Since 1997, many of the South Coast’s aspiring dancers have been instructed, inspired, and incubated by Santa Barbara Dance Arts (SBDA) and its nonprofit partner, the Arts Mentorship Program (AMP), which provides scholarships, facilitates student dance companies, and subsidizes rehearsal space rental for the folks who entertain the masses during Fiesta, Solstice, and other annual events. For the past decade, that all took place in the Vercal Building at 1 North Calle César Chávez, where the City of Santa Barbara lured SBDA with a $150,000 grant in 2004 to help rejuvenate the eastern fringe of the Funk Zone. Today, as that waterfront district blossoms into a hub of art, wine, and culture, SBDA is getting nudged out because they make too much noise. But co-owners Alana Tillim and Steven Lovelace fear they’re just the latest to feel the effects of gentrification in the changing neighborhood.
“Wally’s mural is my story,” said Tillim, referring to the iconic Wallace Piatt piece on Mason Street that proclaimed: Look, look at what you’ve done to State Street … Don’t destroy my Funk Zone too. “As the Funk Zone begins to change, the landlords, from my vantage point, wanted to repurpose the building,” explained Tillim, who’s been asked to leave the 8,200-square-foot space mid-lease but is allowed to stay until the move is complete. “It was made clear that it was necessary for us to be quiet or leave. That was just not possible for us.”
Last month, after a year of scouring Santa Barbara’s expensive commercial real estate market, Tillim finally signed a long-term lease for a standalone building at 531 East Cota Street, at the corner of Salsipuedes Street. Close to Santa Barbara Junior High, S.B High, Transition House, and Girls Inc. — all places where some of the 500-plus annual SBDA/AMP students come from — the former Staples store and furniture warehouse is actually 700 square feet larger than the Vercal space and may wind up being a better home for the organization, even after it sunk $100,000 into sound-proofing the former studio. “To face leaving all of that behind and relocate was a daunting task,” said Tillim, a UCSB grad who joined SBDA founder Lovelace 15 years ago. “But at the end of the day, this is going to be the best thing.”
“If we did go away, because we’re not out of the water yet, the ripple effect would be huge.”
Since November, SBDA has raised $330,000 — including $50,000 from the Towbes Foundation, a couple of large anonymous grants, and even support from the new landlord himself — of the $450,000 needed to change the building from an empty shell into a cutting-edge dance facility, complete with five large studios, a performance space, and homework lounge. “It’s amazing that we’ve raised $330,000, but if we don’t raise the rest, it’s done,” said Tillim, who hopes to break ground this summer, open by the fall, and continue employing two dozen teachers, educating 500-plus students each year, and entertaining thousands at annual public events. “If we did go away, because we’re not out of the water yet, the ripple effect would be huge.”
Everyone wishes SBDA well, but not all buy the gentrification complaint. That includes SBDA’s current neighbor Michael Holliday, an architect who has been in the Vercal Building for nearly 24 years and, more recently, developed the shared office space known as Synergy Business & Technology Center, home to 26 different businesses. “I see it as the ongoing progression of the whole Funk Zone,” he explained, noting that numerous tenants occupied the building in recent years, likely prompting the noise conflicts. “It’s changing, but as things grow and expand, I think Santa Barbara is really committed to keeping the Funk Zone funky.” As to SBDA’s replacement, Carolyn Parks, of Good Management, which oversees the property for a Bay Area–based owner, said via email, “We don’t know what we’ll be doing with the S.B. Dance Art’s space until they move out.”
Meanwhile, the move is exciting the arts community, including County Arts Commissioner Ginny Brush, who lauded the 100 scholarships that AMP hands out each year to low-income and at-risk youth and for empowering “literally thousands of youth” in the last 15 years. “Their move to the East Cota Street studio on the Eastside will add a tremendous resource, not just for the youth in the surrounding neighborhood but will add synergy to nonprofits with vital after-school programs,” said Brush.
Though focused on fundraising the last $100,000 or so and visibly excited by the future, Tillim seems bittersweet, ready for the new challenge but lamenting the experience of reinvigorating a neighborhood only to be kicked out once successful. “We’ve been blessed enough to create spaces for others who can’t do it,” she explained. “We’re just doing what we’ve been doing since we got there.”