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Author Topic: Longenbaugh on Theatre: Evicting the Arts  (Read 3804 times)
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« on: April 17, 2008, 02:48:01 PM »

Evicting the Arts
Capitol Hill’s scene didn’t have to be hit so hard, so fast.
By John Longenbaugh
April 16, 2008



How do you keep an arts scene from collapsing? Only five years ago Capitol Hill was Seattle's most vital performing-arts neighborhood, with around a dozen small venues filled year-round with theater, dance, and comedy. But the recent development frenzy is doing a good job of wiping much of that out.

The latest evidence was the sale of the Oddfellows Hall on Broadway and Pine, which housed four performance spaces (Seattle Chamber Theater, Velocity Dance Studio, and the two operated by Freehold Theater Lab), as well as rehearsal rooms and office spaces for numerous small arts groups. The new owner is Ted Schroth of GTS Development, who doubled his residents' rents and in one fell swoop wiped out nearly half of the Hill's arts venues. Only the Century Ballroom is slated to remain in the building.

At a recent meeting at City Hall organized by a coalition of artists, funders, and City Council members, a solution of sorts was proposed, something called a Cultural Overlay District. This would be a series of incentives and policies involving government, developers, and artists to encourage the preservation of arts space on the Hill. The meeting participants included not just the usual suspects (desperate artists and one or two administrators), but small-business owners, independent filmmakers, and the artistic director of Seattle Theater Group, Josh LaBelle, who argued that the cultural benefits afforded the Paramount and the Moore be extended to these smaller venues. Wonder of wonders, several developers gave speeches of support too, including Wesley Oaks of Pioneer Property, Liz Dunn from Dunn & Hobbes, and Richard Muhlebach of Kennedy Wilson. With five City Council members also in attendance (including sponsor Nick Licata), some solutions might actually emerge while there are still art venues to save.

Conspicuous by his absence was Schroth, who'd gotten an earful at a meeting earlier this year at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. It's hard to blame him for his actions as the new landlord of Oddfellows, but it's hard to like him much either. As a developer, he's got a major investment in what's proving to be a weirdly fluctuating property market. But doubling the rent within the first four months of buying the property is fundamentally economic eviction, particularly for groups with little ready cash in their coffers. For nonprofit groups like Velocity, hoping to compete for space in the current market is more than daunting, it's life-threatening.

What could Schroth have done otherwise? How about keeping rents fixed for a year while waiting on major renovations? How about actively partnering with these organizations to help them transition to a new home? Recent city legislation makes it mandatory that developers displacing low-income housing must replace it—why isn't this equally binding for those who displace arts space? (A study last year by Seattle Arts and Culture suggested something like this—but as a nonbinding incentive.)

The case of Open Circle Theater, however, shows that it's not enough to have enlightened developers. Long a resident of the Denny Regrade, Open Circle lost its space late last year as part of Vulcan's master plan for the area. Originally their liaison at Paul Allen's company made a good-faith effort to find them a new home, even offering to make upgrades to another empty building to make it performance-worthy. But for months they were stymied in their efforts to provide a venue by requirements from the Department of Public Development, which has strict and complicated codes regarding fire safety, seismic readiness, and barrier-free access. Now a new liaison is on staff at Vulcan, and Open Circle is currently homeless and performing in various venues.

More than goodwill is required to save arts space on the Hill. Government agencies like the DPD have to start cutting red tape, enlightened developers have to be granted incentives to house art groups, and their less-thoughtful brethren should face penalties and restrictions. The alternative is a neighborhood that's another bland collection of condos and retail—and an artistic community that's scattered, diminished, and demoralized.
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arcanepsyche
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« Reply #1 on: April 18, 2008, 08:53:02 AM »

Great article on something that's been on all of our minds for months now.

I just wish this issue would have been raised when the development started. "Non-binding" incentives (as we've seen) do nothing. Developers will always find a different way to make more money than by using those incentives.

Thanks for posting.
Zac
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Greg Carter
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« Reply #2 on: April 18, 2008, 04:44:21 PM »

I certainly embrace your youthful cynicism, Zac.  Maybe someday you'll be old and jaded (rather than young and jaded).

Of course, this issue was "raised when the development started".  No one buys a building without studying the history of the tenancy.  Ted Schroth would have gladly continued all the existing leases, if they had been feasible.  They weren't feasible.  The building was falling apart, and the previous owners didn't have the financing to do anything about it. 

