Seattle creates its first ‘Arts and Cultural District’ on Capitol Hill

It's not the headquarters for the district but the new 12th Ave Arts will be a big part of the launch  (Image: Capitol Hill Housing)

It’s not the headquarters for the district but the new 12th Ave Arts will be a big part of the launch (Image: Capitol Hill Housing)

Capitol Hill Housing and others have already moved into the new office spaces -- the stages will be put into motion come 2015 (Image: New Century Theater via Facebook)

Capitol Hill Housing and others have already moved into the new office spaces — the stages will be put into motion come 2015 (Image: New Century Theater via Facebook)

With $50,000 in federal money to help kick it off, City Hall will finally begin to put shape to a multi-year quest by creating Seattle’s first “Arts and Cultural District” on Capitol Hill. The program will launch later in November along with the grand opening celebration of Capitol Hill Housing’s new affordable apartments + non-profit office space + restaurants + East Precinct parking + theater development, 12th Ave Arts.

But 12th Ave won’t be the center of the new Hill initiative.

“We’ve talked about Cal Anderson Park as the center of it,” City of Seattle cultural space liaison and arts entrepreneur Matthew Richter told CHS earlier this fall.

We were there in 2009 as city officials came to the Odd Fellows building to plant the seeds for the new cultural district (Image: CHS)

We were there in 2009 as city officials came to the Odd Fellows building to plant the seeds for the new cultural district (Image: CHS)

The initiative to create arts districts in Seattle has been in the works since a June 2009  “Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee” report that determined the city needed a “cultural manager” to preserve and create space for artists. In 2013 as Randy Engstrom was hired to head Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, CHS documented some ambitious ideas that included possible developer incentives to maintain or create arts or cultural spaces around Capitol Hill. But by spring 2014, the focus had shifted more towards how best to market and support artistic assets currently surviving in the neighborhood.

Here are the priorities for the first district as described in a presentation to the Seattle City Council in September.

  • Work with neighborhood arts groups to utilize new City arts space incentives to preserve the arts
  • Market the Arts District and organizations as a destination, using tools such as sidewalk kiosks, street sign caps, custom painted sidewalks, mapping tools, and others
  • Explore collective resources to draw audiences, preserve arts uses and build staff capacity for the Arts District
  • Explore and pilot a shared arts destination district benefits: ticketing discount model, map or wayfinding, neighborhood arts festival, collective media buys
  • Actively support real estate development projects using arts district incentives

More ambitious initiatives will also move forward. “Arts and cultural districts will reinforce Seattle’s reputation as a top U.S. arts destination,” said Seattle City Council member Nick Licata. “While initially focusing on arts activities, I will work toward districts eventually supporting affordable artist housing as well.”

The city has said it is planning “a one-district-per-year roll out” for the program “in order to test new programs and adequately support the neighborhood in their endeavors.”

12th Ave Arts, meanwhile, is readying for its November 20th celebration. The building’s resident theater companies Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Washington Ensemble Theatre and New Century Theater Company have teamed up to form a new arts organization inside the the $47 million, 29,000 square-foot project. The 12th Ave Arts stages will see their inaugural performances in 2015. The first pairing of performances might give you a taste about the interplay that will play out in 12th Ave Arts through the seasons. WET will stage Sprawl, “Josh Conkel’s darkly hilarious new black comedy” “about how evil the suburbs are,” and, in the big theater, Strawshop will dust off and reimagine the classic Our Town.

(Image: Strawberry Theatre Workshop via Facebook)

(Image: Strawberry Theatre Workshop via Facebook)

While the new building won’t be the center of the new district, Richter said the whole of 12th Ave will play a major role.

“It’s one of the very important nodes in that district,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the newest and one of the largest in that district.”

The city is also searching for artists to help create a physical symbol of the district for something called the Capitol Hill Gateway Kiosk Project.

As somebody tasked with making Seattle’s arts work in the real world, Richter describes the new district on Capitol Hill in terms of physical space and travel.

“It’s more about district-wide events,” Richter said “What we can do is bring some extra connectivity, walkability between the nodes.”

It may not be the most artful way to look at it but when it comes to putting feet on the pavement and butts in the seat, a few signs, a map, and a bright landmark or two might be exactly what the area’s remaining galleries, stages and studios need.