Saving spaces

If gentrification pushes out all the artists, where will they go?

IT'S A COMMON STORY. First, artists move into rundown neighborhoods, the only places they can afford; they refurbish buildings and bring life and color to their new communities. Experimental jazz record producer Simon Grant, who grew up in San Francisco, describes what happens next: "Hey, cool, look at all these artists," newcomers exclaim, deciding to settle there themselves. "Pretty soon, the rents go up and all the real artists are gone." Painter Randy McCoy blames the "scenesters, the people who saw too much Flashdance in the '80s and think loft-living is where it's at, even if the only thing they make in their funky work/live space is a pile of discarded beer cans." He bitterly remembers living in Pioneer Square in the early '90s and having people throw rocks at his window from their shiny Volvos to ask if he had space to rent. "That's when we knew it was the beginning of the end," he says. And the end it was. The Pioneer Square that was an affordable haven for struggling young artists is gone. Take a recent classified ad for a one-bedroom, "New York-style loft." The rent was almost New York as well, just under $1,900 a month. Nor are any bargains left in Belltown, another former artists' cluster. The charmingly decrepit buildings once colonized by artists are now only legends, among them the 1020 Building, 66 Bell, Project 416, and the Washington Shoe Building. If the gentrification of Pioneer Square and Belltown followed a familiar script, it was hastened by a red-hot economy that has made almost every neighborhood in the city a target for development, leaving a burning question for artists: Where do we go now? This isn't only a dilemma for sculptors and jewelry designers. The value that artists bring to a city can't be measured in rents and sales tax. San Francisco is widely admired for its quirky, freethinking, and independent character, but the tsunami of dot-com money that swept through formerly affordable neighborhoods has left the city

dramatically altered. Other cities have confronted similar problems with progressive ideas: Providence, R.I., for example, enacted a special downtown arts and entertainment zone in 1997, providing sales and income tax breaks to artists, as well as tax incentives to developers who convert their rundown properties into residential spaces.

Seattle residents should start asking themselves: What does a city look like if all the artists are gone?

Here we profile the development in Georgetown, a blue-collar neighborhood nestled between I-5, the mighty Duwamish, and Boeing Field that has become Seattle's last Mecca for cheap space; we also examine steps other regional cities are taking to attract artists. While Seattle grows ever more expensive, just 30 miles south in Tacoma, planners recognize that a city needs artists to have a soul.

THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING dilemma isn't unique to artists. But they have a harder time because they need space to store canvases and raw materials, walls they can splatter paint on, and neighbors that won't call the police when they're hammering out a masterpiece at midnight.

The old Pioneer Square finally died last spring with the ouster of dozens of artists working and living (illegally) in Shoe Building, the last of its kind to be redeveloped. Last summer, JEM Studios, the shoestring operation that managed artists' spaces in the Shoe, took over a new building in Georgetown. Industrial businesses dominate the neighborhood just south of SoDo where a smattering of artists have been moving in. "I think this is the last neighborhood," says JEM's Christine Morgan.

She and her boss Eddie Maurer, both painters, have big plans. "We hope to make Georgetown a new 'Arts Destination Point,'" they wrote in an e-mail. They have significant ambitions for their two-story former bank building, called the Horton. In addition to the 25 live/work studios they have created, they want to start a coffee shop, theater, and gallery.

It seems a grand plan for the former proprietors of the dive that was the Shoe. Given the desperate space crunch for artists, however, some people want this to happen: A nonprofit, JEM has already received a $100,000 loan from an anonymous family that stepped forward during the Shoe ouster.

At first Maurer and Morgan thought they would use the money to buy a building, but they ended up in failed bidding wars. Depressed, Maurer fled for Costa Rica. Then, in July, he got an e-mail from his arts-minded banker who told him of a building in Georgetown she had just sold. Maurer hopped on a plane and soon had an unusually long 15-year lease.

