Eliza S. Rankin
Eliza S. Rankin
Angielena Vitale Chamberlain, a printmaker and oil painter, has relocated twice in the past decade due to steep real estate prices and development. She was forced out of Capitol Hill 11 years ago when rents went sky high.
“It wasn’t an overly glamorous space. There weren’t heated floors or anything, but they bumped the rent to almost double to force us out,” says Chamberlain.
Her second location, a building in Georgetown, was sold outright. She founded the Georgetown Cultural Arts Center four years ago, which houses eight artist studios.
Chamberlain is just one of the many Seattle artists struggling with the city’s lack of affordable work and presentation space. As in other cities, Seattle artists often find themselves unceremoniously displaced due to development and increasing costs – and without viable alternatives.
“Affordable (arts) space in Seattle has been a discussion for the past 10 to 20 years. It’s a huge issue for the community,” says Vincent Kitch, director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs.
“There was a big building boom about 15-20 years ago for the large organizations who did campaigns to have permanent homes. That provided them wonderful, long-term stability,” says Michael Seiwerath, who oversaw Capitol Hill’s Northwest Film Forum before heading up the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation. “A lot of the challenges in the last decade or so have been around individual artists and mid-size to small arts groups who can’t afford a permanent space, and are at risk of being displaced by the whim of the (real estate) market.”
The arts community frequently finds itself needing to prove and defend its worth to justify full consideration in growth management and development discussions. “There are a lot of other sectors that don’t because we take them for granted and understand why we need them,” says Kitch. “The arts are always in defensive mode and having to justify why they’re important.”
These challenges have faced Seattle artists for decades, but in a progressive move forward, representatives from various sectors — the arts, real estate and development, municipalities and communities — are making a concerted effort to define and address the problems of the arts community.
One of the best examples of this was Cultural Space Seattle, a two-day event in December 2011 that hosted national and local leaders for a discussion of how to fund and shape policies that will assist in creating and maintaining affordable arts spaces. Sponsored by Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs and numerous supporting partners, nearly 150 individuals attended.
The event included a panel discussion moderated by Randy Engstrom, former chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. Participants included national artist urban planner, Theaster Gates; senior cultural planner for Vancouver, B.C., Jacqueline Gijssen; regional director of Artspace, Cathryn Vandenbrink; and Susan Seifert, director of the Social Impact of the Arts Project for the University of Pennsylvania (Seattle is a current study site).
“I was really heartened by it,” says Seiwerath. “To have decision makers there at the same table dialoguing – funders from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, artists, city representatives, big budget and low budget arts companies – and talking about needs and priorities was wonderful.”
Capitol Hill Crisis
Part of the focus for Cultural Space Seattle was identifying challenges for artists; one of which is the city’s loss of numerous, high-profile affordable arts spaces in recent years.
Capitol Hill, long an arts-centered neighborhood, is just one of the communities suffering from declining arts spaces. The Pike/Pine Neighborhood Conservation Study, commissioned by the City of Seattle, reported in 2008 that there were 59 arts-related businesses in 1991, which increased to over 200 nearly 20 years later.
However, as residential populations and higher-end businesses increased, Capitol Hill real estate became an increasingly valuable commodity. According to Seattle real estate broker Richard Hesik, the real estate market hit its peak in 2006-2007, making affordable buying prices, rent, and long-term leases scarce in Seattle.
Within a year, two major arts spaces in the neighborhood fell victim to increasing rents. The Odd Fellows Building was a longtime affordable arts incubator until its sale in 2008 to a commercial real estate developer. Rents rapidly doubled or tripled which resulted in nearly 20 artists and groups being dislocated. Likewise, upwards of 20 arts-related entities were displaced when the Capitol Hill Arts Center folded.
Happily, an arts presence eventually returned to CHAC’s former space when Velocity Dance Center, a displaced Odd Fellows’ resident, relocated. Still, the initial, mass losses created serious concern about the future of artists, both on Capitol Hill and around the city.
In an attempt to address the problem, the Seattle City Council, created the Cultural District Advisory Committee (CODAC) in 2008 to assess the situation and consider cultural arts overlay districts.
After exhaustive research, CODAC submitted its findings to the Seattle City Council. “If arts and culture are to continue to thrive and grow in Seattle’s neighborhoods,” the report concluded, “provisions for space (living, working, presenting and performing) must be made, because...the market is not providing these types of spaces at an affordable cost.”
In fact, the committee found there are actually disincentives for retaining and creating cultural spaces in Seattle. Namely zoning issues with public occupancy limits, and parking limitations for spaces that could accommodate artists, but are zoned for industrial or residential usage.
CODAC recommended the city create cultural districts within Seattle neighborhoods with strong arts identities. Within these districts, CODAC said, special attention should be paid towards preserving and promoting the cultural arts. Among the recommendations: financial and land use incentives, zoning relief, and conscientious communication between the community, municipalities, and arts groups
Though the Seattle City Council endorsed CODAC’s recommendations, the mayor’s office decided that more study was needed before actually designating cultural districts throughout Seattle.
“Implementing the strategy would be a complex process, which may or may not be the best approach to achieve all of the goals outlined in the CODAC report,” the office responded.
Pioneer Square Shakedown: 619 Western
In 2011, Seattle's lack of a comprehensive, affordable arts space plan became painfully evident yet again with the closing of the 619 Western building. The building, located on the outskirts of Pioneer Square, housed more than 100 artists and groups, until — after nearly 20 years — it was suddenly forced to shut its doors.
Built in 1910, 619 Western suffered serious structural damage from the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Though subsequent city inspections required that repairs be made in order to maintain safety, the fixes were never made.
“There were two giant cracks in the building that you could clearly see, probably 10 inches wide in some places. It was crazy,” says artist Jane Richlovsky. Richlovsky was a resident at 619 Western for 10 years — to the day — before moving out.
She says the owner of the building didn't make the fixes, because they had always intended to eventually tear the building down. “The owner was always super upfront about the fact that they intended to buy the lot next door, knock down the building and develop it,” Richlovsky says. “The leases were year-to-year, but had a clause that we could get kicked out with six months notice if they wanted to develop.”
The city, though, remained unaware that the repairs were never made, until area inspections began to prepare for tunnel construction. Following a March 2011 inspection, the city’s Department of Planning and Development deemed 619 Western unsafe for tenants and gave the artists until 2012 to vacate. Then they changed their mind, notifying tenants that they needed to be out by October 1, 2011.
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