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    Addressing the rent crisis for Capitol Hill arts

    The City Council convenes a meeting to explore special incentives, as rising rents threaten a lively arts scene on the Hill. Will a complicated Cultural Overlay District be the answer?
    Seattle City Council member Sally Clark.

    Seattle City Council member Sally Clark. None

    Seattle City Council member Nick Licata.

    Seattle City Council member Nick Licata. None

    As one speaker said, "history is made by those who show up." And show up they did. A standing-room-only crowd of 200 or so artists and arts representatives attended a special Seattle City Council meeting Wednesday evening at City Hall. Sponsored by Councilmember Nick Licata, the gathering discussed the practicality of establishing a Cultural Overlay District (COD) on Capitol Hill to bolster threatened artists and their institutions, and to maintain the vigor of Seattle's cultural life. Artists face increasingly untenable rents and loss of working spaces on Capitol Hill and in other areas of the city that boast cultural concentrations. A recently issued study by Americans for the Arts, the national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., surveyed the economic clout of arts communities in the country's 50 most populous cities. Seattle, 24th largest in population, ranked eighth in the total number of arts businesses, third in arts employees per 1,000 residents, and 10th for the total number of arts employees — almost 25,000 people. So Seattle has a lot at stake in these issues of affordability. The City Hall event was scheduled as a follow-up to a well-attended community gathering in January at the Capitol Hill Arts Center, sparked by the sale of the Odd Fellows Hall at 915 E. Pine, a long-time home for several smaller arts groups, but also reflecting concerns about the marginalization of the cultural community in a neighborhood long a bastion of arts and entertainment. At the January meeting, Licata promised that the City would respond to these concerns. The most recent meeting was the first major public action. An impressive array of speakers, including individual artists, owners and operators of arts and entertainment enterprises, developers, architects, and government agencies, were each given three minutes to say why they supported a Cultural Overlay District. Such a district would allow city government to create a geographically bound area with a variety of possible regulations, ordinances, tax incentives, and support mechanisms that are meant to nurture a vibrant arts community as key to livable, diverse, and economically viable neighborhoods. The brief statements by the speakers, with a few notable exceptions, were long on supportive comments and inspiration, but short on actual ideas. The meeting did not clearly describe a COD for attendees, and because of a late start, an open question-and-answer session, originally scheduled for 30 minutes, was not held. (Many folks did stay for more informal discussion after the meeting was officially adjourned.) Nonetheless, there was a clear sense of the need for action from those who spoke and listened. What the arts community and Capitol Hill don't need is a COD that manifests itself only with a series of street signs in the neighborhood, a vague set of proposals and toothless regulations, or bureaucratically cumbersome solutions. It needs leaders who will take charge, create an action agenda, have resources available, and operate under a mandate from the community. It was encouraging to speak by phone with Sally Clark the following day. She and fellow councilmembers Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell, and Tom Rasmussen attended the Wednesday meeting, and Clark, Licata, and council staff had met the next morning to discuss the previous night's dialogue. Agreeing that the meeting was short on specifics, Clark nonetheless felt councilmembers had gotten the information they needed from the arts community: a sense of urgency, passion and concern, and sadness at some lost opportunities. Saying that the Council did not yet "have a model for an absolute fix," Clark felt the next step was to convene meetings of stakeholders who would articulate priorities, goals, and clear needs, from which the Council could develop solutions. Changes in zoning codes and other municipal oversight might not require a significant new source of money carved from the city budget. As an example, Clark offered the transfer of development rights in new construction that might benefit the arts community. If new organizational structures were determined to be a helpful avenue, then perhaps this would necessitate a combination of public and private moneys. She noted the city's support for its Public Development Authorities, quasi-public non-profit organizations such as Pike Place Market and Historic Seattle, and the possibility of one for the arts that might manage physical spaces, or help develop new ones. When asked if she was concerned that the focus on Capitol Hill as the site for a COD would be to the detriment of other neighborhoods, Clark said it was not yet clear to her what solutions might be applicable to all parts of the city, and what might be unique to each. Capitol Hill was a logical neighborhood in which to "use the energy there to try and hatch some of the ideas, and test-drive them for experience, then see how they might work for other areas," Clark said. Its density of arts and entertainment related businesses, commercial development, pedestrian traffic, resident population, including numbers of artists, and the urgency of its situation make it a good place to begin. Clark seemed particularly pleased that the meeting featured talks not just by culture workers, but also by developers who are responsible for so much of the city's rapid change. Asked how the mayor was to be involved in this process, she responded, "the mayor is always part of the strategy, and with his support it is easier to get things done," citing the presence at the meeting of Michael Killoren, the director of the Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Councilmember Licata closed Wednesday's meeting with a promise that the City will continue to focus on next steps in a timely fashion, and that in a year hence the community will be celebrating programs that will have started this process. One last thing. What kind of uninspired bureaucratic handle is Cultural Overlay District anyway? How about the "Flowering of a Thousand Ideas District," "The Fun Zone," or "Art Has No Boundaries?"

    Spider Kedelsky is a Seattle arts consultant and a former dancer/choreographer.

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    Posted Fri, Apr 4, 9 p.m. Inappropriate

    Earth to Arts Folks on Capitol Hill: There's an affordable housing crisis in this area! Subsidizing studios means displacing individuals and families. If people in the Arts Overlay District want to pay to subsidize artists in the Arts Overlay District, then I'm all for it. If instead, we're talking about displacing families, so that artists can call themselves artists without actually working and making livings as artists, then that's a job for the "Subsidize the Studios of the 200 Folks Showing Up at the City Council Meeting Complaining That They Don't Have Subsidized Studios" Committee.

