In a few months, dozens of artists and makers will set up shop in the currently vacant warehouse at 1150 Sixth Street, which used to house Odwalla’s distribution center.
MWS Studios, a cluster of artist studios for rent, is the brainchild of Jacques Janson, a recovering corporate financier, and John Henry, a real-estate developer who helped build a similar artist community in Oakland.
“It seems like there’s a shortage of spaces for artists to go make things,” said Janson, who lives in Sonoma.
Artists will be able to rent the studio spaces, which vary in size, on a month-by-month basis initially. The building license will allow up to 10% of the nearly 10,000 square foot site to serve as retail space, so some artists will be able to convert their studios into storefronts or galleries.
“We want to provide an opportunity to create here, but also help sustain the lifestyle of being an artist, because that’s incredibly difficult,” Janson said.
He designed a flexible floor plan to accommodate artists’ needs, including non-loadbearing walls that can easily be removed to expand studio size. He and Henry selected Berkeley architect Charles Kahn based on his receptiveness to their atypical and subject-to-change design. The plan also includes a communal lounge but no drop-in or shared workspaces for now – just individual studios accessible 24/7 by keycard.
Janson and Henry, who used to be roommates in Half Moon Bay, have been fleshing out their idea for over a year, but it took a while for anything to materialize. They wanted their site to be safe and up to code, but knew they couldn’t afford to start from scratch.
“We basically created a list of criteria,” Janson said. “This building needs to have sprinklers. We need something that’s already been seismically assessed. We’ve driven every street from here to Oakland, that’s how we found this space. A couple days a week, we’d just get in a car and drive.”
They took out a 30-year lease on the building, which is up the street from the recently rechristened Lama Bean’s Café and on a block that is rapidly transforming. Urban Adamah, a West Berkeley Jewish community farm, bought and plans to move into the empty 2.2 acre field directly across from MWS Studios. Covenant Wines and Far West Brewing (which will likely open under a different name) are also slated to move to the block, which is part of the West Berkeley “Drinks District.”
The founders of MWS Studios (which was originally named Makers’ Work Space which explains the website’s URL) have met with their future neighbors to discuss their ideal community dynamic, which involves joint events and an “interweaving” of the various organizations’ services, Janson said. For example, Janson and Henry might ask Urban Adamah to plant fruit trees in front of their building — and the farm might commission outdoor art from the studios’ tenants.
The new artists who occupy the studios will hardly be alone in the neighborhood. A study conducted by the City of Berkeley in 2008 found that 800 individuals, from part-time hobbyists to established filmmakers, were engaged in the arts in West Berkeley at the time.
“We found that the majority of artists were housed in nine buildings/facilities and concluded that maintaining and adding these sorts of facilities where artists can come together and work is important to sustaining the community over time,” said Michael Caplan, the head of Berkeley’s economic development department, via email. “I am very excited about this new project.”
There has been a burst of communal and clustered working sites — often called hacker spaces or maker spaces — for creators across all media in the Bay Area and elsewhere over the past few years. In places like San Francisco, where rent is unaffordable for most artists, the spaces often operate on a gym-like membership model, where lots of people constantly come and go.
“In other spaces, you’re dealing with a bigger space but you’re also paying more to rent,” Henry said. “We shrunk the spaces a little bit, but everyone has the ability to use the wash station, there’s bathrooms, there’s still open areas where people can commune. We want to make sure the community gels, but eventually we want people to be able to come in and walk around the space.”
The rent hasn’t been determined yet, but the founders say they want to keep it as affordable as they can while maintaining the space and safety features.
“We’re looking to be competitive with what’s out there in the legal space,” Janson said.
They’re brainstorming all sorts of “cool amenities” and quirky decor to foster a creative rather than institutional environment inside the building, Henry said. They’re planning to scavenge many of the windows and doors, and are in talks with someone who disassembles old farmhouses. The finished space should be bursting with color and art pieces everywhere, resembling Paris’ Montmartre neighborhood, Janson said. Skylights will flood the space with natural light, and an infrared motion detector to turn out lights in unused spaces will keep electricity use to a minimum.
Already, one tenant has signed on, and the rest will be selected on a largely first-come-first-served basis. The founders are not courting any one kind of artist in particular, but are hoping to avoid people whose work disrupts that of their cohabitants.
Gathering a diverse collection of artists while preserving the synchronicity of the group is a tough balancing act, said Henry, who watched one disruptive artist throw off the dynamic of the whole community at the Oakland space he helped build.
“Everyone feeds off of one another,” Henry said. “It’s its own little community that starts up.”
This story was updated after publication to reflect a new name and change of direction for MWS Studios.