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Interview with PFF Founder, Spike Kahn

- by Erin Bregman


Located in a 6,000 sq ft historic brick warehouse, the Pacific Felt Factory arts building in San Francisco’s Mission District is a hub for makers and thinkers alike ― supporting the rich cultural work in the Bay Area through below-market-rate artist studios, exhibition space, and event space. Along with peer collaboration, workshops and guest speakers, and support programs for professional development, PFF’s ongoing programming and public arts events round out our holistic approach to strengthening community through sustainable arts and culture.


In April, while Pacific Felt Factory was wrapping up construction, Erin Bregman sat down with PFF founder Spike Kahn at her neighboring home to learn about the building’s origins and development.


Erin: What’s the story of how Pacific Felt Factory came to be?


Spike: A long time ago there used to be artists living in some warehouse space across the street. This whole block of Bryant was just a bunch of warehouses. When development started back in the 90s, there was a lot of political activity against this development happening. There was enough political pressure that the developer was only able to develop if they gave this art space (Pacific Felt Factory) to a community arts group as kind of compensation (mitigation) for all the artists that had been displaced by the development. Art Space Development Corporation (ArtsDECO), which is sort of a subset of California Lawyers for the Arts, exists for the sole purpose of managing buildings that have gotten built in mitigation with a developer. And so, when this developer was ready to make a deal, ArtsDECO was given this space. They had the property, but they didn't have the bandwidth to actually develop it. Fast-forward 15 years.


We moved in here, Rodney and I, in 2010. I saw this abandoned brick building, and I do buildings. I actually even build art studios, so I'm like, huh. It's an arts building. Except there's no art going on. It had a little plywood door and I used to peep inside, and it was a wreck. Pigeons lived in it. There were dead animals in there, and all the windows were broken. The roof leaked, and it was just this terrible, moldy brick building. It took almost two years for me to find the owners. Downtown said ArtsDECO owned it, but when I went to their address on Mission Street they weren’t there anymore. So it was like, this whole little quagmire of trying to find who owned this building.


Erin: And nobody knew?


Spike: Nobody new. It was rumored that it was owned by California Lawyers for the Arts, so I called them and they said “Oh no, we don't own that building,” and they hung up. It took two years before I bumped into Alma Robinson who is the head of CLA, and I said, “Oh! I live in this ArtsDECO building. What's the story?”  She goes, “You build buildings and develop? Oh my gosh, it would be great if you could work with us to build this out!” And so I proposed that I buy the building. And she wisely said no, she didn’t want it to go into private hands. Which turned out to be a good thing. I subsequently bought the British Grocery building.


Erin: Where's that?


Spike: That's on 15th and Potrero. And so, we built seven art studios in the garage space there. Then I went back to CLA and said, “This is what I’ve done for the last five months. What have you done on this building in 5 months?” At that point they saw that I knew what I was doing. So that's the how it all came to be. I happened to live here, I happened to see this abandoned brick building that happened to be designated for art space. It was just a bunch of random things that all lined up.


Erin: So if you hadn't been here,


Spike: It wouldn't have happened. If I didn't happen to have a butload of cash to loan, it wouldn't have happened. I happened to have a little time on my hands, so I did it. And that's the only reason it's here. It all just lined up. Meant to be.


Erin: Are there other buildings in San Francisco that are like this, that are designated for Art Spaces but haven’t been developed?


Spike: I don't know. That would be a very good research question to find out. There's one type of zoning called PDR, which is Production, Distribution, and Repair, which is light industry. You can't put residential space in there. It can't be office space, either. Deborah Walker, who is a building commissioner, and I walked through the Mission recently with our plans that show which buildings are PDR buildings, and we saw directories that just had tech office spaces in PDR buildings. They've all been converted illegally to office space. And it's all over the place. If Deborah and I could find 20 office buildings in PDR buildings just by walking around, then certainly a planning commissioner could do the same.


Erin: How did you get into developing buildings in the first place?


Spike: I bought a little house to live in back in 1990, when middle class people could actually afford to buy things. It was falling apart, so I did a lot of renovation on my own, because it wasn't really that habitable when I bought it. It was in Berkeley, and the owner had not fixed anything since it was built in the 1920s. It was a wreck. When I got a job in San Francisco I couldn't deal with the bridge, so I sold it and bought a building here, and fixed it up. By then, buildings were getting more and more expensive, which meant that there was equity in the building. So I refinanced, took the money out, and used it as a deposit for another building.  I started this whole empire of little apartments that I fixed up, and then rented out. After 20 years as a union rep I retired, but I'm too young to retire. And so I keep busy. The thing I’ve kept busy with is building these art studios. Rodney's an artist and he's my partner, so that's the field I went into.


Erin: It seems like an unusual focus.


Spike: Yeah, it is. And in fact, now Root Division is having their build-out, and I’m their project manager. Because there are apparently very few people in the city who know both construction and also know of art studios and the specific needs of artists.  


Erin: What was the hardest part of getting Pacific Felt Factory going?


Spike: None of it. It was all hard. With Root Division they have a whole organization. There is no organization here. It's just me and Rhiannon. Root Division has a 600,000 dollar budget, and  a free architect who who has donated their time pro bono to design the place. We sit with architects and they give us slide presentations in PowerPoint of what the new building will look like, and I'm like “I wish we had that,” you know. They’re also starting with a better structure than we did. They didn't have to get the dead pigeons removed, they don't need to put in a new roof. I mean the roof alone was like 20 grand or something. And the new stairs were 20 grand. And the new windows were 20 grand. And everything was 20 grand.


Erin: How much does it cost to build out something like this?


Spike: Our original loan was $200,000 and we blew through that in the first half of construction. In the end it will probably end up around 350 grand. Which comes to approx $50 a square foot just for the remodel.


Erin:  How did you design PFF?


Spike: There were pillars on the floor so we put a wall at each pillar and called it a day. I mean really, no design. The kitchen is what was being given away on Craigslist. Maybe one day we'll write a grant and tear out the old Craigslist stuff and do a really pretty design, but right now it's functional.


Erin: So today the building is still owned by ArtsDECO?


Spike: Yes.


Erin: And it's going to remain artists studios forever?


Spike: Yeah. Unless they get a loan and fail to pay and it gets foreclosed and the bank takes the building, but that's not gonna happen on my watch.

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