In 2012, San Francisco arts organization CounterPulse had three years left on its lease when Twitter moved in around the corner. A mainstay of experimental arts in the city since 1991, CounterPulse knew it faced a massive rent spike, so seven years into a ten-year lease, it started looking for a new home.
As it happened, a few blocks away was a former adult theater in the Tenderloin district that had been mostly vacant since the late 1990s. CounterPulse moved in in 2015, a transition made possible thanks to a pilot program that bought rundown properties in the Bay Area, remodeled them, and matched them with arts and cultural organizations facing displacement.
Named CAST, for Community Arts Stabilization Trust, the program was launched by nonprofit Community Vision and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, which donated $5 million over the course of 5 years. CAST purchased the Tenderloin building for $1.3 million in 2013, giving CounterPulse an affordable 10-year lease and the option to buy the property at the end of it. (CounterPulse’s starting rent was just under $4,900; it’s now $5,600.) After a dazzling renovation in 2014, CounterPulse is now ready to purchase the building from CAST. A milestone for the organization, it also offers a replicable model that can foster arts and culture in cities, all while pulling old buildings from the abyss.
“When we moved to [our previous location in] SoMa (South of Market district), it was just derelict donut shops and holes in the ground,” says Julie Phelps, artistic and executive director at CounterPulse. Soon enough, however, the influx of tech money drove up rents, and the entire city was mired in gentrification. “We weren’t expecting to be able to renew our lease, not to mention we were busting at the seams,” she says.
San Francisco consistently ranks as one of the world’s most expensive cities in which to live and work, making it particularly challenging for arts organizations to stay afloat amid rising real estate prices. “There’s always been a space chase for community arts organizations,” says Joshua Simon, a senior adviser at CAST, noting that the program’s goal is to find a way to lock down the value of a building and give cultural organizations the chance to catch up, ultimately creating “an engine for rooting arts and culture in communities.”
In 2015, federal funding from the New Markets Tax Credit helped CounterPulse finance a renovation. It hired local architecture firm Jensen Architects, which preserved the building’s iconic pink facade and transformed the 10,000-square-foot rundown building into an ADA-accessible venue with state-of-the-art performance spaces, rehearsal studios, offices, and an apartment for visiting artists.
As a nod to the building’s relationship to the arts, the underside of the cascading theater seats was left visible from the lobby, where it forms a striking red ceiling reminiscent of a red carpet. “Even after gutting the inside, the building retained qualities of its theatrical past,” says Frank Merritt, a principal at Jensen Architects.
In a way, the building’s transformation is in line with that of the neighborhood, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by 29% over the last year alone. Phelps says that when CounterPulse first moved in in 2015, the entire block across the street was boarded up. Now, a 12-story hotel and residential building with a sweeping facade takes up the majority of the block. “It’s really clear that we would never be able to buy this building now,” Phelps says.
CAST exists to support the arts, but by taking advantage of old buildings, the program can also be seen as a particularly efficient urban redevelopment tool. In 2015, CAST acquired the three-story, historic Walker Building on Market Street, allowing the Luggage Store Gallery—a fixture of the San Francisco art scene since the 1980s—to remain inside and renovate as needed.
In 2020, CAST partnered with San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department to rehabilitate the 1901 Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse. Once home to San Francisco’s first electric railway, the building now houses education nonprofit Performing Arts Workshop, which can remain at the Powerhouse with a 55-year below-market-rate lease.
And now CAST is transforming the historic Dempster Building in the SoMa neighborhood into a 10,000-square-foot arts and performance space. (The building was donated to CAST by real estate firm Brookfield Properties and sits on a 4-acre, mixed-use development.)
All CAST properties have a deed restriction that ensures the building can be sold only to another arts organization or cultural nonprofit. If CounterPulse outgrows its home in the Tenderloin, or if the building no longer works for its purposes, the organization can sell to another nonprofit or sell it back to CAST, forever securing the space for the arts—and giving the building yet another lease on life.