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Cultural Space Agency’s mission: Create and preserve arts venues in expensive Seattle (and even more expensive Capitol Hill)

The V2 project was temporary — there are hopes for more permanent outcomes from the Cultural Space Agency

The City of Seattle has established a Public Development Authority (PDA) with the hope of creating shared cultural spaces and supporting local artists.

The move might be a last hope for arts organizations in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill that has transitioned from cheap auto row-era spaces perfect for galleries, studios, and dive bars. The latest victim here is Velocity Dance which gave up its 24-year struggle against rising rents and the COVID-19 crisis and has now given up its 12th Ave  home.

The Cultural Space Agency, which will be partnered with the PDA, will look to build community wealth and invest in communities of color as a real estate investment company focused on spaces for the arts. For example, it could partner with the city’s Equitable Development Initiative on real estate deals to ensure cultural space is included, and working with the Office of Housing to purchase ground-floor units in new developments to give ownership opportunities to small businesses, said Randy Engstrom, director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture.

The city has set aside $1 million for the next two years for the PDA’s operating costs with the hopes of getting investments from philanthropists for projects.

“We’re doing it to make sure that, as we come out of COVID, that we not only preserve but we protect that part of our city that really is its soul: the arts and culture,” Mayor Jenny Durkan told reporters Tuesday morning. “And that we make sure that we do it in a way that can be more equitable and that our recovery is one that actually does bridge the gap to prosperity for everyone.”


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The new PDA could also work on city-owned property transfers or long-term leasing of spaces back to the community, Engstrom added. The city recently transferred two Central District properties — the Central Area Senior Center on 30th Ave and Fire Station 6 at 23rd and Yesler — back to the local Black community after years of talks.

“This city should be as much a part of the solution to reversing gentrification and the predictability of who benefits and who loses out as it has been in the past to contributing to those circumstances,” said Tim Lennon, executive director of the Central District’s Langston. “We can scale this from block to neighborhood to district to region and really ensure that our artists and our cultural workers can stay here for the long haul.”

This is the first new PDA in 40 years, Durkan noted. For example, much of Pike Place Market is owned and managed by a Public Development Authority that the city chartered in 1973. At the county level, 4Culture was established in 2003 as a Cultural Development Authority to strengthen local arts and culture opportunities.

Some seeds for the plan were planted here. The city’s cultural space liaison Matthew Richter, artists, and developers discussed issues around rent and the arts in this 2014 forum held in the neighborhood. But the city struggled sometimes to overcome the rising costs and challenges. In 2017, CHS talked with Richter as word spread of another small Hill theater shutting down.

Capitol Hill’s Arts District launched in 2014, which the Office of Arts and Culture described then as “an attempt to bring cohesion” to the “constellation of arts organizations” splattered around E Pine and 12th Ave via a combination of community organizing, public advertising, and zoning incentives that will hopefully prompt developers to provision for the creation, and creators, of art. Medallions were installed across Capitol Hill in 2017 to mark the then-40 or so cultural and arts spaces that were part of the new arts district, including 12th Ave Arts.

Meanwhile, Richter also helped lead early experiments in finding creative ways to keep arts active in the changing neighborhood including the creation of the temporary V2 space in the former Capitol Hill Value Village building as it awaited planned redevelopment.

Dancers at the opening of Capitol Hill Housing’s 12th Ave Arts

12th Ave Arts could be another — significant — template for the new PDA. The Community Roots Housing development opened to rave reviews — and huge demand for its affordable apartment units — in 2014. The 29,000 square-foot development included 88 apartments, and office space for Capitol Hill Housing and several other organizations, all built over parking for the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct, and 6,000 square feet of theater space and commercial and restaurant space.

Cassie Chinn, deputy executive director of the Wing Luke Museum, identified five values central to the new PDA: “keep race in the room” to center communities of color, build community wealth, transparent decision-making, uplifting assets that aren’t financial like social networks, and questioning “dominant cultural assumptions.”

Durkan said that the PDA goes beyond simple task force discussions and brings the stability necessary for years to come.

“Mayors come and go, and we know that’s even more true this week, and what we have to have if you want to replace systems that are inherently inequitable or racist you have to replace it with systems that are durable and equitable,” she said.


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