Arts Districts for Seattle

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Back in 2009, the Council adopted Resolution 31155, which I sponsored in anticipation of the City designating arts districts in Seattle in response to recommendations from the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee.

This morning, the Office of Arts & Culture’s (OAC) Randy Engstrom, director, and Matthew Richter, cultural space liaison, briefed the full Council on OAC’s plans for empowering neighborhoods to apply for designatation as arts districts. OAC defines an arts district broadly, to include cultural elements such as music venues, restaurants and bookstores.

arts district 2OAC has joined with nieghborhoods to create a suite of tools for designating Arts & Cultural Districts, tools that can also be applied anywhere in the city. They are are designed to improve walkability, to enable marketing, and for right-of-way improvements, wayfinding, and cultural preservation. The idea is to foster an increased density of arts throughout Seattle.

A neighborhood would declare itself an Arts and Cultural District by approaching OAC for approval. If approved, the neighborhood (which can be represented by a Business Improvement Area, a Chamber of Commerce, or a local nonprofit or community group) would receive official designation from the City Council and then partner with OAC to fund and target the rollout of various tools from the kit.ST mural

Since the passage of Resolutiuon 31155, OAC has inventoried every cultural square foot in Seattle, to date having counted over 5 million cultural square feet. It has identified almost 20 data points about each of those square feet, including variables such as For-Profit or Nonprofit, Arts discipline, Owned or Rented space, Building Age, and a Stability Index.

OAC has also commissioned a Spacefinder tool in an attempt to connect artists seeking space with venues seeking users. This website is currently under construction and is expected to debut before the end of this year.

The arts district toolkit includes programs, projects, and mechanisms to support the following:

Right-of-Way District Identifiers: We seek a way to identify, market, and brand Arts and Culture Districts, and to improve the visual landscape in the right-of-way. There are a variety of mechanisms we have explored, in partnership with SDoT and Seatle City Light, that we plan on introducing this year.

Kiosks: Kiosks can provide assistance for marketing (poster walls), wayfinding (inventories and pointers), as a space to showcase rotating 2-D artork, and (in a partnership with SCL) as demonstrations of solar power possibilities.

Pole Banners: Marketing banners for individual arts organizations, for specific events, or the district could be hung from city-controlled light poles. A series of banners could be commissioned that don’t advertise anything at all, but are simply art insertions into the visual landscape.

Streetsign Caps: SDoT is interested in using Arts & Cultural Districts as an opportunity to introduce streetsign “caps” to announce neighborhoods, districts, and areas of historic interest.

Crosswalk painting: Apparently neither as difficult nor as expensive as one might think, unique crosswalk paintings that function to brand an area, contribute to wayfinding, and showcase local artists’ designs.

Wayfinding: How do you assist someone who might walk out of Gallery A to know that Theater X is just around the corner, or that Galleries B, C and D are within walking distance? How do you connect the nodes of a cultural district for the walking public? This program will assist in guiding the public from one artspace to another, or from one arts event to another, and may take the form of online mapping, or printed materials, or actual signage in the right-of-way, all of which would support a program of branding individual buildings and spaces (literally, with icons, or signage, to be developed) as Cultural Space.

Busking & Open Air Painting Support: The presence of street performers and open-air urban landscape painters reminds residents and visitors that a neighborhood is vibrant and arts-friendly. Our office would create a roster of performers of various disciplines, as well as painters, and support their presence in various neighborhoods (ultimately seeding the presence of non-roster public artists as well). In contrast to other city-driven busking programs, this would be a stealth, invisible, program.

Art Historic Markers: Artists, art projects, and artspaces, once gone, are quickly forgotten. This program, in partnership with HistoryLink, would celebrate culturally important spots with historic and educational markers. Nonsmoking playwright August Wilson wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson while sitting in the old (heavy) smoking room at the B&O Espresso coffeeshop on Capitol Hill. The coffeeshop has since been leveled to make way for a mixed-use development and Mr. Wilson has passed away. A marker, a plaque, with an online link, could keep some of the “erased” history of cultural neighborhoods from disappearing altogether.

Pop-up Space Activations: In 2010, the Office launched the (now independent) Storefronts Seattle program of activating vacant storefront spaces with artists’ projects. The program flourished and for a time activated spaces region-wide. We will bring the program to specific cultural districts to activate vacant storefronts spaces with temporary artist-driven projects, such as temporary installations, pop-up boutiques and galleries, and the incubation of new creative businesses for the neighborhood.

Parklets: In 2013 the city launched a pilot program of parklets, or miniscule parks created in single parking spots in the right-of-way. The first two projects have succeeded in softening the streetscape, and providing a walkable resting spot. Repurposed as a tool for creative placemaking, parklets could include public art components, incorporate a cross-promotion to Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, and serve as arts public space in cultural neighborhoods.

B.A.S.E. Certification: Our office is in the process of developing a new pilot certification for commercial and mixed-use developments, analogous to LEED environmental certification, but designed to reward projects that include cultural space. The Build ArtSpacE (B.A.S.E.) Certification program is exploring various ways to reward the inclusion of cultural space in new development with such things as marketing support, information about cultural neighborhoods and needs, and other assistance.

Cultural Preservation and Landmarking: There is the very real possibility that the city could designate Cultural Districts only to spend the next decade watching the spaces that define the district get displaced and redeveloped into corporate commercial space with no cultural component. Various mechanisms are being explored for the support of older buildings and the innovative small local companies and arts organizations they tend to house.

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