, each turned into work-only artist studios. Between the storage containers, the space used to be full of surreal sculptures, table saws, kilns and a few things just for fun like a red slide coming out of a storage container and a live parrot hanging out in a cage. But the Blade Runner-like space now becomes a dusty warehouse with faint vestiges of its past as an arts collective like its Nite Owl murals still on the walls.

A couple of weeks ago, NIMBY’s founder, Mike Snook, looked exhausted as he sat on a forklift. “We just had around 300 artists working here, but now there’s only about 50 or 60 left,” he said. He was referring to the hundreds of artists who made art for Burning Man using the NIMBY space. The desert festival can generate a significant amount of income for sculpture artists, but lately, it’s not enough. “The city’s made it hard to stay here,” Snook said.

Snook was talking about how the industrialized East and West Oakland flats that have become Oakland’s “green zone.” In Oakland, to grow marijuana, permits are only given to places that are at least 600 feet of schools and it’s hard to get a permit within 300 feet of a residence, so East and West Oakland is ideal for cannabis growers and unofficially the “green zone.”

Snook said the establishment of the green zone and the statewide legalization of pot in 2018 caused a surge of interest in warehouse spaces like NIMBY because cannabis businesses want to use them for growing and other steps in the manufacturing process like packaging.

Snook founded NIMBY in 2004 originally in West Oakland then moved to their East Oakland warehouse in 2009. It’s named after the phrase “Not In My Back Yard,” meaning an attitude that an activity or people are OK as long as they’re not bothering anyone else. At that time, it the East Oakland flats were considered out of the way and a good place for industrial activity. Ironically, it became the “green zone” for the same reason.

In 2016, the warehouse and the neighboring warehouse were sold by the previous building’s owner Moses S. Libitsky to Murray Hill Partners, LLC, a real estate investment firm based in Oakland.  The neighboring building, which formerly housed an automotive shop, now operates a marijuana growing facility.

Murray Hill Partners’ owner Steve Wolmark declined to comment for this story.

But longtime NIMBY artist Clody Cates said that it took her a while to realize the new landlord and newly legal cannabis would affect NIMBY.

Artist Clody Cates at NIMBY demonstrating the art and storage containers that will be removed from the lot before October 1st.
Artist Clody Cates demonstrates the art and storage containers that will be removed from the NIMBY lot before October 1st.

“First [the new landlords] came and they said, yeah, we love artists, we just want to take care of the other building and grow [marijuana] on the other building and you guys are fine here.” But once cannabis became legal in 2018, renewing the lease became extremely hard when the new landlords wanted to charge NIMBY rent that the artists could not afford.

The landlord “would have let us stay but at four times the price that we were already paying,” she said as she sat outside of her studio three days before moving her possessions out. “So that that just was not good enough…Snook really tried his best to stay and it didn’t work,” she continued.

Snook and Cates believe Wolmark intends on renting to cannabis growers and has been getting the warehouse’s electrical wiring ready for it. And in an August interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, Wolmark said he was improving the wiring to be ready for a range of possible tenants, including cannabis businesses.

“They do need to bring in a ton of power for the for the grow,” said Snook.

Snook and Cates both looked for warehouse spaces for NIMBY to move to in the Bay Area, but everywhere, the rents were too high.

In February, on a press release on NIMBY’s website, Snook announced NIMBY would be closing because they had not been able to negotiate an affordable lease renewal nor been able to find a comparable, affordable warehouse in the Bay Area.  

In the weeks leading up to closing, the art at NIMBY disappeared little by little. Cates, a multi-media artist, had already moved most of her work, but her mural “Do it for Haiti” still decorated the warehouse wall.  Smaller nature-inspired metal workings were outside of her studio, including a copper cannabis bud she created as a protest peace. In the yard, a ten-foot moth made of metal and wood remained perched next to an old farm truck that hadn’t been driven in years.

Cannabis is not a new industry for Oakland, but it has become increasingly easy for businesses to enter the market in recent years. In 2009, voters passed Measure F and Oakland became the first city in the U.S. to impose a tax on cannabis businesses. Greg Minor, an assistant to the City Administrator, and who issues cannabis permits, says that after recreational cannabis use was legalized across the state in 2016, the city had to determine a framework for “legalizing the supply chain.” Cannabis operations have since been booming ever since, and industrial rents along the green zone have been going up.

One of the first unanticipated conflicts between the cannabis industry and artists happened in 2018. A marijuana-focused real estate company, Green Sage, purchased a live-work artist warehouse called the Oakland Cannery. The new landlord wanted to convert the warehouse into a property for cannabis-related businesses, but after protests, city Council president Rebecca Kaplan held a special hearing on the matter.

“We ended up amending our ordinance to say we will not issue any kind of cannabis permit or approval for a space … that was used for residence or live-work,” Minor said.

But NIMBY doesn’t qualify for any special protections, because it’s not a residential space and there aren’t specific protections for art spaces. “We have taken steps to address that kind of displacement, but it doesn’t include places like NIMBY, where you don’t have anyone living there,” said Minor.

In the last few days before moving out, in quirky NIMBY-fashion, Snook was carrying a 40-year-old green parrot named Sam on his shoulder as he gave workers instruction on clearing out the warehouse. Snook says he and about half-dozen other artists are moving to Lassen County, a rural area about 45 miles northwest of Reno, Nevada. “We’re welcome there,” he said, explaining running a DIY art space in Oakland has been almost impossible with constantly confronting into issues of permits.

“ Some of the bullshit that went down. It’s unacceptable…We did get permits to put our containers up but we really tried to get public assembly and stuff like that and that was that was laughable joke,” he explained over the phone. “Without even talking to us changed our public assembly permit to we could teach classes occasionally.”

Snook was able to purchase three properties in Lassen County. One of them is a café that hasn’t been open for 50 years that he plans on updating to a multi-use facility.

“With Lassen county, we just walked in, changes going into a studio type gallery, office, and they’re like, ‘Yeah no problem,’” Snook explained. One of the reasons Lassen county is also ideal is that it’s close to Burning Man.

He shook his head and emphasized that he’s not coming back to Oakland, not even to display art. “I’m ready for kinder, gentler, slower place,” Snook said.

Cates shared bitterness over feeling pushed out and unwelcome in Oakland.

“Good luck to Oakland,” said Cates. “It’s unfortunate that you could not support the artists a little bit more than. Like everybody else, you wanted the money more than the culture.” 

Cates has already moved over a hundred miles to Collfax, California, which is located along Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Truckee.

“That’s gonna be fun. Barefoot, in nature instead of concrete and metal desks,” she said with a grin. “Yes. It’s going to be good.”

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