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LIFE BELOW BELMONT: THE REZA ASSEMI INTERVIEW
Reza Assemi, 28, grew up in Fresno. The son of a hairdresser and a custom homebuilder, Reza is an artist who did stints in San Francisco and Los Angeles before returning to Fresno with a vision for building a thriving arts community downtown.
The first fruits of his labor are familiar to any Art Hop regular: the four studios in the Pearl Building. Completed in 2001, the Pearl is located in the old Red Cross Building on Fulton Street. Famous recently sat down with its landlord to talk about his ideas and inspiration for the Pearl Building, and what other plans he has for downtown.
FF: How did the Pearl Building come into existence?
RA: When I moved back four years ago that's why I came back. What I always found lacking as an artist is a place I could live, work and show public, all three things in one place.
I had the intention of doing something with those three elements, and then moved back and worked different jobs, really got to know downtown in and out, and then found the old Red Cross building.
It fit what I had in mind. The shell of it fit the look and the size and the layout and everything. It fit what I had in mind, which was to create those spaces to live work and show public within a community space. To have a main [space] going through the building so you could bring in guest artists or show your work if you didn't want to open your door. And to have a community space, like a courtyard, and still have secure parking behind that.
FF: Did you have a model for this type of live-work-show space?
RA: I saw a lot of raw spaces, mostly work spaces, but once I had that idea and once I had the space, I thought of and drew out what I thought would best fit this particular location with the size of the building the size of the lot, what made the most sense for use of space.
The most exposure I had to [live-work spaces] was the brewery in LA. That had some live spaces but mostly work spaces.
FF: How long did the Pearl Building take to complete?
RA: About 8 months to work through the city and plan and about 8 months to build it. It was the first project of its kind in Fresno, so there were a couple loops but I definitely think it's easier to do things these days.
FF: Your family, which is in the construction business, helped you with the project. Were artist lofts downtown a tough sell?
RA: It was something that I really wanted to do, and I was willing to put everything I had into it. [I] talked to my dad about it and he was willing to partner on it. There's a whole community down here and so much potential for more community to come in.
FF: There's no one who would say the Pearl Building hasn't been a success. Have you seen any other developers follow suit?
RA: I've seen artists come in who have rented spaces, leased spaces, started coops; Bill Bruce recently bought a building a block away and made a work space, a gallery space. I've seen people coming in.
From a developer's standpoint, a lot of these things don't make a lot of sense. Because they don't pencil out very easily- as an investment- it doesn't make sense to put money into them every month because it doesn't pay for itself.
FF: Isn't it troublesome if the investments aren't making money?
RA: At 28, that's not my priority. If it breaks even that's good enough for me. If the area were to come up, I see it as more stable. It all boils down to community, starting a community. Something we're definitely lacking in Fresno is a community that's sustainable, where the arts can be surrounded by each other- strength in numbers. There are definitely a lot of beautiful spaces down here, with the raw spaces and the buildings. There's a lot of potential and its one of the areas in Fresno that I see highly overlooked. The location is beautiful.
FF: Let's talk a little bit about your latest project, the redevelopment of the Vagabond Motel site into lofts. How did that get started?
RA: The city approached us two years ago. They wanted to initiate a project that would be a mixed use project at that site.
I think they want to take examples from a lot of other cities around the US that have been rebuilding their downtowns by mixed use projects that include commercial space, with live space, and low-income housing.
It's all about community- with the vagabond being about a block from [the Pearl Building] its going to help the community, help it grow. Bring in affordable housing, mixed use, artist spaces, market rate rent; it's a true mixed use.
[The project includes] 10,000 square-feet of small-scale commercial, which includes restaurants, cafes delis, laundromats- whatever would work. There's a spot designed on H Street that's specifically designed for an artist co-op, for studios and galleries. And then 20% of the 38 lofts are low income.
FF: Your family recently purchased the old Army Induction Building, right behind the Vagabond site. It's currently comprised of artist's studios. What are the plans for that building?
RA: Right now that's in the very preliminary plans. What I'm hoping to do there is about 15 live-work spaces.
FF: With the other developments, that equates to about 60 new lofts downtown. What do you envision for this neighborhood?
RA: I see urban village. I see sustainable neighborhoods where you can work in the same place where you live and play. I see a thriving art community where artists are brought together, where artists from other places will come to be a part of. I see educating the public within arts. With the exposure to arts. I see a thriving community in a healthy way- people living in a way that you can't find in a lot of other places in Fresno. A true community.
FF: Besides places to live and work, what else needs to happen for NoDo (north of downtown) to be a success?
RA: I think we need public art, we need murals. We need sculpture. We need more art studios. We need more artists work spaces. We need more small scale commercial, which can thrive from the neighborhood. I see more residents, more cafes, bars, health food stores, places to buy groceries. I see row houses happening next.
FF: Do you think Fresno has enough of the demographic that wants to live in an urban, loft environment?
RA: I think we do have that demographic. I think that demographic doesn't have options. I definitely see that here. I see the lack of options. If you want to buy space, you have to buy a space that already exists in a tract or in a gated community. So I see it if for sale housing can come into this area row houses or for sale lofts, people would buy.
Fresno is set up as suburbs where the zoning laws haven't changed since the sixties. We're a prime example of cities throughout the nation that have downtowns that have fallen and suburbs that have thrived.
I see a lot of us [younger people] searching for a sense of community, I see a lot of us moving to [other] places and still seeing a lack of that. I see Fresno being an asset to a lot of people who grew up here. We have our families here, friends here and if we have that sense of community I wouldn't want to be any place else.
FF: What will it take to get those who have left to come back?
RA: Quality of life. Quality of life to me entails your family, your friends, what you do when you go home, and if you can live in a place where you can walk down the street, grab a bite to eat, see some friends at the same time, and know the people who are running the businesses around you on a personal level that's quality of life.
FF:That's a much more urban environment.
RA: Right. That's one thing we're lacking here. And I think a lot of people would be drawn back for that. And I think a lot of people from other areas would be drawn to that if that can be created.
There are small bubbles that are surfacing and popping where we're seeing change. And a lot of younger people are looking for little bits of something different. I'm passionately obsessed with thinking about ways to live differently the same way I am about painting.
FF: How long will it take for downtown to become the urban environment you describe?
RA: There's a rhythm that's pumping through the area with life. There are a lot of artists in the area; there are a lot of things that are happening down here. I don't think there's anything that needs to happen to make things work, I think it is happening.
If it never changes past what it is right now, I'm happy. But ok, I used to think 15 years, now I see it in 4.
The only thing we're lacking is spaces. If there were more spaces people would be here right now. They want to stay, and if it were happening they would stay.