Panama Art Factory tenants asked to vacate studios, retail yard to stay open for business

By Monica Stark

Ten days to vacate. Met with that message upon arrival to their artist studios at the Panama Art Factory on the afternoon of Friday, July 7, tenants spread shock waves across social media asking their legions of friends and supporters where might they house their art supplies.
The City of Sacramento Community Development Department posted a laundry list of building violations from shoddy electrical and building artist studios within the old factory without a permit.
Artist Sandy Whetstone said she received a call from her studio mate that tenants were being asked to vacate. Shortly thereafter, she arrived to her studio and witnessed city staff posting the notices.
Meanwhile, building owner Dave DeCamilla told the Land Park News artists would be smart if they do not vacate. DeCamilla put a call into Council Member Jay Schenirer’s office asking him to stop the evictions and to take a closer look at the safety of the building. “No one is vacating, first of all. If they’re smart. No one is five feet away from the door. If they’re that timid, fine. They don’t belong there. People can get spooked for a lot of reasons. That’s not me. I would not have taken this project on.”
But to artists like Whetstone who chose to vacate it’s not really a choice. “Basically, we’re getting evicted because there’s no way (DeCamilla) can get those things done in 10 days.” She spoke with the inspector who said that was unlikely to happen based on interactions with the owner. A tenant at Panama for many years, Whetstone said her space previously was the office for the past owner and had been renovated to an art gallery. “I’ve been here for a long, long time,” she said.
Two separate entities, Panama Pottery and the Panama Art Factory, fill the space now at 4421 24th St. The retail yard, Panama Pottery, did not get an eviction notice, while artists inside the factory are being asked to leave. A haven for artists, the Panama Art Factory houses 30 studios that DeCamilla had built. Varying in size and rent prices, artists can pay anywhere between $150 to $350 a month for space. Previous tenants have included notable clay artists like Marsha Schindler. Fewer clay artists have filled the space since the branding of the Panama Art Factory, while more and varied artists work out of the space.
One of the requirements the city has asked DeCamilla is to change the usage of the building from factory to business mixed use. Such violations provided by the city, in part, include the following: that the “pottery factory has been converted and being used as an artist studio, retail art gallery and according to the complaint, has living quarters on site”; that it has “faulty equipment or wiring presenting a hazard to person or property”; that there are “inadequate exists — minimum exiting as required in building codes for second floor loft spaces”; that the landlord provide required ventilation fan.
To DeCamilla, the requirement of changing the property’s usage is unfounded. “The city is alleging that I change the use. I haven’t changed the use. It was a factory then; it’s a factory now. We went from making hot dogs to hamburgers. Does the city want the building to stay, or doesn’t it?” Regarding rumors that Panama Art Factory manager Dave Davis (aka “Dave Dave”) was the “resident manager,” DeCamilla responded: “No one lives there. No one ever lived there. No one will ever live there. Period.”
A building permit to repair the violations is required and work completed prior to reoccupying the building. In order to do the work that was done, DeCamilla said permits wouldn’t have been approved in the first place.
No newbie to rehabilitating historic buildings, DeCamilla said when he bought the Brickhouse, drug dealers surrounded the space and in went the artists. Former home of Soracco Sheet Metal Works, the Brickhouse has nine artist studios, and home to artists of various art media. “It seems strange that once you get successful, they start coming at you. When it was a dump, no one said a word. That’s the story: What kind of city do we want? Do we want a city that’s kind of interested? Or, do we want a city that’s just a bunch of more franchises?”
While the city has its list of complaints of noncompliance, DeCamilla listed four issues he’s had with the city, as follows: One, speeding up and down 24th Street. “The city has never addressed that,” he said. Two, “the refusal of artists to police the right-of-way of light rail. There’s vagrants. Vagrants are a big problem.” Three, no weed control. “That’s the fire hazard.” Four, the break-in at the art factory hasn’t been resolved.
Using the same licensed contractors as he has used on his 1924 home as well as those who helped with ArtStreet and ArtHotel, DeCamilla said the list goes “on and on.”
“It’s a shakedown. Everything’s been done. We solved it. That place is 10,000 times safer than it’s ever been, ever. It’s nice, safe and clean. The rents are reasonable. It works. There are no complaints from anybody ever, except one anonymous tenant and they sent the city building department down.”
“This is a matter of public policy. One that’s based on fact, not emotion. What happened in Oakland (Ghost Ship fire) or some other place has nothing to do with us. You have code enforcement officers making public policy. It’s not a good thing to do. I understand the building code and if you’re starting from ground zero, but the fact is, we couldn’t.”
“Did I ask for permission to rescue a 100-year-old building 11 years ago? No, I didn’t. In the meantime, I would have never gotten permission. I wouldn’t have gotten the permits… As far as telling people it’s a risk, they are categorically wrong. They’re (code enforcement) nice people. They’re doing their job, but this is a public policy thing. Yes, I did not apply for permits. But, we didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t do anything below standards. I have my own studio there. I’m not going to compromise people I know… Our town is about rules and regulations. Fine: I’m all about that. I live in this town. I’ve been in business for 40 years. I’m chairman for the city pension funds. I have my own business. I have my own reputation to uphold and I’m not going to do anything that’s unsafe,” DeCamilla said.
“I’m not an absentee landlord down in Galt, no. I’ve been involved step for step. That’s why I know what’s been done there.”
The cost to fire up one of the beehive kilns isn’t cheap, so pottery production slowed and by the early 2000s, 70 percent of the pots that were sold were made in the factory. The rest were imported from countries like Mexico and Italy.
In 2006, DeCamilla, the co-founder and president and chief investment officer of DeCamilla Capital Management, bought Panama Pottery with plans to continue traditional pottery making and to make artisan pottery, sculpture, and art.
Over time, the competition for cheaper products grew and Panama Pottery halted the sales of its pottery that they produced and eventually even the use of the small electric kilns in the factory has lessened. On the property sits a well and an anonymous artist said that there may be lead in the water. Water from Alhambra Water Delivery is brought for drinking water. DeCamilla said he disconnected the gas and stopped the electric presses and “made the building way more functional.” The city’s request that he hook up to city water seems too drastic, he said. “I’d have to bring in a plumber. What for? I bring in Alhambra water and we have some toilets to flush. That’s it.”
As for the other violations, he’s willing to put in a push door and put up more emergency exit signs.
Notifying the building owner and “all other persons having an interest in said property”, the city also posted a memo informing that an appeal hearing before the Housing Code Advisory and Appeals Board will be held in the Historic City Hall Commission Hearing Room at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 9.
According to further postings provided to tenants, the city notes that “any tenant who is displaced from a rental unit as a result of an order issued by an authorized city official due to unsafe or hazardous living conditions as specified in Chapter 8.96 or 8.100 of the city code shall by entitled to receive relocation benefits from the owner of the property. The relocation benefits paid by the property owner shall be a sum equal to twice the established monthly rental rate for the unit being vacated by the displaced tenant.”