Recently home to a low-rent hotel, the building was, Maurer says, "in incredibly bad condition." The roof leaked; the plumbing didn't work; and it was filled with piles of mattresses and other junk. With the landlord's help, he and Morgan made basic repairs and let it be known that "semi-rough but habitable" live/work space was now for rent. Artists came running; every studio but one is full.

Lenora Benjamin, a wardrobe designer married to a photographer, stands in the middle of the couple's space at the Horton. A composite of four old hotel rooms, it is one of the largest in the building, 1,000 square feet for $975 a month. The space is mostly empty but has an appealing feel. A handsome four-poster bed sits on the "original fir" floors. One wall is exposed brick; others are painted turquoise and pale pink. Benjamin, a young woman with short red hair peeking out of a black knit cap, logged 20 hours with a sander restoring the floors. She peeled off layer after layer of paint.

"This is definitely the hardest renovation I've been through," she says. She and her husband have been chased out of one artists' building after another, including the Shoe and 66 Bell in Belltown.

Morgan leads me into a downstairs room with a dirt floor that feels like a barn. Air blows freely through an open space where a door to the courtyard should be. "This is going to be a theater," she says, pointing to a pile of secondhand auditorium seats.

Nearby, Simon Grant, the record producer, is surveying the drafty and cavernous space he and his artist girlfriend are moving into. Grant, taking some time away from his day job as an information technology director, is happily figuring out where to put a kitchen and bathroom, his record company's postproduction facilities, and his girlfriend's studio.

As he works, traffic roars by on Airport Way, which lies just beyond one wall of Grant's new space. Incredible old buildings line the street, brick and stone edifices with Corinthian columns and dramatic archways. It's the main drag in Georgetown, used by trucks serving the industrial business of the neighborhood. Grant is unperturbed. It's quiet at night, he says. And in the day, well, it's a different kind of quiet, the kind of quiet you have when there aren't any hipsters around. "It's more of a low-key, blue-collar lifestyle," Grant says. "Artists just want to find a nice, quiet neighborhood where they can be left alone to do their work."

Quiet as it is, according to artists and their supporters, things are happening. "It's been constellating," says developer Tom Gomez. "I don't think it's hubris to say it started here."

Rainier Cold Storage is the most impressive building on Airport Way. Seven blocks long and fortresslike in bulk, it was once known as the biggest brewery west of the Mississippi. Eventually, it became a refrigeration and processing facility.

In the late '80s, new owners took over and approached Gomez, hoping to get more income out of the immense space. "I didn't think we could get fancy rents," he recalls at Rainier Cold in his small office appointed with a Spanish painting and an oriental rug. Nor did he think the building was suitable for residential use. Railroad tracks run behind the buildings; the freeway runs in front; and the airport is close enough to make plane noise a constant. "I said, 'Maybe it's a place where artists could work.'" He carved one chunk of the building into 24 artists' studios; the rest remains industrial.

The artists came sporadically and then steadily, telling war stories about the neighborhoods they'd left. "I have refugees from Pioneer Square, Interbay, Capitol Hill, Ballard," Gomez says.

Now, he finds artists taking over other buildings along Airport Way: glassblowers in one, potters in two others, photographers in another.

There are so many artists' buildings along the street that in December the neighborhood held the first of what it hopes will be monthly art walks, like the "First Thursdays" held in Pioneer Square. Equally significant, Gomez hopes to develop another big chunk of Rainier Cold Storage into studio space. He thinks he can bring in at least 50 more studios. "We could end up with 150,000 square feet of space eventually. . . . That's all of Pioneer Square at its peak."

But what will prevent Georgetown from going the way of Pioneer Square? A few things: Aside from Rainier Cold Storage, the number of big buildings suitable for artists' occupation is limited, and Gomez doesn't know how much more of Rainier Cold he can develop. What's more, there's the plane, train, and automobile noise that artists may be able to tolerate but artist wanna-bes may not.