    Just like Growth is supposed to pay for Growth, Art should pay for Art. Did the 200 folks showing up at the Seattle Council meeting volunteer for Arts taxes to fund their wish list? That would be a good start. How about taxes tax on all galleries, art sales, etc., to fund the things arts folks want from government? Instead, Clark is talking about a transfer of development rights program that will make homes EVEN MORE UNAFFORDABLE!! If the Arts folks want something, then they should be coming up with their own funding sources. Everyone is suffering from the high cost of real estate, not just the arts community.

    I have no objection to an overlay, provided that the economic consequences for the general public are well understood and minimized, and the Arts community steps up, for once, not for a hand out, but with a funding mechanism of its own. Galleries are legitimate, profit-making businesses. All artists now-a-days need not be starving artists in lofts. There are lots of ways to truly earn a living as an artist. If the desired infrastructure for artists is not there, that's not the City's responsibility, but the Arts Community's. The 200 who showed up--including developers for God's sake-would appear to have significant resources that they can apply privately without requiring government subsidy. It's telling that apparently the testimony amounted to a gripe session without much substance in the way of concrete funding proposals.

    Here are some funding proposals for the weak-kneed:
    -A 5% Arts tax on all gallery sales inside the Arts Overlay District
    -A 5% Arts tax on all studio time rented in a studio in a new Arts Overlay District
    -A 5% Arts admission tax on all movie showings
    -A 5% Arts admission tax on all theatre and concert events
    -A 50% tax on all ticketing fees for all events (i.e., ticket costs $100, Arts ticket fee is $5.00, ticketmaster fee is $20, tax on ticketmaster is $10.00, customer pays $135.)

    I'm sure there are lots of reasons NOT to levy any of these taxes or fees, bur remember that's what government's do. They take money, then they give money. If you take money from yourselves, you then have a legitimate claim to how that money is spent. Given that the Art Industrial Complex will be paying the above fees and taxes, I have no objection - nor should your average citizen -- to using those revenues for anything the Arts community desires. They are a legitimate cost of doing Arts business. The Arts are then financing government's effort to create a strong and vibrant arts community.

    Oh, and by the way, maybe you can get some of the King County 1% Waste of Money for the Arts siphoned your way. Maybe build a Billion Dollar Wastewater Facility in Capitol Hill for King County. Spend $10 million (from the 1% for the Arts) on an Arts Overlay District Art Project. Presto. The general taxpayer is ripped off by the Arts Community. That's the kind of stuff I want you to avoid.

    Upshot: Arts community finance thyself! At least get a Benaroya or a Ballmer or an Allen or a Gates to match your ask, so that you bring SOMETHING to the table. Then you can legitimately ask for a little enabling money from the City. Whining and begging aren't good long-term strategies, although, unfortunately, they are easily sustainable.

    Posted Sat, Apr 5, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    Arts overlay district would be a welcome addition to Capitol Hill: The arts, and that includes visual art, performance, galleries, venues, dance halls and theaters, add value just by being and existing. The character and culture of a place is enhanced by the arts. The arts and the artists are what make Capitol Hill desirable. Without the arts, the value of the property would be reduced substantially and the reason builders want to build condo's on Capitol Hill is because people want to live there to be close to the arts and artists. Therefore, it just makes sense that developers who have the most to gain should contribute a small percentage of what they make to keep the arts alive and healthy on Capitol Hill. If the arts and artists leave, there will be no there, there.

    Coffee shops alone are not going to make Capitol Hill an exciting, vibrant and creative place to live. Artists have never been totally self-supporting. Art has always been subsidized, either by royalty, the church or by the rich. It's not unreasonable to support those who give and create so much, who make a place livable and desirable, who add to our culture and tell our story.

    Posted Tue, Apr 8, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

    You gotta pay to play: An overlay district is a way to say "we care" without spending any money.
    It wont do much.
    I agree with Marlow- the arts pay for themselves in many ways, and make money for other businesses as well. We think nothing of dumping a half billion or so into a sports stadium that profits someone who is already a billionaire, but we dont see the benefit to us all from arts, theater, music and dance?

    What has been proven to work is the Tashiro Kaplan building model- a single building, with subsidised spaces for both artists studios and galleries, has changed the nature of its corner of Pioneer Square.
    But it cost money.
    $16.5 Million, and that was in 2003.
    Figure $20 to $25 million today to do a similar project.
    Which would act as an anchor for what would become a whole arts district.
    Left unchecked, current development trends will turn south Capitol Hill, centered on 12th/Pike/Pine into what Broadway has become- lowest common denominator national chains.

    Posted Sun, Apr 12, 11:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for sharing this post! The salaries of the Capitol Hill staffs have been continuously tracked by the website database LegiStorm. LegiStorm may be too hard for certain people to weather but it remains as the only place on the web where you can find congressional staff salaries. "Fact finding trips" have been lampooned as wasteful spending for years, as they don't always reveal anything, and its not like the funds used are a personal loan – the funds come from the taxpayers. The only people protesting it so far are the people whose information is posted, and doubtless they would get a personal loan to quash LegiStorm and go back to their secrecy.



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