To help preserve and provide affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations, Seattle City Council establishes Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee in May 2008.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/27/2013
  • Essay 10691

In May 2008, the Seattle City Council establishes the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC) to formulate plans to preserve and provide accessible and affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations. The need for such a program was recognized at least as early as 1980, but the redevelopment of the Oddfellows Building on the city's Capitol Hill in 2007, and the resulting displacement of its arts-oriented tenants, has given the concept new momentum. The 16-member committee includes representatives of the arts community, property developers, businesses, non-profits, and financial institutions. Upon completion of its study, the committee in April 2009 will present to the council its final recommendations in a report titled "Preserving & Creating Space for Arts & Culture in Seattle." The comprehensive study caps decades of effort, and in June 2013 the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture will hire Matthew Richter (b. 1968) as cultural space liaison, the first salaried city employee to oversee the long, largely volunteer effort to preserve and provide accessible and affordable spaces for the arts.

A Long-Recognized Need

The Seattle Arts Commission was established by the Seattle City Council on June 1, 1971, with a broad mandate "to promote and encourage public programs to further the development and public awareness of and interest in the fine and performing arts" (Ordinance 99982). The original commission had 15 volunteer members appointed by the mayor, a rather paltry starting budget of slightly more than $28,000, and one salaried staff member who worked under the aegis of Seattle Center's development office. In 1976, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) separated the commission from its connection to Seattle Center and moved it into City Hall, giving it greater status and direct ties to the executive branch.

From the beginning, the arts commission was aware of the need for suitable and affordable space in the city for artists. Within a year of its creation, the commission and the City's Department of Community Development conducted an inventory of unused city-owned facilities that might be made available. But the city's economy had been slowed by the Boeing Bust, and budget limitations made any progress difficult. The commission's primary focus soon turned elsewhere, and little more was done on the issue for nearly a decade.

In 1980, the arts commission and the Department of Community Development, prompted by the efforts of a specific group of artists who hoped to buy an existing building and renovate it for living and working, published the Seattle Artists' Housing Handbook. The handbook was long on good advice but unaccompanied by any material assistance, and there was little immediate follow-up -- the commission had many other concerns, the most pressing of which was an effort to establish reliable funding for the city's deficit-crippled performing-arts organizations, including the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. Nonetheless, the handbook was a start, and it would form part of the basis for future actions.

Good Intentions, Little Progress

In 1990, a wide-ranging report prepared for the Seattle Arts Commission called for the creation of a formal cultural-space program and a dedicated staff position to administer it, but the proposal was not acted upon. Several old Seattle buildings had been converted in whole or in part for use as live/work spaces for artists, including the Polson Building near First Avenue and Columbia, the Washington Shoe Building on S Jackson Street, the 619 Western Building, and several locations on Capitol Hill. In subsequent years, many were torn down and replaced, others renovated and repurposed, but the result usually was the same: Suitable, affordable art spaces throughout the city became more scarce and the problem more acute.

A 1997 report prepared by the Pioneer Square Community Development Organization and the Seattle Neighborhood Planning Office, titled "Pioneer Square: A Place for Artists," again called for the development of specific means to provide more work/live spaces for Seattle artists. Potential locations were identified and one project, the Tashiro Kaplan Artists' Lofts on Prefontaine Place S, was carried to completion. Even that took seven years, and was finally opened in 2004 by a national organization, Artspace.

Seattle was recognized nationwide for its support for the arts, but providing suitable space at affordable prices was a knotty problem, one involving property rights, zoning, budgetary considerations, and a host of other factors. The Seattle Arts Commission in 1999 hosted a forum that included panel discussions on such nuts-and-bolts topics. Not included was any detailed plan to address the problem over the long term.

A New Century, a Little Progress

Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata (b. 1947) was first elected in 1997, joining the council in 1998. He quickly established a reputation as a strong supporter of the arts, and in his first few years in government sponsored a number of arts-related events, including poetry readings at council committee meetings, a Neighborhood Arts Conference in 1998, Neighborhood Arts Celebrations in 1999 and 2000, and a 2001 Roundtable Discussion on Artists' Space. The roundtable resulted in a rewriting and expansion of the Seattle Arts Commission's 1980 Seattle Artists' Housing Handbook, retitled Space for Artists 2002 and prepared with the cooperation and support of the arts commission, the Seattle Office of Housing, the Department of Design, Construction & Land Use, and Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955). The focus of the original handbook was expanded beyond the needs of individual artists to include arts organizations. The City's long-range goals were described in the introduction:

"This primer on developing space for the arts is a step toward securing artists and arts activities in our Seattle neighborhoods. The City's goal is to stabilize its arts community with long-term affordable options through stable leases and through individual, cooperative and/or nonprofit ownership" (Space for Artists 2002, 5).

