When high rents squeeze arts spaces, it's time to get creative

Seattle's real estate boom is pushing out performance spaces. A recent panel discussion on Capitol Hill showed there's lots more to do besides whining. Here are some other ideas.
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The Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill in Seattle. (University of Washington)

Seattle's real estate boom is pushing out performance spaces. A recent panel discussion on Capitol Hill showed there's lots more to do besides whining. Here are some other ideas.

Artists and others on Capitol Hill are growing more concerned about spiraling rents for space in the Seattle neighborhood and their impact on local cultural life, particularly for performing artists. At a recent meeting called by the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, a panel from government and local arts groups led a talk that aired lots of questions and statements from those in attendance.

High rents and loss of working and performance spaces that threaten artist's livelihoods are not a new story, and not one confined to one neighborhood of Seattle, or only to Seattle. A recent article in The New York Times reported on pop musicians who were increasingly being priced out of the work and performance-venue market.

So what to do? There's no single or easy answer. Seattle has had a booming economy as far as property goes, and lots of small business tenants, arts included, have suffered. There is only so much that the city of Seattle can do to help small individuals and organizations, and it plays both sides of the fence.

On the one hand, the city advocates for artists in many ways with champions such as City Council member Nick Licata, who spoke at the meeting, while on the other it fosters an environment that has encouraged property sales, new construction with sky-high rents, and the loss of older buildings suitable for use by artists.

One of the events that precipitated this meeting was the sale of 915 E. Pine St., the former Odd Fellows Hall, which is home, at affordable rents, to several smaller performing arts groups, and the Century Ballroom. Nobody knows what the new landlord, developer Ted Schroth, will do, but in the short run rents will likely escalate.

"Look, landlords are easy targets," Schroth told The Stranger. "I've got a bulls-eye on my chest. But there's a new economic reality. I don't want to sound like a victim, because I'm not, but I can't afford to subsidize the arts." Schroth has a point. He's in it for the money and nobody else appears to have stepped forward with the right offer to buy the building from the former owners and make it "safe" for the arts.

At the Capitol Hill meeting, Susan Shannon, new head of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, did not exactly endear herself to the crowd with remarks like, "artists don't think like businesspeople, that's why they are artists."

On the contrary, artists have great creative problem-solving skills that can be applied to making astute business decisions. Artists, like any small business owners or independent contractors, need to know what they need to do to allow them to do what they want to do.

A number of good ideas were tossed out to the audience by panelists at the Capitol Hill meeting, including: collaboration with other businesses and organizations with similar needs to create shared or multi-use spaces; agitating elected officials for more leadership on the issue and more resources devoted to it; and changes in property tax and zoning rules that might better benefit cultural organizations.

Here are some of my additional thoughts:

  • Form a caucus that is directed to seek solutions to these issues of high rents and an overdeveloped Seattle. There may be existing interests out there who will take on this challenge with the support and participation of the arts community. One example: the Seattle Foundation's Healthy Community Initiative that looked at, among other things, health care coverage for those without, including culture workers.
  • Tie in artist housing issues with city initiatives and legislation. Coming up is a huge overhaul of Seattle Center, the city's largest cultural venue, which might follow the example of the downtown Central Library, the bond for which included new neighborhood libraries. Why not link the new Seattle Center levy with support for cultural facilities out in the neighborhoods?
  • Join with historic preservation. Historic Seattle and other preservation organizations can be natural allies in helping to save and restore buildings for cultural use. So can the city and King County, and the latter now putting great effort in trying to save historic Washington Hall and turn it into a cultural center for artists and the community. Discovery Park and Sand Point have underutilized properties. There's a last-ditch effort to save the Capitol Hill Christian Science Church for cultural use. Do we need a cultural-facility version of the Nature Conservancy's purchase of threatened wildlands?
  • Reward leadership and make use of the entrepreneurial skills and vision of those already working in the arts community. Among folks who have keen business sense and demonstrated leadership in tackling issues like these were three at the Capitol Hill meeting: Matthew Kwatinetz, who has developed a successful for-profit entrepreneurial model at the Capitol Hill Arts Center; Hallie Kuperman, the inventive operator of Century Ballroom; and Wier Harman of Town Hall, which has just completed the purchase of its multi-use facility, formerly a church on First Hill.
  • Build alliances with those in the community who share our concern on this issue: small businesses, nonprofits of all kinds, neighborhood and civic associations, local foundations. And we shouldn't necessarily view real estate folks and developers as adversaries but potential allies in building a better city that can serve many interests.
  • Play some partisan politics. Decades ago, culture workers in San Francisco formed an arts Democratic club that was able to directly impact the policies of the city. A bloc of thousands of voters with a coherent agenda counts far more than someone speaking individually at a City Council meeting.
  • Finally, consider moving out of Seattle. Tacoma, and Kirkland, Bellevue, Shoreline, Edmonds, Renton, Kent, or any other of a number of King County municipalities, might be more welcoming and more open to the ideas that artists have to offer.

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