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UP #307 Saving Artists’ Work Space & the 619 Western Building

Monday, February 14th, 2011

By Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Aide, Frank Video.

HISTORIC BUILDING & ARTISTS’ WORKSPACE THREATENED

There have been a number of media pieces on the historic 619 Western Avenue Building possibly being demolished by the State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) as part of the Alaska Way Viaduct (AWV) tunnel project. Built in 1910 as a warehouse, the Western Building has provided workspace for approximately 100 artists since 1979, making it one of the largest concentrations of artists on the west coast. I’ve been wandering through this honeycomb of studio spaces on 1st Thursday art walks since the late 1990’s.

I’ve met with WSDOT staff and artists leasing space in the building and had both sit at the table during my Housing, Human Services, Health and Culture Committee meeting on January 26th to review possible solutions to finding substitute artist workspaces and saving this building.

WESTERN BUILDING RESOURCE WEBSITE NOW AVAILABLE

To help preserve the building and accommodate the artists’ needs, I have set up a feature on my Council website (http://www.seattle.gov/council/licata/619western/) to serve as a resource for those interested in following the 619 Western Building issue. Instead of a blog, you will find updates on my and government involvement as well as meeting information and related documents and records.

Please use the site to send me your ideas for Pioneer Square buildings that could become affordable studios for those 619 artists wishing to stay in Pioneer Square.  I’ll post suggestions received.

3 PROBLEMS TO SOLVE

First, new accommodations must be found for displaced artists. Second, the property lies within the Pioneer Square Historical District and by law the building must be saved or replaced in a manner that retains the historical character of the neighborhood. And third, the potential impacts to Pioneer Square’s cultural vitality from the loss of so many artists’ lofts and galleries must be mitigated by relocating as many displaced artists as possible within the neighborhood.

SECURING ARTIST WORKSPACE

Most of the 619 Western building’s 68,000 square feet is rented to approximately 97 artists by 10 master lease holders. Most of the lease holders also work in the building. A typical floor in this 5 story building is divided into 10 studios that serve about 20 artists. Studios range in size from 200 to 2,000 square feet with costs of between 90 cents and $1.60 per square foot per month.

An informal survey conducted in January by 4Culture’s Willow Fox of 619 Western Building tenants found that 41 out of 43 respondents would like to stay in Pioneer Square. 2 said they were unsure. Willow’s survey also identified two groups of 619 artists organized with the intent of staying in Pioneer Square: Local 619  and Alchemy Studios. Quite a few other artists expressed interest in moving together as a separate group.

Artists’ most pressing need is for affordable space. Most chose 619 Western because they cannot afford market rents for typical office space. The owners, Benjamin and Lois Mayers of Bellevue, have kept rent low by not upgrading the building and have said they intended to rent indefinitely to the artists. They also own the Polson Building next door, which once also housed many artist studios but it suffered a fire in 1996 that forced upgrades and higher rents that pushed those artists out.

Artists also need an open floor plan; the ability to move large items in and out of their studios; good ventilation, including windows that open; access to warm running water and toilet facilities close to their studio; abundant light; and high ceilings. Additionally, many artists want 220 volt power; controls within their studio for its fuse box and thermostat; and a common area in the building for gatherings and exhibitions.

WSDOT is conducting occupancy surveys to assess each artist’s eligibility for relocation assistance, which includes both moving expenses and the cost of re-establishing one’s business. WSDOT determines compensation, up to $50,000 per move, according to various factors, such as size of the business, facility needs, and cost of rent. A business’s re-establishing expenses can include advisory services, site search services, moving expenses, increased rent, outdated stationary, and advertising of the new location.

By this summer WSDOT expects its environmental assessment process on 619 Western to conclude. In July, it intends to begin negotiating relocation assistance with tenants. In August, it expects to issue its notice of relocation eligibility, entitlements, and a 90-day assurance letter detailing the amount and type of compensation each artist will receive. If an artist moves out before receiving that letter they may not receive any assistance. The building is expected to be vacated in March of 2012. To learn more, visit WSDOT’s 619 Western website at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Viaduct/westernbuilding.htm.

SAVING or REPLACING THE BUILDING

The State contacted the building owners about a year ago to inform them of potential impacts on their building from drilling a bored tunnel underneath it. The tenants were notified this past December, the same month the State announced it had studied four options to address those impacts. Three were structural rehabilitation options that ranged in cost from $29 million to $35 million. WSDOT was leaning toward choosing the fourth option: demolition prior to tunneling, costing $2.5 million.

The building, constructed of concrete and heavy timbers, is within the Pioneer Square Historic District (PSHD) and is subject to City laws protecting historic buildings. If demolished, the building’s owner is obligated to replace it within two years and the new building’s design must be approved by the PSHD.

On January 25th, the National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter to WSDOT expressing apprehension over demolishing the building and was prepared to preserve it. The next day at my Council Committee briefing WSDOT AWV Program Administrator Ron Paananen indicated the State was considering a new option of shoring up the building during tunnel operations in order to avoid demolition at a cost of under $5 million.

PRESERVING PIONEER SQUARE’S CULTURE

What makes 619 Western unique is the common interests shared by its diverse group of artists that has over the years created a particularly strong sense of community – an ‘ art ecology’ according to long-time 619 artist Norie Sato – both within the building and in the surrounding neighborhood. This, when combined with the community of artists at TK Lofts just a few blocks away, contributes significantly to Pioneer Square’s economy as well as enhancing the neighborhood’s public safety.

Whether the Western Building is saved or not, its current tenants will have to move.  If it is rehabbed, the rent will likely be prohibitive for artists, as it was with the Polson Building.

Some artists have already left the building. Others plan to leave Pioneer Square once they’ve received their relocation payments from the State. For those wishing to remain in Pioneer Square, finding physical space, which of course would need to be affordable, may prove less of a challenge than maintaining and even expanding the current sense of community 619 Western artists that has been establish.

I am asking why not consider the loss of the art ecology of 619 Western a relevant historic preservation criterion and therefore be included as one of the impacts WSDOT should mitigate?  This approach could lead to the State helping purchase another building that could house the artists at affordable rents. Compensation to the individual artists would not be affected.

The State is working to identify properties for relocation, as am I. So far, I’ve spoken with several interested developers and property owners who offer a variety of options.

The Bemis Building is off the art walk path just south of Pioneer Square, but it offers 30,000 contiguous square feet on its 2nd floor at 79 cents per square foot per month. The INS Building in the Chinatown International District has some studios available within its 77,000 square feet on 5 floors, but the owner expects the building to be fully leased by the time 619 Western artists need to move. Prices there range from $1.00 to $1.80 per square foot per month.

I’m also looking into the Metropole Building at 2nd and Yesler, which is vacant due to fire damage in 2007, and the space atop the King Street Station, which is owned by the City. Be sure to visit my website for updates on my progress.

In the mean time, more options are needed and I welcome your suggestions (http://www.seattle.gov/council/licata/619western/).

COUNCIL MEMBERS & MAYOR’S EMAIL ADDRESSES

Sally.Bagshaw@seattle.gov

Tim.Burgess@seattle.gov

Sally.Clark@seattle.gov

Richard.Conlin@seattle.gov

Jean.Godden@seattle.gov

Bruce.Harrell@seattle.gov

Nick.Licata@seattle.gov

Mike.OBrien@seattle.gov

Tom.Rasmussen@seattle.gov

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