Urban Politics #138: Creating Space For Artists

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Frank Video.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • The 2001 Artists Space Roundtable
  • The 2002 Space For Artists Forum
  • Space For Artists 2002 Handbook

The 2001 Artists Space Roundtable

For some time now many of Seattle’s blue collar workers who traditionally lived and worked in downtown and other close-in neighborhoods have been pushed out of the City by high rents. People, who work in the arts industry, including artists, comprise a significant portion of these displaced workers. A new nation-wide study by Americans For The Arts reports that in 2000 $134 billion was produced in total economic arts activity in the U.S. This activity generated 4.8 million full-time equivalent jobs, $89.4 billion in household income, and $6.6 billion in local government tax revenues. Ironically, most workers in the arts can no longer afford to live in the urban areas to which their activities initially brought economic viability.

In May of last year, I invited Councilmember Judy Nicastro to join me and local artists and arts industry workers for a roundtable discussion on how to keep artists and arts groups from leaving Seattle. Artists and City staff engaged in a wide ranging discussion that addressed City regulations, economic conditions, and the specific space needs of artists. What emerged from this roundtable was a much better understanding of what artists need and how City policies and regulations fail to address those needs.

The 2002 Space For Artists Forum

Last Wednesday, once again Councilmember Nicastro joined me for an open public discussion on artist spaces but, this time the focus was on private developers. In light of the City’s budget constraints, I wanted to hear feedback on ideas my staff and I developed since last year’s Roundtable for amending City regulations to encourage more affordable and market-rate development of studio, live/work, performance, and office space in Seattle for artists and arts groups without affecting the City’s budget. I also wanted to hear whatever specific suggestions private developers have. A number of suggestions were proposed.

Encourage new construction by identifying artist’s studio dwellings as a distinct category of low-income worker housing as well as market rate housing.

Low-income artist housing was used with the Home of the Good Shepard artist lofts in Wallingford and is being applied to the renovated Tashiro-Kaplan building in downtown. Artist’s studio/dwelling and live/work spaces could also be rolled into future affordable housing projects funded by the recently passed housing levy.

More affordable and market rate artist studio/dwelling space could also be encouraged by amending the existing land use and building codes. In particular street level space that is currently required to be reserved for retail activity in a mixed-use building could be available for artist space if transparency features and active uses were required.

This approach could be used for the current retail spaces that remain empty in a number of mixed use buildings around the city. Some developers estimate any where from 30% to 60% of those store fronts remain unoccupied. By selectively choosing some side streets within neighborhood business districts that have seen a significant level of unused street level retail space, these spaces could be occupied by artists. The effected community would designate which streets and guide the conditions of use. The Belltown community would be one possible beneficiary of this change as that neighborhood works to enliven its streets where hard-to-fill retail spaces have gone empty.

The city should also explore how to allow developers to rehabilitate existing buildings to allow the conversion of some retail spaces into spaces for arts assembly, presentation, or artists’ studio dwellings. In some instances this will require revising building codes that allow greater flexibility for allowing artists to live in their work spaces while still meeting life & safety concerns.

Revisions to the land use code to create a new category of space called “live/work” are also being considered. Although not specific to artists, artists could benefit since they would be likely tenants. But if this change is made to the code, consideration will be given to keeping the space “active” and pedestrian friendly.

I will be working with Councilmember Nicastro as we meet with developers, artists and community representatives to develop these proposals. Most of the legislation will be introduced in the Council’s Land Use Committee.

Space For Artists 2002 Handbook

Also at last Wednesday’s Space For Artists forum I announced the newly published “Space for Artists 2002” handbook, a comprehensive resource for artists and developers planning to secure or build arts spaces in Seattle.

Published by my office and the City’s Office of Housing, this handbook is chock-full of up-to-date references and information on the City’s construction and land use codes, development regulations, and low-income housing finance programs. It also cites examples of successful artist housing developments and arts performance and office space in Seattle.

“Space For Artists 2002” is free and available through the Seattle Housing Office’s web site, www.seattle.gov/housing/Pubs.htm, at the Seattle Arts Commission, 312 First Ave. N., 2nd floor, 684-7172, and through your local Neighborhood Service Center. You can also order a copy through my legislative assistant Frank Video here in my office at 684-8849.

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