How the recession spurred creative solutions to Seattle's arts space crunch

With a history of too-expensive arts space, Seattle's artists, developers and government are seizing the opportunity created by the recession to rethink and revitalize the city's arts space policy.

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An art installation at the International District's INScape building.

With a history of too-expensive arts space, Seattle's artists, developers and government are seizing the opportunity created by the recession to rethink and revitalize the city's arts space policy.

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. 

Any mention of the closing during the Cultural Space Seattle event was met with aggrieved head shaking. While the reasons were complicated, a mass exodus of artists from Pioneer Square echoed the Capitol Hill situation.

“The city missed an opportunity to help find another functional art space that could have continued to enrich the Pioneer Square community,” says Chamberlain.

Still, the 619 Western debacle did serve as a learning opportunity for city officials. “As I look back on it, it probably would have been good if we had worked more closely with the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs to address displacement issues,” admits Diane Sugimura, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development. “That was one where we perhaps could have communicated earlier.”

In the end, the slow economy worked in Richlovsky’s favor. She negotiated a five-year lease to occupy the second floor of an old office building about two blocks from her former space, which she shares with about 13 other artists — many of them also from 619 Western.  

Though Richlovsky considers herself lucky to have landed on her feet so quickly, she wishes that the future relied less on luck and more on solid arts space policy.

“I was able to get this space at an affordable rate because there was a lot of empty space. That’s great for me, but when the lease comes up for renewal in five years, what kind of price am I going to get?” asks Richlovsky.

As head of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, Kitch echoes her concern, but remains uncertain of what the city’s role should be. “If the economy turned around and Pioneer Square didn’t have a 50 percent vacancy rate, I don’t know how we would protect artists so they don’t get pushed out," he says. "I don’t know the answer because, unfortunately, it’s an issue of private commercial industry, for the most part.”

Many artists believe that the first, crucial steps are to increase communication and start thinking about solutions in a serious way. In particular, they hope that bringing different parties to the table will illuminate the problems they are facing. Events such as Cultural Space Seattle are clearly a step in the right direction. 

Still, there is no easy solution. “I don’t think there is one thing you can do,” explained Gijssen, who has been involved with Vancouver, B.C.’s, efforts to address the loss of affordable arts space. “I think you’re going to have to do about 40 things and have a plan to help stitch them all together.”

Still, based on her own experience, Gijssen recommends breaking the approach into three, general categories: affordability, suitability, and long-term tenure.


One avenue for improving the affordability of arts space is through collaboration between artists and developers. More and more, developers seem to want to include arts in their projects — for business reasons as much as altruism.

A 2011 impact study conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that arts communities are definitive contributors to a region’s growth. Other local research supports HUD's conclusion. A Local research supports HUD’s conclusion. A 2011 economic impact study, locally commissioned by ArtsFund and paid for by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, found that arts, cultural, and scientific organizations contributed $1.9 billion to the Puget Sound region and supported 32,520 jobs.

“My sense is that a lot of developers are attracted to the arts because it is interesting and it brings out their own creativity," says Brett Allen, senior vice president of Seattle-based Triad Development. "More cynically, however, it’s fairly well recognized that artists are great gentrifiers. They bring with them a certain cache and can help an otherwise boring project.” 

Triad has headed numerous projects that exemplify the mutually-beneficial aspects of combining arts and development. Locally, Triad spearheaded the renovation of the historic OK Hotel in Pioneer Square, which now houses both apartments and artist suites.

“With the OK Hotel, we didn’t consciously start out aiming it towards the arts, but it quickly became apparent through the design process that it made sense to make it as arts-friendly as possible from the beginning,” he says.

“I’d love to have a resource where I could get these (arts) groups involved so that I knew what they were looking for and they know what I’m planning. We could see the connections and ways to work together. There is so much both communities could do to help each other.”

The potential upside is obvious — more development partnerships could equal more affordable arts space. Some individuals, however, warn against the idea being taken in the wrong direction — artists being used as a selling point for development without creating a long-term plan for arts space. 