The 76-page publication was useful, but again largely limited to advice. The City's continuing inability to do much more was evidenced by the report's closing paragraph: "So, what should you do next? Start saving money, keep an eye out for appropriate spaces, keep an open mind as to what might constitute a worthy opportunity for a successful artist space, and be ready to jump in feet first for the long haul" (Space for Artists 2002, 32).

The City's overall interest in supporting the arts did not waver, however, and in fact strengthened. To give the effort more status at City Hall, on January 1, 2003, the original Seattle Arts Commission was abolished and many of its functions folded into a newly created Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, part of the executive department (the name was shortened to Office of Arts & Culture in 2013). The volunteer group first created in 1971 was reformed and retained its advisory functions and the "Seattle Arts Commission" name.

The Creation of CODAC

The Oddfellows Building at the corner of Broadway and East Pine Street on Capitol Hill had for decades provided affordable space for artists and for arts and community groups. It was sold to developers in 2007 at a price that foretold its doom as affordable space, and a public outcry ensued. While a great loss to its former tenants, the sale and surrounding furor put a spur to the city's efforts on behalf of arts spaces.

In January 2008, Licata met with community members at a packed meeting in the Capitol Hill Arts Center. That soon led to a public forum called "Make Room for Art: Cultural Overlay Districts for Seattle?" An "overlay district" is a regulatory tool that creates a special zoning district that is superimposed over pre-existing zoning. It is a vehicle to provide incentives or impose regulations in addition to those that existed previously. Such districts can be used for different purposes, and a "cultural overlay district" specifically "encourages the retention of existing and the development of new places for arts and culture activities" ("Cultural Overlay Districts").

Licata was joined by fellow councilmember Sally Clark in hosting the event, held on April 2, 2008, and attended by more than 200 people. After the forum, they created the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC), a 17-member, volunteer advisory group given the task of "identifying creative incentives and regulations that can help preserve and promote spaces and activities for art, culture, and entertainment in Seattle, beginning with the Capitol Hill neighborhood" ("Cultural Overlay Districts Background"). The city now had a focused group to draw up specific proposals for a specific part of town, but it was still largely a volunteer effort.

The committee studied the issues until April 2009, then presented its recommendations in a report titled "Preserving & Creating Space for Arts & Culture in Seattle." On August 17, 2009, the full city council unanimously endorsed the committee's recommendations, and in March 2010 the mayor's office climbed on board as well.

Getting Here From There

Artists and arts organizations shared the same boat with many non-arts people whose housing options were limited by financial constraints and under threat from gentrification. The CODAC committee, even before issuing its final report, worked to establish the Pike-Pine Conservation Overlay District, created in June 2009. Incentives, regulations, and trade-offs were devised to encourage developers to provide space for small, diverse, local businesses; to save older buildings of character; and to retain and attract arts and cultural organizations. The focus was on overall conservation and not limited to the specific needs of the arts community, but addressing those remained a central component of the plan.

With the input of the advisory committee, the city soon took additional steps, including the Artist Space Assistance Program (ASAP), a three-month pilot project to provide relocation and placement services for artists and arts organizations in Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District. It was administered by Shunpike, a nonprofit agency that had been supporting the local arts community since 2001. And in December 2011 the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs and the Seattle Arts Commission, in partnership with King County's cultural-services agency, 4Culture, produced a two-day program called "Cultural Space Seattle."

The focus of the program was on both the visual and performing arts, with a primary goal of helping to "shape policies to keep and create affordable space for artists and arts organizations to work, rehearse and perform in Seattle" ("Cultural Space Seattle ... "). A public forum was held that drew 150 people to Seattle's Town Hall, followed the next day by practical workshops that included artists, government leaders, arts administrators, investors, real estate developers and brokers, and interested citizens. In May 2012 the organizers released a report that summarized the various activities, set out the resulting findings, and made specific recommendations for steps to be taken.