Nonetheless, the artists' influx has already had an impact on rents. Eight years ago, Roger Cairnie, who runs a business selling parts for Mercedes Benz, paid $700 a month to rent ground-floor space in Rainier Cold. He now pays $6,000, an increase of more than 800 percent.

At the Horton building, a handful of artists who had studios there before JEM came in have ironically been priced out of the building. Maurer says he had no choice given his rent, expenses, and property taxes. The previous tenants paid as little as 35 cents per square foot; new ones pay between 75 cents and $1.25. Painter Angie Chamberlain saw her rent rise from $1,175 to $2,800 and found that she couldn't afford what for many has become Seattle's last affordable neighborhood for artists. She decided that leaving the city was a viable option.

IT MAY COME AS A SURPRISE that one alternative is Bremerton. Eager for the development that artists bring, the blue-collar town recently demarcated an "arts district." What that will mean isn't clear since the town hasn't yet created the live/work zoning helpful to artists. Nevertheless, it sent a signal, and gallery owner Amy Burnett estimates that 20 arts-related buildings are now housed on one Bremerton block.

By the time Chamberlain decided to move there in October, some friends had already made the jump. She had been to gallery openings there and liked the small artists' community. She found a 1,000-square-foot apartment for only $500.

She lasted a month and a half.

She started to resent the commute, a total of three hours a day on ferries, almost as much time as she spent painting. And she didn't get home from her Seattle day job until 7pm. "I actually found it to be a little lonely," she says. While she had friends in Bremerton, there wasn't any place to go after 5pm.

She returned to Seattle with the help of a West Seattle landlord who likes her work and offered an uncommon deal: low rent in exchange for a painting at the end of the year.

But the current situation means that some artists will leave town for good.

Painter, photographer, and videographer Rob Jones used to live at the former Project 416, a cluster of studios surrounding a Pioneer Square gallery. Two years ago, he and his artist girlfriend, Renee Cortese, moved to Tacoma to fulfill a stint as artist-in-residence at the Tacoma Art Museum. "The whole thing was that we wanted to save up money so that we could get back up to Seattle," explains the bearded and pleasantly disheveled 31-year-old, now managing the Commencement Gallery in Tacoma. "We did look for a while, but [Seattle] was so expensive. And then we just, by accident, liked up here."

They liked the scenery, the tidal flats, and the numerous historic buildings that give Tacoma an older feel than Seattle has. They liked the "strange local bars," such as Bob's Java Jive, a karaoke hangout in the shape of a giant teapot. And they liked the accessibility of the city's small arts scene. In Seattle they had a hard time breaking in; in Tacoma they have found that "if you're here, automatically you are the scene."

Most of all, they liked the rents. "We were able to survive—easily," he says.

Jones and Cortese found a sweet deal: 7,000 square feet of space in a building formerly occupied by the Salvation Army for $500 a month.

Inside his white stucco building on a busy street near the Tacoma Dome, there's just bare space until you wind your way through layers of plastic sheeting and find a cozy living area lit by large windows overlooking the downtown skyline and the graceful 21st Bridge. Jones made some of the furniture, such as the coffee table fashioned from a large picture frame. Pots and pans hang from walls washed in vivid shades of orange, blue, red, and green. Against one wall is an antique upright piano.

Through a line of partitions are a bedroom and, beyond more plastic sheeting, another large open space that serves as a studio. A mat is spread over the half that's filled with objects Cortese uses for her "assembled" art; a platform stacked with canvases fills the other half of the space.

The couple had unusual luck in finding this space. The building's owners were eager to have someone look after it while they took an extended vacation. But Jones senses that Tacoma lends itself to such fortuitous happenings. "There are so many buildings around Tacoma that are empty," he says.

