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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Preserving arts spaces in Seattle

Over the past decade, several local arts organizations, such as the Empty Space Theatre and the ConWorks performing arts center, have folded because of space issues.

Special to The Times

Over the past decade, several local arts organizations, such as the Empty Space Theatre and the ConWorks performing arts center, have folded because of space issues. Today, tenants of the Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill are struggling with the possibility of rent increases that will make it impossible for them to do business.

The crisis faced by small- and medium-sized arts organizations in Seattle comes down to two words: real estate. How to acquire, renovate and maintain one's own home isn't something taught in art school. Arts organizations produce art, not facilities plans.

The story follows a familiar path. A local arts organization without much money finds space in an older building where the rent is reasonable. The owner is willing to allow the group to knock out a couple of walls, make as much noise as it wants, and start doing what it does: art.

The owner isn't interested at that time in selling the underutilized property for high rise-condos or other development, and the arts organizations, taking heart, sign or extend leases.

But, the day comes when the economic lure becomes too great, or family dynamics change, and the owner decides to sell. Faced with a changing use of the property, the arts tenants put out a call for help, but it's too late.

Does it have to be this way?

We should be excited when underutilized properties are redeveloped for such basic amenities as housing. More housing in Seattle is good for the environment, by preventing sprawl; good for the economy, by providing jobs; and, good for the neighborhood, by providing customers for neighborhood businesses and residents for an active and busy street.

But, even as development eliminates arts and cultural uses, it creates demand for arts and culture. People living in a dense city want access to theater, music and dance in their neighborhoods.

The city of Seattle and King County's 4Culture services agency ought to develop more aggressive and innovative strategies to preserve and create such spaces in Seattle:

• Use the bonding capacity of the 4Culture public-development authority to acquire and redevelop key properties for cultural uses, which can generate enough revenue to pay back the bonds over time.

• Create incentive zoning that allows more building height in return for on-site cultural use or payment for it elsewhere. We can provide more housing, while sharing some of the profit for arts and culture.

• Expand the transfer of development rights for cultural use; the city could buy development rights from owners who have culturally significant properties and then resell that capacity for more housing somewhere else.

We should also create an inventory of properties that present opportunities for preserving or creating arts and cultural assembly spaces, and support a program to educate and help arts organizations develop long-term facilities plans.

Arts organizations should not go extinct. Without arts and culture, we cannot make Seattle the vibrant urban oasis that it truly ought to be. Culture must take its place along with parks, sidewalks and bike lanes in making Seattle a more sustainable city.

Roger Valdez has been involved in arts policy and funding through positions with the city of Seattle and King County. He recently was legislative aide to ex-Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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