City council names Capitol Hill neighborhood Seattle's first officially recognized Arts & Cultural District on November 17, 2014.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/23/2015
  • Essay 11118
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On November 17, 2014, the Seattle City Council approves a resolution creating an Arts & Cultural Districts program and naming Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine/12th Avenue neighborhood the city's first designated Arts District. Two days earlier, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (b. 1955) and City Councilmember Nick Licata (b. 1947) had announced the coming designation at Richard Hugo House, one of several arts-oriented sites on Capitol Hill facing displacement caused by neighborhood gentrification. The Capitol Hill Arts District marks a major milestone in a decades-long effort to ensure that individuals and organizations involved with the arts will have a place in the city's rapidly changing mixed-use neighborhoods.

From Autos to Artists

The first car dealership in Seattle opened in 1903 as a sideline for a bicycle shop on 2nd Avenue near Madison Street. Within eight years there were 41 automobile sellers listed in the city's Polk Directory, and 31 were on Capitol Hill near where Pike and Pine streets intersect Broadway Avenue. As the automobile grew to dominate transportation in Seattle over the next two decades, most of the city's new dealerships, repair shops, and parts sellers set up shop nearby, and the area soon became known as "Auto Row." The auto-related businesses were usually housed in sturdy, brick, two- and three-story buildings with large, open interior spaces, and many of these structures survived long after the motor trade had moved on.

The area around Auto Row attracted the arts even while car businesses were still thriving there. In 1914 Nellie Cornish (1876-1956) founded the Cornish School of Music in a one-room studio in the Booth Building at Broadway and Pine. In later years, several furniture stores, beginning with Del Teet Furniture in 1929, opened on Broadway, and later still interior-design consultants gravitated to the neighborhood. The Burnley School of Professional Art, founded by Edwin (1896-1981) and Elise Burnley, opened in 1946, also in the Booth Building (the Cornish School had moved to a dedicated home to the north at Harvard Avenue E and E Roy Street in 1921). Some of Seattle's first art galleries, including those of David Hall-Coleman and Zoe Dusanne, also found homes on Capitol Hill.  

By the 1960s Pioneer Square was becoming the new chic neighborhood for furniture dealers, the interior-design trade, and art galleries. The Broadway neighborhood went into a period of decline, and with few other takers several of the former Auto Row buildings became home to low-income residents and artists seeking large, light-filled, live/work spaces at bargain prices. The concentration of artists -- visual, performing, and literary -- and low rents also lured perennially cash-strapped arts organizations and theater groups to the area, and over the span of decades a vibrant, if largely unstructured, arts community took root.

The City and the Arts

Seattle's government in the later decades of the twentieth century evidenced a growing commitment to the promotion and preservation of the cultural elements of the city's life. The Seattle Arts Commission was established in 1971 "to promote and encourage public programs to further the development and public awareness of and interest in the fine and performing arts" (Ordinance No. 99982). The commission and the Department of Community Development soon compiled an inventory of unused city-owned facilities that might be made available for the arts, but further efforts were stymied by economic hard times brought on by the Boeing Bust of the early 1970s.

In 1976 Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) brought the arts commission, which had been working under the aegis of the Seattle Center, into city hall, giving it greater status and direct ties to the executive branch. But budget limitations continued to hamper its efforts, and what resources it did have were largely devoted to saving the struggling Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. The arts-space issue was not entirely forgotten, though, and in 1980 the commission, again working with the Department of Community Development, published a self-help guide entitled Seattle Artists' Housing Handbook. Long on good advice but offering no material assistance, the publication appears to have been the first direct step in the city's effort to help artists and cultural organizations secure affordable space.

The issues then received only moderate attention for nearly a decade until, in 1990, the arts commission issued a call for the creation by the city of a formal cultural-space program and a dedicated staff person, on the city's payroll, to administer it. With the national and local economies again on shaky ground, that proposal died a quiet death. The problems that needed to be addressed were not easy ones. Despite widespread agreement on the need to do something, complex issues of property rights, zoning, tight budgets, and a host of other, often competing, factors stymied real progress. Not until 1999 was the arts commission able to host a forum that included panel discussions on these nuts-and-bolts issues, but even that produced few specifics on how to address them or to reconcile the competing interests involved.