“People in city planning or government want to attract artists because it improves the economy,” says Richlovsky. “They’re pretty open about that fact and it can be a little disconcerting. It can become about using artists to make a place funky [to attract development and dollars], but not about artists actually making a living or having a long-term place to work.” 

Other cities, such as New York and San Francisco, are prime examples of artists being priced out of neighborhoods that they themselves helped popularize. Seattle hopes not to repeat these mistakes.

“We’re recognizing that we need to keep artists in place rather than letting them be forced out after they fix up areas. That needs to also be a regular part of the city’s economic development plans,” says Diane Sugimura, director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. 

Space Suitability

Unlike standard office users, artists often have special requirements for their working spaces that go beyond electrical outlets and Internet access.

“Even for just an individual artist studio space, you may need better ventilation, higher ceilings, larger areas and that’s just on the low end of the spectrum,” says Debra Twersky, arts cultural facilities program manager of 4Culture. She estimates that it can require upwards of $10 million to launch a new small- to mid-sized neighborhood arts group, such as a theater. “On the performance side, those are really specialty spaces that require a lot of tricking out,” says Twersky.

Location is equally important. Some arts organizations are neighborhood specific, which limits options. Others, such as the Northwest Boychoir, require central locations to accommodate participants from around the region. The Boychoir has also faced challenges finding practice space where sound is not an issue with other tenants.

Zoning restrictions, like those identified in the CODAC report, are another headache for artists. “Zoning in the city of Seattle — I won’t use expletives, but I’d like to!” remarks Chamberlain.

“The ideas from CODAC regarding Capitol Hill included strong recommendations for more help to guide artists through the [governmental/permitting] processes,” says Twersky.  She agrees that minimizing red tape would go a long way towards encouraging affordable arts space.

City officials are aware of the frustrations and there is movement to become more flexible. Last year, interim parking was allowed in the downtown core to encourage activity in certain neighborhoods. Increased zoning flexibility is also under consideration. According to Sugimura, the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Sustainability committee is tentatively scheduled to discuss the issue this year.

The concept of incentivized zoning is a solution mentioned frequently in affordable arts conversations, but has yet to see serious implementation in Seattle. The idea is that developers are encouraged to include certain elements in their project — often applied to affordable housing or open space — in return for incentives such as height or space waivers to build more.

“The city, up to this point has made affordable housing the main priority, so to speak,” says Sugimura. “We are now starting to consider using that concept in other neighborhoods.”

From the development side, Triad’s Brett Allen is intrigued. “It’s an interesting concept to make affordable arts space one of the city’s incentive programs for development bonuses,” he says. “If the arts community were as organized and politically adept as the affordable housing community, there is an awful lot more that could be extracted from the development community.”

The Long-Term

The slow economy has been a temporary boon for Seattle artists, leading to a drop in real estate prices and creating empty storefronts and opportunities, but many worry about what will happen when the economy inevitably stimulates again.

“Right now, renting to an artist is better than having nobody, but what is the motivation if the economy gets better?” asks Richlovsky. “Seattle is a boom and bust town. There is a fever about it [affordable arts space] now, when the economy is down, but if there is another boom and the prices re-escalate, then the discussion is forgotten. We need ongoing support.”

Seattle-based Shunpike, a non-profit organization that assists small and mid-sized artists and arts groups with administrative, business, and funding support, recently introduced a program helps artists find long-term, affordable arts space on a case-by-case basis. Shunpike's Artist Space Assistance Program (ASAP) works with artists to help them organize financial reports to prove lease eligibility and provides legal direction regarding contracts.

“ASAP is not a policy thing,” says Crispin Spaeth, who is helping to manage the program. “We’re looking to provide the skills and information artists need to secure long-term space. . . Making art on shaky ground can be inspiring in some ways, but it can also rob you of your creativity.”

Twersky also hopes to continue conversations around long-term secure arts space, which address the role municipalities should play in guaranteeing long-term arts space.

