Capitol Hill Becomes an Arts District

In late May, Capitol Hill Housing dedicated its annual community forum to establishing an arts district in Capitol Hill, where cultural space is an urgent issue.

For years Seattle’s skyrocketing rents and exploding development have been met with a rallying cry for the protection of cultural space where artists and creative activity thrive. That long-standing mission saw a major reboot last fall when Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture hosted a symposium for artists, arts administrators, developers and arts advocate to discuss ways the City could help grow and support cultural space.

Fast-forward six months: In late May, Capitol Hill Housing dedicated its annual community forum to establishing an arts district in Capitol Hill, where cultural space is a particularly urgent issue. The purpose of an arts district? To focus attention on arts in the neighborhood and protect dozens of arts spaces as rents continue to rise, particularly because so few arts spaces are owned by their tenants. (The arts district designation is informal for now but could be formalized with the City later this year, along with a slew of possible benefits.)

The meeting was held at the Oddfellows building at 10th and Pine—home to many arts organizations (including landmark collective and/or, profiled by Amanda Manitach this month) before the building sold in 2007. “The story of what happened with this building is well known,” said Michael Seiwerath, executive director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, the force behind the mixed-use 12th Ave Arts project currently under construction. “A lot of artists were pushed out. We’re here to make sure it never happens again.”

At the meeting, where more than 150 artists and arts administrators were gathered, City Council member Nick Licata spoke briefly about his work on cultural overlay districts, a City effort that began in 2009 to define and protect regions of arts and culture. That work, among other things, led to 12th Avenue Arts, which is currently accepting lease applications for lower-income tenants.

A headline presentation followed Licata’s remarks, given by Greg Esser from the Roosevelt Row Artists District in Phoenix, Ariz., as an example for strengthening a neighborhood through the arts. To wit: Roosevelt Row’s Feast on the Street brought 9,000 people together for a dinner at a half-mile long table, according to Seiwerath, and the district also offers some tax incentives and exemptions that support the arts. However, Roosevelt Row was built out of a vacant zone, which made the case study hard to connect. Capitol Hill doesn’t suffer from sprawl and abandoned lots; Capitol Hill seems like an “after” to Roosevelt Row’s “before,” struggling to maintain cultural relevancy as it becomes flooded with new development and residents.

Following the meeting’s keynote, several arts leaders offered a range of ideas for a Capitol Hill arts district. Seiwerath suggested that city zoning rules could be changed to allow taller building heights—if those buildings reserve arts space on their ground floors.

Seattle cultural space liaison Matthew Richter said the City was already creating a toolkit for arts districts that mostly consists of promotional tools such as signage, placards and walking maps—all of which could help direct foot traffic and promote arts groups. The City is also working on a promising arts and culture certification system for new buildings. Much like an ecological LEED certification, an arts and culture certification would require Seattle developers to study what Richter called the city’s “cultural heatmap” and provide arts space in new buildings.

Ideally, solutions for one neighborhood’s arts district will apply in other neighborhoods, too. “We’re looking for a repeatable system that has equity,” Richter says later via phone. “The conversation should drift from the foot-by-foot needs of 11th and Pike to the higher-level needs for supporting arts neighborhoods [all over Seattle].”

Although the ideas presented at the May forum haven’t been implemented yet, the City is making progress in its efforts to secure cultural space. Richter says he helped with several recent deals, such as the Egyptian Theatre (a partnership between SIFF and Seattle Central Community College), the new Theater Schmeater in Belltown (the original iteration was recently displaced from Capitol Hill) and the forthcoming Black Mountain music venue, also in Belltown.

“When I was younger, nobody at the Department of Planning and Development wore an arts hat and nobody in the arts office wore a hat that said ‘building and use code,’” Richter said. “Now the city’s funded a person [Richter] that wears both of those hats.” The Seattle Arts Commission has also established a Facilities and Economic Development Committee to better connect building developers and arts groups in a cooperative—not combative—manner.

Maintaining an arts presence in a rapidly growing neighborhood is an uphill battle. “How do you mitigate displacement in an area that has development pressures as strong as any in the country?” Richter asked. “How do we focus in a way that’s not just for show?” The answers aren’t simple, but Richter, Seiwerath and others insist they’re coming.