The Seattle Way

The long pondering over what the city could or should do took on increased urgency in 2007 when the venerable Oddfellows Building, which was built in 1908 at 915 E Pine, was sold to developers. The rundown old structure had for decades provided affordable spaces for artists, for performances, and for arts and community groups, but it was clear that this would change after costly renovations were made. This was painful for its ousted tenants, but the ensuing public outcry was a catalyst for a more aggressive approach to a long-smoldering issue.

Nick Licata, who had started his long tenure on the Seattle City Council 10 years earlier, convened a community meeting in January 2008 at the Capitol Hill Arts Center, a performance space at 1621 12th Avenue. The loss of the Oddfellows Building was the trigger for the meeting, but the real purpose was to develop ideas that could counter the piecemeal disintegration of the arts community as the neighborhood became increasingly gentrified. Emotions ran high; it had been nearly 20 years since the first publication of the Seattle Artists' Housing Handbook and there had been little or no progress on solving the problems that had inspired it.

Licata, armed with decades of experience as an activist, was determined to move the issues forward, but he faced (and was now part of) Seattle's notoriously slow process for reaching decisions on matters that implicated competing interests. That process has come to be known, with a mixture of frustration and affection, as "the Seattle Way," and has been defined as "a grass-roots, from-the-ground-up style of neighborhood planning and development as opposed to a city government-directed 'top down' process" ("Cities Copied 'Seattle Way' ... ").

The upside of the Seattle Way is that it is very democratic, very deliberative, and broadly inclusive. The downside is that it is almost always very, very slow. Particularly contentious issues may be discussed and deliberated upon for a decade or more, and the process on occasion outlasts the problem that triggered it. But Licata was, in the best sense of the words, a policy wonk, and he made the city's artistic and cultural life one of his signature policies from the start. He introduced poetry readings at council committee meetings, organized a Neighborhood Arts Conference in 1998 and Neighborhood Arts Celebrations in 1999 and 2000, and in 2001 chaired a "Roundtable Discussion on Artists' Space." If anyone could push the process along, it was Nick Licata.

In 2003 the original Seattle Arts Commission that Mayor Uhlman had brought to city hall in 1976 was dissolved and many of its functions folded into a newly created Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, a department in the city's executive branch (the name was shortened to Office of Arts & Culture in 2013). The group that had been created in 1971 retained the Seattle Arts Commission name and continued to serve as unpaid advisers, but the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs now had a dedicated budget and an official seat at the government table.

A New Approach

In April 2008, four months after the Oddfellows community meeting, Licata and fellow council member Sally Clark organized a public forum at city hall entitled "Make Room for Art: Cultural Overlay Districts for Seattle?" More than 200 participants -- property developers, zoning specialists, visual and performing artists, neighborhood activists, and many others -- attended the forum.

An "overlay district" is a regulatory tool that creates a special zoning regime that is superimposed over an area's existing zoning and can provide incentives or impose regulations in addition to those already in place. Such districts can be used to accomplish different things, such as encouraging (or compelling) developers to include some low-income housing or provide sufficient recreational spaces for a neighborhood's children. A "cultural overlay district" specifically "encourages the retention of existing and the development of new places for arts and culture activities" ("Cultural Overlay Districts"). Seattle already had used overlay districts to achieve other goals, but had yet to apply the technique specifically to the "cultural space" issues important to the city's arts community.