Meanwhile, organizations around the city are already making progress. On Capitol Hill, the 29,000 square-foot 12th Avenue Arts project is scheduled to break ground in summer 2012. Headed by Capitol Hill Housing, the space will house a mix of affordable housing and affordable arts and performance space in addition to retail and offices. It is the biggest project, in terms of units, that Capitol Hill Housing has ever headed. The project is scheduled be completed in 2014.

Randy Engstrom, a Cultural Space Seattle presenter and longtime Seattle arts activist, served as a consultant for the project and helped spearhead community outreach.

“One of the biggest things that contributed to moving the project forward was we worked hard to do outreach to everyone — neighborhood groups, city departments, funders, developers — and made sure there was sufficient support,” says Engstrom. An advisory group was convened and upwards of 40 people were interviewed before recommendations were made to Capitol Hill Housing.

Engstrom highlights the city’s involvement and willingness to “make the numbers work” as a key component to success. He would like such cooperation to become standard. “I hope that regionally we can get a coherent policy for affordable arts space," he says. "It doesn’t mean that I want the city to pay for everything, but I hope that we could develop policies to thoughtfully address the problem long term." 

The INScape building, located on the outskirts of the International District, is another example of an effective partnership between artists and government. The historic building was previously occupied by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). When they vacated in 2004, it was purchased by investors who intended to repurpose the site for offices, with some artist space. The original concept stalled, partially because of the economic downturn.

Today, the $10 million project is an arts and cultural hub, that will eventually be home to more than 120 artists. INScape’s success is a product of creative partnerships and resourceful funding. Its cost was offset by historical tax credits and the New Markets Tax Credit Program, a federal program intended to spur real estate and business projects in specialized and low-income areas. The City of Seattle has received numerous allocations of new market credits to invest locally. 

“The INScape project is just amazing,” says Twersky. “People put enough time and diligence into pushing that boulder up the hill to get artists into that building. It’s not just sitting there vacant.”

“I’m happy to see the city supporting INScape with tax credits,” says Kitch. “The fact that Seattle has its own allocation is a tremendous opportunity and a great model [for affordable arts development].”

Fueled by the empty store windows of the recession, Storefronts Seattle has taken a less permanent approach to creating affordable arts space. Artists and art groups pay $1 a month to occupy empty storefronts. Storefronts pays for everything including utilities, insurance, and minimal improvements and repairs. Meanwhile, property owners pay absolutely nothing.

Funded by grants from Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, the Seattle Office of Economic Development, 4Culture and neighborhood groups, Storefronts Seattle is now occupying empty window space in Pioneer Square, South Lake Union, Capitol Hill, Rainier Beach, the International District as well as Auburn and Tacoma. Projects have included art installations, residencies, fabric artists, woodworkers, and even a pinball museum, which was so successful that it secured a permanent lease after completing its six-month stint.

“It quickly punched a live nerve when it started,” says Matthew Richter, Storefronts program manager. What began as a six-month pilot program continues to thrive, overseeing nearly 90 projects in 2011. Artists sign a 30-day lease, which can be renewed for up to six months. The only caveat: property owners can end the lease at any time with 30 days notice.

“That’s been cool with everyone. These artists feel that it’s worth the risk of losing the space in exchange for having it for free while they can,” says Richter. “Storefronts is like having training wheels. We provide a safety net when artists don’t pay rent, utilities, cover business licensing, or taxes. After the training wheels come off, artists usually have a realization of whether they can make it work. Then we put the next kid on the bike and see if they can make a go of it."

The creation and preservation of affordable arts space still faces obvious obstacles, but recent successes and the forward momentum created by events such as Cultural Space Seattle indicate that the arts community may be gaining more secure footing for the future. 

“With our work with Cultural Space Seattle, we want to continue the collective, positive movement forward,” says Kitch. Participants are compiling a comprehensive report of recommendations from the forum.

Twersky is also encouraged by the innovative ideas coming from within the arts community itself. “Look at what ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) has done. They made their space available to other arts groups such as Central Heating Lab. It’s a great idea and great to approach space,” says Twersky.

“You have an extraordinary opportunity in Seattle right now,” says Gijssen. “You have this moment of opportunity — grab it! What you do right now will make the difference in the long-term for preserving cultural space in Seattle.”


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