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Originally published Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 3:55 PM

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Can arts-district designation save Capitol Hill?

A forum held May 20 explored the idea of the Capitol Hilll neighborhood getting an arts-district status from the city of Seattle. Top-of-mind for many attendees, though, was rising rent.

Seattle Times arts writer


When Capitol Hill’s Oddfellows Hall was sold in 2007, all the arts groups that rented space there were kicked out or priced out.

The purpose of creating a City of Seattle-designated Capitol Hill Arts District, said Michael Seiwerath of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, is to make sure nothing like that happens again.

Seiwerath was just one of a dozen speakers addressing the issue of how to preserve Capitol Hill’s busy arts scene as rents go up and developers reshape the neighborhood. Featured guest Greg Esser described how an arts district was created to revitalize an all-but-abandoned neighborhood in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. Capitol Hill Housing CEO Christopher Persons and Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata were on hand as well as administrators from prominent neighborhood arts groups.

“The context in Seattle is dramatically different from what we were dealing with in downtown Phoenix,” Esser acknowledged. Still, he felt some lessons could be learned from it, including the need to keep an arts district compact enough to ensure that venues are in walking distance of one another, and the need to win City Hall support for official designation of arts districts.

“Capitol Hill already has an informal arts district,” Seiwerath added. “It’s been organically formed in these old auto-row buildings you see up and down Pike-Pine.”

The city is already ramping up its arts involvement. Matthew Richter, Cultural Space Liaison for the city, explained that there will soon be a protocol in place for getting support for Seattle’s Cultural Space Agency (launching in late 2014). Starting in 2015, successful applicants will get a “toolkit” designed to assist them in culturally enhancing their neighborhoods. The key tool in the kit will be a “cultural development certification” that makes resources available for preserving existing cultural space and adding new ones.

While the chief concern raised by almost everyone in the room was affordable rents for studio space and quarters for artists and arts venues, there was some heartening news on two fronts.

Capitol Hill Housing’s 12th Avenue Arts development, due to open in November between East Pine and Olive streets, will offer 88 affordable housing units and provide a home to three theaters, as well as Three Dollar Bill Cinema.

The Egyptian Theater, at 805 E. Pine St., also recently came back to life, with the Seattle International Film Festival signing a lease to operate it year-round.

SIFF director Carl Spence also noted that SIFF’s purchase of Lower Queen Anne’s Uptown Theater (a step necessary to ensure its survival as a film theater) was only economically feasible thanks to a fundraising campaign. In conventional real-estate terms, he remarked, running an arts venue on that site makes no commercial sense. Instead, the value of the venue is civic and communal. Nonprofits, he implied, are the organizations best suited to act on and preserve those values. Owning the venue rather than renting it, he further suggested, could be crucial to the venue/organization’s survival.

It’s become commonplace on the Hill to see old auto-row buildings gutted, with their brick facades preserved to lend a “vintage” veneer to the new buildings springing up behind them. Construction cranes are everywhere, and more are certainly coming.

Seiwerath, at the start of the meeting, wryly cited urban-studies activist Jane Jacobs’ words of wisdom: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

Michael Upchurch:

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