In July 2008 Licata and Clark helped establish a Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC), an all-volunteer group that was to "identif[y] 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"). Its members studied the issues until April 2009, and then presented recommendations in a report titled "Preserving & Creating Space for Arts & Culture in Seattle." On August 17, 2009, the city council unanimously endorsed the committee's recommendations, and in March 2010 Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) added his approval. The resolution embracing the plan listed six goals for the city, given here in truncated form:

  • Allow the creation of designated cultural districts in the city;
  • Create a full-time staff position to work specifically on behalf of cultural districts;
  • Use financial incentives, land-use incentives, and regulatory tools and processes to develop and promote an arts and cultural space "brand" in the city;
  • Provide technical assistance to neighborhoods for the effective use of those tools;
  • Conduct outreach and build awareness of the ways in which arts and cultural space can serve a variety of interests in the community and "enhance the overall quality of life";
  • Identify and pursue partnerships with a variety of groups and individuals to achieve the goals of the CODAC's recommendations (Resolution 31155).

The resolution proposed specific changes to the land-use element of the city's Comprehensive Plan and identified the Capitol Hill neighborhood as the first that would be considered for designation as a cultural overlay district. It was in large part a statement of aspirations, and although it did not create or preserve a single square foot of art or cultural space, the resolution marked a formal commitment on the part of the city's executive and legislative branches to work towards that end and provided the beginnings of road map for how to get there.

An example of how the process could work was provided by 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. Although it included mentions of "arts and cultural organization," that was not the primary focus. But the measure proved that government, using a carrot-and-stick approach, could work successfully with private interests to enhance and preserve the diverse character of a mixed-use neighborhood.

Implementing the Plan

Focusing more specifically on arts and culture, in 2011 the city funded 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 the Chinatown-International District. In December of that year the Office of Arts & Culture and the Seattle Arts Commission, in partnership with King County's cultural-services agency, 4Culture, kept the conversation going with a two-day program titled "Cultural Space Seattle."

The lack of a central paid staff person to serve as a contact point for all interested parties and to coordinate the activities of various interest groups had diffused the city's earlier efforts to assist artists and cultural groups. In 2013 that finally changed. Matthew Richter (b. 1968), an arts entrepreneur and a founder and director of successful nonprofit arts organizations, was hired by the Office of Arts & Culture to fill the newly created post of cultural-space liaison.

In January 2014 the Office of Arts & Culture proposed a first-in-the-nation Cultural Development Certification Program and called for proposals to formulate a specific plan. The winner, Seattle design firm Framework, received a $10,000 award to prepare a report on how to proceed. The certification program would incentivize mixed-use projects that provided specific interior cultural space for such things as galleries, museums, theaters, artists’ studios, offices for arts and culture organizations, and related activities.

The Capitol Hill Arts District, At Last

In 2013 and 2014, while the city council deliberated its next steps, there were interesting developments on the ground. Capitol Hill Housing, a public corporation organized by the City of Seattle, broke ground in February 2013 on its 12th Avenue Arts Building, which when completed provided 88 apartment units for families and individuals, offices for nonprofit organizations, a community meeting space, two flexible theater spaces, food and beverage outlets, and underground parking for the nearby Seattle Police Department East Precinct.

The old Egyptian Theatre, which was built in 1915 and was one of the Seattle International Film Festival's venues in the 1980s, had closed in 2013 after Landmark Theatres ended a 24-year occupancy when negotiations for a new lease failed. Once again the film festival took it over, and in October 2014, after modest refurbishment and major equipment upgrades, it was reopened as the SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

But the biggest development came on November 17, 2014, when the city council unanimously endorsed a resolution sponsored by Nick Licata, the preamble of which read:

"A Resolution creating an Arts & Cultural Districts program and implementation plan for Seattle, and designating Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine/12th Avenue neighborhood as the first officially recognized Arts & Cultural District" (Resolution 31555).

The path to this was long the bumpy. The need for arts and cultural spaces had been under discussion since the 1970s. Recommendations on how to address the problem were developed in 2008. These were finally implemented nearly four decades after the conversations had begun. It had traveled a typically long and serpentine path, but now there was a specific plan on the table. 