Maria Vargas, owner Panama Pottery, the retail arm of the property said she did a lower purchase of inventory than ever, preparing for the worst. “The word fire sale is not an uncommon word for me. If I have to have the biggest fire sale, I’ll do it.”

Despite what happens at the Panama Art Factory, Vargas remains optimistic for her business. “Right now I am clear of that with the city… Financially, oh yeah, I can have that sale, but I don’t want to. I don’t want that to be the reason why I am no longer involved with the business. I don’t want somebody ignorant and thievery to take me down. When I close, I want it to be my choice. I’m not going to leave there in the middle of this act.”



3 Responses to Panama Art Factory tenants asked to vacate studios, retail yard to stay open for business

  1. editor says:

    A first-person account by one of the artists:

  2. Dane Henas says:

    Mr. DeCamilla, you seem to choose to live in an alternate universe where building codes and permits are ignored and one does whatever one wants, and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else! In regard to not wanting to hook up to city water, is there no running tap water at all, or does it run off a well?

    As far as using “licensed contractors” to do the work, big deal! That doesn’t absolve you from going through proper channels and having the city or whoever sign off on the work done.

    The city should deal with a confessed “scofflaw” (“guilty as charged”–in the Bee article) like Mr. DeCamilla to the fullest extent of their power if he continues to be in denial. The fact that he lives in the Fab 40s in a 1924 house and has had his own business for 40 years and is in charge of the city pension funds does not matter one iota–congratulations on your success, but we don’t care!

    Your issues with the city over speeding, vagrants, et al–it’s out of control and there’s little that can be done! And in regard to your reputation–how you deal with the present is your reputation–and you’re not coming off too good right now!

    You should negotiate with the city for back permits, penalties, whatever and bring the building up to code, yes, to their rules–not your Bizarro world rules–to make is a safe space for artists and for events! Do the right thing, Mr. DeCamillo and you can come out of this mess being a hero!

  3. Ken Knott says:

    I was a tenant there from 2/13 to 3/16 and moved out because of loft studios brought 100 years of clay dust down onto all surfaces on the ground floor. Clay dust is hazardous to breathe because the particles are so fine and once breathed into your lungs stays there eventually causing silicosis. After the loft construction I expected there to be a complete clean up of the warehouse, but after 3 months I moved out because why pay rent when you can’t use your space ?

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