Capitol Hill cultural district could let developers exchange arts for height

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What if, in exchange for preserving a popular neighborhood graffiti wall or including a theater or gallery space in their plans, developers were allowed to build an extra floor of apartments?

What if the city’s landmarks board began to consider “cultural merit” when doling out protection status?

What if Seattle treated culture as a valuable asset worthy of conservation?

“It could be a lot of different things,” said Randy Engstrom, the city’s newly installed director of the Office of Arts and Culture.”We have so many of the resources already –they’re just not connected. We have lots of incentive tools that could be easily be connected to cultural priories.”

Engstrom’s job is to take all the planning and hopes City Hall threw at a Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee a few years back as the economic meltdown set in and help make some of those promises come true. The effort will start, like most good Seattle art, on Capitol Hill.

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Three Capitol Hill theater companies will call 12th Ave Arts home -- as will tenants in 88 units of affordable housing for "30-60% median income households,"

Three Capitol Hill companies including Washington Ensemble Theatre will call 12th Ave Arts home — as will tenants in 88 units of affordable housing for “30-60% median income households.”

“CODAC was the initial thrust,” Seattle City Council housing and culture committee chair Nick Licata said. “12th Ave Arts regenerated the interest as one of the first new residential buildings in last 90 years that actually has residents above a performing arts venue. You have to go back a century to see something like that done in Seattle.”

As the Capitol Hill Housing project under construction near 12th and Pine broke ground earlier this year, Licata vowed to restart the conversation about creating a district on Capitol Hill that fosters cultural preservation — and growth.

“You can’t turn the clock back,” Licata told CHS about the renewed effort to forge a new type of arts district on Capitol Hill. “As more development takes place in that area, values will continue to go up.”

A possible new Capitol Hill cultural district, Licata and Engstrom say, could mirror the 2009-formed Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District in creating an area with incentive zoning that encourages developers to both preserve and create artistic and cultural spaces in their projects.

The current overlay district presents developers the option of incorporating the facade of Pike/Pine character buildings while maintaining basic ratios of the historical structures. In exchange, projects can be built to seven stories — one floor higher than the zoning allows. For many, it has been an irresistible trade — though not every developer has handled the process gracefully.

the heap that used to be Bus Stop, Manray, Pony, etc.

the heap that used to be Bus Stop, Manray, Pony, etc. by Fecki via Flickr

A cultural overlay, on the other hand, could create a district on Capitol Hill — likely around Pike/Pine — that provides incentives for everything from theater space to affordable, artist-friendly housing.

“People see the value,” Engstrom says. “What we need are developers that recognize that.”

A framework for a Capitol Hill Cultural Overlay has already been created. In 2009, CHS outlined the six recommendations formed by a panel convened by the city and led by Engstrom to forge a plan for keeping Seattle’s cultural institutions and resources alive:

1. Allow for the creation of designated cultural districts within Seattle’s neighborhoods, to preserve and enhance space for arts and culture to thrive in local communities.

2. Allocate a staff position as a district cultural manager, to work specifically with cultural districts, and be a liaison with other City departments, community organizations, and cultural agencies.

3. Use existing City processes, such as incentives and regulations, and create and re-imagine these tools and processes under a cultural space ‘brand’. Regulatory relief, financial incentives, and land use incentives are the basic tools to be used.

4. Provide technical assistance to ensure the most effective use of these tools.

5. Conduct outreach and build awareness about how neighborhoods can provide arts and cultural space to encourage economic sustainability, express community identity, provide community building through participation in the arts and culture, and enhance overall quality of life.

6. Develop partnerships with organizations, foundations, government agencies, institutions, and individuals. Identify and pursue those potential partnerships with aligned goals, mutual support, and advocacy to achieve success.

The panel’s full — and colorful — report is embedded at the bottom of this post. You’ll note some of the mission has already been achieved — congrats on the job, Mr. Engstrom. The rest?

“12th Ave arts wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for community advocacy,” Engstrom says. He says the same sort of energy will have to drive the creation of an overlay with real strength on Capitol Hill.

The process of building that support will start next Thursday as the Capitol Hill Community Council hosts an arts forum — “What We Have, and How to Keep It.”

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As lofty as the goals may seem, the city is already moving on putting similar components into motion elsewhere in the city. Engstrom points to the massive overhaul of zoning in South Lake Union as one concrete example where incentives have been put in place to encourage ground-floor cultural space in new projects in the neighborhood.

The next design review for the Melrose & Pine project that will preserve a portion of the Bauhaus building is Wednesday, May 15th. Earlier this year, the Melrose Building that Bauhaus calls home was deemed architecturally unworthy of landmark status. Will a new district create cultural landmarks?

The next design review for the Melrose & Pine project that will preserve a portion of the Bauhaus building is Wednesday, May 15th. Earlier this year, the Melrose Building that Bauhaus calls home was deemed architecturally unworthy of landmark status. Will a new district create cultural landmarks?

For Licata, the push needs to be about hanging on to what we have even as we create new spaces. Seattle, he says, has cultural landmarks that we need to hurry up and protect.

“We recognize the culture value in historical structures,” Licata said. “I’d like to push the envelope on cultural value.”

This person sat front and center at the 2009 presentation of the CODAC committee's recommendations inside the Century Ballroom (Image: CHS)

This person sat front and center at the 2009 presentation of the CODAC committee’s recommendations inside the Century Ballroom (Image: CHS)

The community forum takes places Thursday, May 16th as part of the Capitol Hill Community Council monthly meeting starting at 6:30 PM in the Cal Anderson Shelterhouse.

The 2009 CODAC final report is below.

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11 thoughts on “Capitol Hill cultural district could let developers exchange arts for height

  1. This feels like a case of shutting the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Better than nothing, one might suppose.

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