New housing for artists signals big changes on Sacramento’s R Street

Will the corridor be the central city’s next new happening spot?

Artist Jose Di Gregorio shows off his paint-covered hands after working on a mural inside the new Warehouse Artists Lofts. He and others say this new affordable housing for artists is poised to transform the R Street corridor.

Artist Jose Di Gregorio shows off his paint-covered hands after working on a mural inside the new Warehouse Artists Lofts. He and others say this new affordable housing for artists is poised to transform the R Street corridor.

Jose Di Gregorio emerges from a doorway, black-paint splashes decorating his face and hands. He’s spent the entire day working on a giant mural, a juxtaposition of colorful lines and splatterings against an interstellar black backdrop. He hopes to finish it this week, and when it’s complete it will be in the lobby of a new downtown housing complex, a proverbial gateway to a unique-to-Sacramento artist community: the Warehouse Artists Lofts on R Street.

You may have heard of what everyone calls “WAL,” a 116-unit affordable-housing-for-artists apartment building that takes up an entire city block on R between 12th and 11th streets. This old warehouse, built in 1914, made headlines in October when nearly 200 people camped out and waited to apply for one of its abodes. The rent starts at $340 a month for these apartments, if you are a low-income artist, which explains why they were a hot-ticket item.

“I was in line for 18 hours. I camped out. I wasn’t fucking around,” says Di Gregorio, who landed a three-bedroom on the top floor. He was fourth in line. “It was actually really fun. It wasn’t like waiting in line for an iPhone.”

Tenants will hopefully start moving in next month, says developer Ali Youssefi.

Sacramento truly has never seen housing like this. The developer group, CFY Development, receives federal tax credits for offering affordable rent to qualified low-income artists. For instance, a painter with a family who makes 30 percent of Sacramento’s median income could pay as little as $530 for one of WAL’s three-bedroom apartments.

But it’s not just housing, as Youssefi explains. There’s also a high-ceiling dance studio on the second floor, overlooking R and 12th streets, and a spacious music-rehearsal room in the basement. He’s commissioned local artists such as Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Christophel to do giant murals in the courtyard. Jake Castro and Demetris Washington painted exterior artworks. William Ishmael will overtake a hallway. And Di Gregorio, of course.

Artist Brian Schmitt created light installations for the community room. “In a normal apartment building, this [room] would just have a pool table in and a TV,” Youssefi said. Instead, it will be used for artist presentations and performances.

On the ground floor facing the street, locally owned businesses will open early next year: a bar and barbershop by the operators of Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. and Anthony’s Barber Shop, a new sushi spot by Kru chef Billy Ngo, an Italian restaurant by the team behind Shady Lady Saloon, a fresh juice cafe, and even a seven-tenant artisan marketplace where shoppers can buy items like records and vintage clothing.

“It’s all for artists. There’s nothing like this that’s been built in Sacramento,” Youssefi says.

And it’s authentic, the artists agree. “I really feel like this will be the cultural district,” Di Gregorio says. “I would be priced out of any other place in Midtown, for sure.”

These artist lofts are just a part of some major new developments on downtown’s R Street corridor.

For years, the strip of R from 18th to 10th streets was dotted with industrial warehouses and vacant buildings. The only signs of life on the strip were usually brunch-goers at Fox & Goose, or diners at Magpie Café or Burgers & Brew.

That soon will no longer be the case. And while most people are focused on downtown’s Kings-sized revitalization, some might say forget the arena.

For instance, developer Mike Heller—responsible for the popular MARRS building on 20th Street, home to LowBrau and Peet’s Coffee—argues that R Street is “the most immediate and significant change to the city landscape.”

Heller’s a big new player on R. He’s ready to go on a project to renovate the old Crystal Ice plant, between 16th and 18th streets near Safeway, and transform it into a mixed-use destination of retail stores and nightlife spots, offices and housing. He’s calling this project “Ice” and hopes to begin construction next year.

Ice will be different for the grid. Heller envisions “design-ish merchandise” types of tenants—he cites Sur La Table or Design Within Reach as hopefuls; rumors include Anthropologie—that have so far stayed away from Sacramento’s central city, because there hasn’t been real estate large enough to house them. Or, of course, not enough of the type of residents who shop at these Galleria at Roseville-type businesses. Plans filed with the city also include 145 loft-style apartment units.

Right now, the stretch of R Street where Ice will be is fenced off, as the city is working on a multimillion-dollar streetscape project: sidewalks, fresh landscaping and a new road surface. This new-look R Street will extend all the way to Fox & Goose on 10th.

Heller, who also recently purchased a giant industrial warehouse next to the WAL building, which he plans to change into retail and offices, sees R Street becoming a place people gather and hang out all day.

“This part of R Street is not a long walk at all,” he said. “And it’s going to be a fun and interesting walk.” Youssefi also wants to see multiblock art festivals and gatherings on the strip.

One more new stop on this R Street walk is near 15th, where a retail center is popping up that will include a Dos Coyotes restaurant, and possibly a sandwich cafe and a beer bar.

Artists like Di Gregorio are happy to be a part of it. “You have to have artists centralized in Midtown. My whole livelihood is around this culture. And for me to be able to be in the thick of where arts things are happening, it’s crucial,” he says.

So will R Street become its own little neighborhood, with its own little nickname like Midtown or downtown, something that grows organically from all the new life on the block?

“That’s a good question,” says Youssefi. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”