A Big Step

Although city government had been actively involved in the cultural-space campaigns for decades, most of the work had been done by volunteers and non-governmental groups. The lack of a central figure, an employee of the city, to act as a contact point for all interested parties and to help coordinate the activities of various interest groups, tended to diffuse the government's efforts.

In 2013 that finally changed. Matthew Richter, an arts entrepreneur and a founder and director of successful nonprofit arts organizations, was hired by the Office of Arts and Culture to fill the newly created post of "cultural space liaison." In announcing the hire, the office outlined what his responsibilities would be:

"Our new cultural space liaison will serve as a project manager and liaison with various city departments like the Department of Planning and Development for work on city codes and policies in place for the development and maintenance of cultural spaces within the city, and will also launch a new space finder tool that will connect artists and arts organizations to available spaces for development, rehearsal, or presentation of their work. The position will also promote the economic activity generated by arts and cultural activities and educate citizens, property owners and developers on the importance of the arts regarding property values and neighborhood character" ("Launching a Cultural Space Program ... ").

After more than 40 years of good intentions, multiple studies and reports, and a few specific actions, the broad-based movement to preserve and create affordable live/work spaces for artists of all kinds and for arts organizations might have turned a corner in 2013. One of the early steps Richter took was to launch a program of Cultural Development Certifications, similar to those used to promote "green" building. The idea had its beginnings in the 2013 "Square Feet" forum, a planned semiannual event that Richter started in November 2013. The certificate would be available to projects "that provide for the inclusion of specific interior cultural space, such as galleries, museums, theaters, artists' studios, offices for arts and culture organizations or other public or private cultural space" ("RFP for Cultural Development Certification "). A qualifying project could benefit from a number of incentives, including such things as streamlined permitting procedures, tax incentives, and the relaxation of parking requirements. A grant to prepare such a program was scheduled to be awarded in January 2014.

Other projects underway in 2013 or in the works for 2014 included a complete inventory of every square foot of existing cultural space in Seattle, an online "spacefinder" tool to connect artists seeking space with venues and brokers with space to rent, a system for ensuring that cultural uses are considered for surplus city properties, and direct grants for cultural-facility projects (13 of which were awarded in 2013).


"How Art Spaces Matter II," Grant Makers in the Arts website accessed December 12, 2013 (; Vivian Kahn, Larry Mortimer, Daniel Carlson, Seattle Artists' Housing Handbook: Creating and Controlling Living/Working Space Through Building Conversions (Seattle: Seattle Department of Community Development and Seattle Arts Commission, 1980); Cathryn Vandenbrink et al., Space for Artists 2002 (Seattle: City of Seattle, 2002), available at (; "Preserving & Creating Space for Arts & Culture: Final Recommendations," City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed December 12, 2013 (; "Cultural Space Seattle: Findings and Recommended Next Steps," City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed December 13, 2013 (; "Cultural Space Seattle Public Forum and Workshop," City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed December 14, 2013 (; "Tashiro Kaplan Artist Lofts/Tashiro Arts Building," Artspace website accessed December 13, 2013 (; "Ordinance 99982," City of Seattle clerk's office website accessed December 12, 2013 (; "About Us," City of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed December 12, 2013 (; "Cultural Overlay Districts," Seattle City Council website accessed December 13, 2013 (; "Cultural Overlay Districts Background," Seattle City Council website accessed December 13, 2013 (; "Pike Pine Conservation Overlay District Legislation Approved," Seattle City Council website accessed December 13, 2013 (; "Shunpike Selected to Pilot Artist Space Program," Shunpike website accessed December 13, 2013 (; Brendan Kiley, "What's Going to Happen to Oddfellows Hall?" The Stranger website accessed December 13, 2013 (; Marian Liu, "City, Cultural Leaders Discuss Preserving Art Space," The Seattle Times, April 1, 2008, p. E-2; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Arts Commission/Office of Arts & Culture" (by Peter Blecha and Paula Becker) and " Seattle City Council passes ordinance creating the Seattle Arts Commission on June 1, 1971" (by Paula Becker), (accessed December 12, 2013); Matthew Richter, emails to John Caldbick, December 9, 2013, December 16, 2013, and December 19, 2013, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.

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