Losing the farm

In Atlanta's rush to gentrify, Art Farm is another casualty

Inside the shoebox-shaped gallery, patrons wore gloves to protect against the cold of canned Miller High Life (the red wine was long gone), while a single oscillating space heater attempted in vain to heat the drafty hall. Basically, there was little to suggest that this Dec. 1 show was anything but your average, underground art opening — apart from the murmurs that it could be Art Farm's last.

For almost a year, the experimental theater, music venue and gallery has struggled to hang on to its lease for the old Johnson Motor Transport property, a sprawling, 10,000-square-foot compound with grounds artfully dotted with rusted gears and found objects — the very embodiment of the shabby-chic aesthetic honed a few blocks to the west, among the old mill shanties of Cabbagetown.

But despite having signed in 2003 a five-year lease for the space, Art Farm owner Dennis Coburn says he expects to vacate the grounds, where he's operated Art Farm for five years, by the end of December.

"I was just trying to hang in there until they absolutely forced me out," Coburn says. "And that's now happened. They've closed on the deal, and so I've literally done my last event."

The "deal" was between property owner Selig Enterprises and the developer of a 70-unit condominium project flanking Art Farm. MillTown Lofts, with its immaculate brick sterility and movie set appeal, stands in stark contrast to Art Farm — and MillTown's developers for months have been eyeing the Farm as the future home of MillTown's phase two.

Although Selig and the company developing MillTown, Ultima Holdings, have been negotiating the sale since 2003, the deal had stalled because the Art Farm property was zoned industrial, and condo construction requires a commercial or residential zoning. But in August, after Ultima won the cooperation of the Reynoldstown Revitalization Corporation and the city's Neighborhood Planning Unit-N, which covers Reynoldstown and Inman Park, Atlanta City Council approved a rezoning request for the property. That cleared the way for the sale. Though several years remain on Art Farm's lease with Selig, a clause in the lease allows for it to be terminated in the event the property is sold.

"I know the owner or manager of the Art Farm was not real happy," says Bennett Williams, Ultima's senior vice president for multi-family development. "We did the best we could to accommodate him."

Christopher Baldwin, project manager for MillTown Lofts, says Coburn was allowed to operate the space rent-free for the past three months.

"When Dennis had originally started there, there was no development around him at all, and he believed it was a great spot because he didn't have to worry about upsetting neighbors," Baldwin says. "And he recognizes that this area changed in a dramatic fashion."

According to Baldwin, MillTown residents have complained about noise from late-night music shows at Art Farm. He also says Coburn was cooperative in agreeing to curb the noise.

MillTown, which has sold out of the 70 condos in phase one, could begin construction of the next 40 condos in late January, Baldwin says.

Art Farm isn't the only recent casualty of gentrifying intown neighborhoods. Earlier this year, the legendary 24-hour dance club, Backstreet, closed its doors after a long licensing battle with the city, which in turn was responding to pressure from the club's exasperated neighbors. In August, Dean Riopelle, co-owner of the landmark former-mill-turned-music-venue the Masquerade, confirmed he is selling the site to a condo developer. The impetus for the sale was the loss of the Masquerade's parking lot, which was sold along with the 2 million-square-foot City Hall East building to be developed as condos.

Parking aside, Riopelle says he didn't want to deal with the inevitable complaints from a thousand new residents moving into the area.

"People want to move back into the inner city, in part because of the exciting things going on there, but they don't want to live across the street from that excitement," he says.

The Masquerade will remain open for a year while Riopelle searches for a new home for the club — most likely in the 'burbs, where the availability of parking and the threat of condo development pose less of a challenge.

Coburn, however, says he's had little luck finding a new home for Art Farm.

"People are going to have to take it way out, to where you can't bother anybody," he says. "There's really no place to do it intown. I mean, you have parking and you have noise and everything's becoming residential."

The venues' plights point to the growing homogenization of Atlanta's quirkier pockets. Still, some venues have been able to capitalize on the influx of residents to intown neighborhoods.

Gallery and music venue Eyedrum opened five years ago — in a 1,000-square-foot loft downtown. Now, three years after moving into a warehouse on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the 3,000-square-foot venue is about to double in size, opening an additional room behind the current gallery and stage.

Hormuz Minina, chairman of Eyedrum's board, credits Eyedrum's viability to its ability to appeal to nearby loft dwellers.

"We have always been creative in getting funding and getting support," Minina says. "For example, we worked out a deal with our landlord where we were able to convince him that Eyedrum being so close to the Mattress Factory and the Crown Candy lofts would only benefit the Realtors and developers in the area. And we were able to get a pretty low, subsidized rate on our rent because of that."

But what worked for Eyedrum failed Art Farm. Unlike the lofts on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, development in gentrifying Reynoldstown directly led to Art Farm's undoing.

Coburn says improv and theater groups that performed at Art Farm, such as Sketchworks and Jack in the Black Box, will be hardest hit.

"I think there's going to be some momentum building for more venues," Coburn says. "There's going to have to be. Because venues are drying up, and you just won't get the sort of small, cutting-edge, more experimental theater."

If there's a key to survival, however, it's to avoid landlords altogether. More than 20 years ago, Joe Shifalo and a band of like-minded arts radicals raised money to buy an old school building that they turned into the Little Five Points Community Center. In the intervening years, the Center has been able to provide shelter to dozens of arts groups without concern for the whims of the real-estate market.

But Shifalo, who still runs the Center, fears the opportunity for buying a funky intown space in a yet-undiscovered corner of Atlanta has probably passed.

"Atlanta's a bad town for mixed-use," he says. "Residents generally want only other residential use around them — even as they complain that they have to drive everywhere to find food or entertainment."

Additional reporting by staff writer Scott Henry.