Yes, Schroth wants to make money--so do I, by the way--but the margin in development is a lot tighter than most people think.  The storefront property in that building is very valuable.  But there's not a lot one can do with that East Hall--it has high ceilings which are expensive to heat, and he can't chop it up into small condos, because most of them wouldn't have windows.  It's not a foregone conclusion that Oddfellows is a gold mine for Schroth--the real estate market stinks, the economy stinks (meaning people don't have money to spend on luxury living), and a Democrat might be elected President which always deflates the stock market.  This is a guy who spends his day running numbers and comparing costs to revenue.  And some days, I bet it looks like a big loser.

Incentives do work.  Historic District incentives are responsible for Pioneer Square looking the way it does.  Incentives are how Victor Steinbrueck saved Pike Place Market.

Until the Socialist Revolution comes, capitalists are going to try to increase capital.  City government is not going to restrict that (in fact, city government primarily serves to support capitalist growth in the city).  Artists need to educate themselves and participate.  Not every square foot of Oddfellows is going to be profitable.  Schroth is hoping his perimeter storefronts will offset the costs of his less desirable interior spaces.  But he still has a problem of what to do with those interior spaces.  Is there an opening for an arts group to help him solve that problem?  Can three dance and theatre groups get together and guarantee him some number of dollars a month?  Whatever they are offering is better than zero dollars/month.

Balagan Theatre is in the basement of a new development of Pike and 12th.  Why are they there?  Various reasons.  One reason is they have an arts friendly building owner--Liz Dunn (who John mentions in his article).  But Dunn didn't offer Balagan the corner storefront.  There's a difference between being friendly and being stupid.  Balagan is renting the basement at a fairly affordable rate--a space Dunn couldn't find any other kind of tenant for.

What Nick Licata (and others) is suggesting is some kind of prodding at the government level which makes the kind of relationship Balagan has with Liz Dunn more common.  So we don't all have to rely on the arts friendly developer.  The city can warm-up the room.

I think this is likely to be more successful than the Socialist Revolution (though god knows, that would help too).

Greg
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arcanepsyche
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« Reply #3 on: April 19, 2008, 11:10:57 AM »

Thanks Greg, I knew you'd come and add something to this thread.

I understand the situation at the Oddfellows.
I was commenting on this section of the article:

Quote
What could Schroth have done otherwise? How about keeping rents fixed for a year while waiting on major renovations? How about actively partnering with these organizations to help them transition to a new home? Recent city legislation makes it mandatory that developers displacing low-income housing must replace it—why isn't this equally binding for those who displace arts space? (A study last year by Seattle Arts and Culture suggested something like this—but as a nonbinding incentive.)

I don't pretend to understand the legalities of it all, it just seems like the city is trying to do something a little late in the game. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm glad they're doing something.
Just my view.

Zac
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John Longenbaugh
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« Reply #4 on: April 21, 2008, 11:11:49 PM »

Hey folks:

Thanks for showing some interest in this topic. As far as I'm concerned, the story of Capitol Hill losing its theaters is as important to the well-being of Seattle's art scene as the viaduct is to our transportation issues.

Greg, you make some great points. But while I agree incentives CAN work (though they sure haven't yet) so can restrictions. I can spare some sympathy to Capitol Hill developers, maybe not as much as I can to folks caught up in the subprime mortgage crisis, but that doesn't mean that we should just wait for the market to sort this out. You want to see a neighborhood that the market sorted out? Ladies and gentlemen--Fremont. (Not quite as funky and arts-friendly, you might agree, as before it was eaten by condos and corporate residents like Adobe).

Probably nothing alll that bad will happen to Capitol Hill when all the fringe theaters have left. At worst, it'll just be another neighborhood of condos, retail, and restaurants--like Belltown. But the cost to our struggling theater scene will be great indeed.

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arcanepsyche
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« Reply #5 on: April 22, 2008, 10:04:51 AM »

It's great to see the author commenting John!

Quote
As far as I'm concerned, the story of Capitol Hill losing its theaters is as important to the well-being of Seattle's art scene as the viaduct is to our transportation issues.

I whole-heartedly agree with you as I'm positive do others.

I moved to Seattle only 4 years ago and even then Capital Hill felt funkier and more arts-oriented than today. I think the development has happened so fast that a lot of us residents were a little slow on the uptake concerning theatre venues because all of our apartments were being sold out from under us to make room for those condos. When we finally woke up to the fact that venues were disappearing too  we hoped that some people with power or money would take the reigns and save our spaces. It seems like they finally have with the loss of the Oddfellows, but, sadly, it's obvious that small theaters (venues that is) are no longer valued as a necessary part of a community, at least to the people who plan the city. I don't want to come across as a non-acting complainer, but honestly we shouldn't have to fight this hard to keep our spaces intact But, the good things about theatre people is that while we shouldn't have to waste our time fighting to keep small theatres in Seattle, we sure as hell will do what it takes when we have to.

Zac
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