What It Is and What It Isn't

Resolution 31555 cited some interesting statistics that provided more than simply feel-good support for the preservation and protection of cultural spaces. Citing the "Arts & Economic Prosperity IV" study, it pointed out that Seattle's "non-profit arts and culture industry generated $448 million in annual economic activity, 10,807 full-time equivalent jobs, $248 million in household income, and $38 million in local and state government revenue" (Resolution 31555).

The resolution had as an attachment an "Implementation Plan" that briefly recapped the history of the effort and cited a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which would be matched by the city's Office of Arts & Culture. That entity, with other city agencies, was directed to put together a "Creative Placemaking Toolkit," and the resolution outlined the requirements and processes for other neighborhoods seeking to establish their own cultural overlay districts. Proposed districts would in most cases have no hard boundaries, but would resemble "heat maps," with an area of core density (of arts-related activities) gradually tapering off and merging seamlessly with surrounding areas.

As with the council's 2009 Resolution 31155, 2014's Resolution 31555 did not in and of itself create or preserve any arts or cultural space in the Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine/12th Avenue neighborhood. It was specifically noted that the legislation had no immediate or long-term financial implications for the city, and that the Office of Arts & Culture would "use existing resources to provide staff and programmatic support to the Arts & Culture Districts program" (Resolution 31555). As Nick Licata explained in his city hall blog,

"This has been a long time coming. It was 5 years ago that the Council and Mayor received recommendations to establish an arts district. And while the [Capitol Hill Arts District] ... will not have them, I intend to work with our arts office to institute mechanisms that can provide affordable artist housing and studio/performance space" ("Capitol Hill Arts District").

Licata chose not to seek re-election in 2015, and his absence from the council will no doubt reduce his influence on the future development of the Capitol Hill Arts District and others that are sure to be established in the future. But he was a key player in putting the endeavor on a sound footing, and while council resolutions are not binding law, Seattle's government has officially recognized that "arts- and entertainment-related businesses and organizations add cultural and economic diversity to a city; enhance the lives of the city's residents and visitors, and positively impact the city's economy by generating jobs and revenue." And where such arts and cultural communities have grown or will in the future grow organically, the city has pledged "to recognize and protect these naturally-occurring areas from the displacement that new development often brings" (Resolution 31555).

The first on-the-ground test of the Seattle's Arts & Cultural Districts program is now underway on Capitol Hill (2015). It's been a long time coming, but if it works as intended it will have been well worth the wait.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Arts Commission/Office of Arts & Culture" (by Pete Blecha and Paula Becker), "Richard Hugo House, a center for writers, opens in Seattle in October 1998" (by Priscilla Long), and "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), "Cornish College of the Arts" (by John Caldbick), "Seattle Neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Part 1 -- Thumbnail History" (by Paul Dorpat), Seattle Neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Part 2 -- Thumbnail History" (by John Caldbick), accessed September 18, 2015; Seattle City Ordinance 99982, "An Ordinance Establishing the Seattle Arts Commission ...,"  Seattle City Clerk's website accessed September 15, 2015 (; "Capitol Hill Arts District," Seattle City Council website accessed September 14, 2015 (; "Cultural Overlay Districts," Seattle City Council website accessed September 13, 2015 (; "Cultural Overlay Districts Background," Seattle City Council website accessed September 13, 2015 (; Seattle City Council Resolution No. 31155, "A Resolution endorsing the work of the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee ...," adopted August 17, 2009 (; Seattle City Council Resolution No. 31555, "A Resolution creating an Arts & Cultural Districts program  ...," adopted November 17, 2014 (; "Capitol Hill Arts District," Seattle City Council website accessed September 19, 2015 (; Debera Carlton Harrell, "Cities Copied 'Seattle Way' In Planning," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 5, 2007 (; Paul Dorpat, "Seattle’s First 'Auto Row' Thrived on Broadway and Pike," The Seattle Times, October 11, 2009, Pacific NW Magazine (; Marissa Evans, "Curtains Egyptian," The Seattle Times, June 19, 2013, p. A-1; Moira MacDonald, "The Egyptian Theatre Stages Grand Reopening," Ibid., October 2, 2014, p. B-3.

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