As Seattle once again wrestles with the fragility of its arts spaces in the face of continued growth, change, and development, the Seattle City Council this week heard an update on City Hall’s efforts to preserve and grow the number of studios, galleries, and performance venues on Capitol Hill and across the city.
Tuesday, the Seattle Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts Committee convened to discuss the cultural space access and stabilization project currently being undertaken by the Office of Arts and Culture (ARTS).
ARTS has been working for the past eight months to implement concepts proposed in The CAP Report: 30 Ideas for the Creation, Activation and Preservation of Cultural Space (PDF), which was published by ARTS last year. ARTS is assessing the feasibility of the project and working on a racial equity toolkit to ensure the communities of color that will be impacted have their voices heard.
Council member Lisa Herbold, chair of the committee, expressed her support for the project and its research.
“Our ability to preserve cultural spaces is really important,” Herbold said. “It goes beyond one particular threatened cultural space and we really need to figure out what the tools are that we have available.”
This project is working in the context of the affordability crisis plaguing Seattle, and the team working on it recognizes that.
“It’s an all hands on deck issue, not just for arts and culture, but for so many facets of the city,” Randy Engstrom, ARTS director, said at the committee meeting.
Thus far, ARTS has successfully executed approximately 30 percent of the recommendations from The Cap Report, according to Engstrom. The Cultural Facilities Fund, established in 2018, has seen its budget rise from $200,000 to over $1 million. The BASE Certification Cohort was launched, which finds organizations and communities of color and invests “in their capacity to navigate the world of real estate and development,” said Engstrom.
An Arts Permit Liaison position was formed at the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to help lead cultural space projects through the complicated permitting process. Early results for the new role at City Hall have been positive as arts groups now have someone on the inside to help with the increasingly complicated and time consuming permitting processes.
While the city has toyed with ideas around truly boosting arts-focused development and preservation initiatives, its most visible investments have been more symbolic including the promotion and placemaking program that created the Capitol Hill Arts District in 2014. Medallions went up late last year to mark venues and galleries across the neighborhood but the effort is a long way from early, more bold ideas like creating a Capitol Hill cultural district that would let developers exchange the creation or preservation of the arts for height bonuses.
Hope in a PDA
One recommendation currently being examined most heavily advises the creation of a Cultural Space Management Public Development Authority (PDA) that is meant to “preserve, activate, and create cultural space in Seattle,” according to the report. ARTS is looking at a number of options to fulfill this recommendation.
There are three organization models that are viewed as frontrunners by ARTS. The first is a basic PDA, a “quasi-municipal corporation established by the City, accountable to the public and overseen by a board of directors,” according to the presentation given by Matthew Richter, ARTS cultural space liaison. Examples of PDAs in Seattle include Capitol Hill Housing and Pike Place Market.
The second is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization run by a board of directors that is exempt from taxes in the same vein as Pacific Northwest Ballet and Forterra. Richter is unaware of a single PDA in Seattle that is without a 501(c)3 partner.
The third is a city agency overseen by the executive branch similar to Seattle Center or the Equitable Development Initiative.
ARTS is using a number of techniques to gauge interest in these options from engaged Seattleites. It has been conducting ongoing regular focus groups with both cultural space users and space developers. ARTS has created a cultural space survey specific to this work. It has engaged in deep discussion with “half a dozen” other departments within the City of Seattle, according to Richter.
ARTS is contracting with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) in San Francisco to develop financial estimating tools for a number of projects that ARTS has in mind, including commercial condominiums and an aggregated artist studio.
The team plans to give a broader presentation at the end of 2018 once their work is complete.
“Definitely look forward to more details and a recommendation and some nitty-gritty about how to move forward,” Council member Herbold said.
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