It is Josie Emmons' job to fill them, and to fill them with artists. She is the manager of the city's culture and tourism division, located within the city's department of economic development. Like Bremerton, Tacoma sees artists as a tool for regeneration. But Tacoma has gone further than Bremerton by giving its sizable warehouse district the coveted live/work zoning. The city will conduct personal tours for any struggling artist who calls. "Happy to," says Emmons, adding that artists can call in their space and monetary requirements and get a veritable "research team" working on their case.

On a bright winter day last month, Emmons and city Real Estate Manager J.J. McCament took me on the typical tour. Fifteen minutes after leaving downtown, we were in the warehouse district in a southern swath of the city just below the University of Washington's Tacoma campus. "This is usually the building everyone wants," said McCament, pulling up to a mustard-colored building that straddles an avenue-sized block, which originally housed fire and police headquarters in the days of horse-drawn carriages. You can still see the arched portals for the carriages to drive under. With its historic character, abundant space waiting to be transformed, and plentiful light from large windows, it seems the perfect kind of building for artists.

Reminiscent of pre-chic SoHo in New York, the neighborhood is full of vast industrial structures that used to house a dairy, a brewery, and other businesses that eventually closed or moved to new facilities. In volume, Georgetown can't compare; there are more in the nearby "Dome district." One property, formerly occupied by a paper company, includes a handful of buildings clustered along an alleyway. Emmons and McCament wistfully envision an entire arts complex, which could close off the alley for special events.

There is one problem: money. These buildings are for sale, not rent, with price tags in the million-dollar range, not counting costs for retrofitting old plumbing and electrical systems. That's not going to do much good for a lone struggling artist nor even an enterprise like Georgetown's JEM Studios. Approached by Emmons, JEM's Maurer and Morgan came out here for a tour and found the costs prohibitive.

Still, the city wants artists so badly that it will do almost anything to make it possible. That includes, according to Emmons, approaching property owners to ask if they would consider renting all or part of their spaces.

ARTISTS PROBABLY HAVE only a short time to enjoy such wooing. In a turnabout that's sweet to a city long mocked by Seattleites, Tacoma is on the cusp of change. Seeking new ground after Seattle, developers have discovered the city. Several arts-related projects are ongoing, including a Museum of Glass to open in 2002 and an adjoining pedestrian walkway designed by local boy and glass-blowing guru Dale Chihuly. Further spurring development, the city recently put in an extensive fiber-optic network, making the city the most wired in the country. Light rail is on the way, and a commuter rail line to Seattle is ramping up.

The reach of development is so far that painter and scenester-hater Randy McCoy thinks you can't talk about one central location for artists anymore. "You're going to find artists scattered in little pockets of beat-up buildings," he says.

He's found his hideaway in Ballard, which has enough of an artists' community to hold a monthly art walk on second Saturdays. Many of the neighborhood's artists are based in two adjacent buildings. McCoy holds a master lease on the space he has divided into 26 work-only studios. One building is a rambling former aluminum factory, which still houses a machine shop on the ground floor. The other, harboring an edgy gallery called the Fuzzy Engine, a descendent of Project 416, served as offices for a fish-processing company.

Neither building is in great shape, and the rent is commensurate. It's such a good deal that McCoy doesn't want to specify how much he pays. "Part of the problem is that when people find out where your space is, they want to come and pay your landlord more money," says the spiky-haired 32-year-old while pacing about his cold, spartan studio. McCoy is wary of opening it up for the neighborhood art walk, for fear invaders will come "scheming."

Yet he believes his days there are numbered anyway. "The people in suits with clipboards have been walking around," he says. He expects it will be three years at most before the buildings will be sold and redeveloped.

If that happens, he says, he's going to forget about looking for the next cheap neighborhood—he doesn't think it will exist. Instead, he's going to build a backyard studio at his West Seattle house. Like most artists, he says, he'll have to give up the dream of a separate studio in an artistic community, a refuge simultaneously offering inspiration and peace and quiet. As McCoy sees it, the scenesters will have won.

 
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