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?
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Seattle City Council member Nick Licata.

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?

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?"


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