At the groundbreaking ceremony for the 12th Avenue Arts building, on a gray day in February 2013, the ground was unavailable for breaking. The Capitol Hill property had been a police precinct parking lot for decades, and the pavement was impervious to ceremonial shovels. But the ritual was enabled by a clever bit of staging: Someone had brought in a large quantity of dirt, piled it on the asphalt and embellished it with glitter. When organizers realized they were one shovel short for the photo opportunity, someone grabbed a black music stand from the band and handed it to the deputy chief of police, who gamely turned it upside down and dug in.
Creative problem solving is a hallmark of 12th Avenue Arts, the long-awaited, mixed-use, six-story facility that opens this month. Designed by SMR Architects, the building has large west-facing windows; the apartments are compact but appealing, many with big views of downtown.While not restricted to artists, the 88 units of affordable housing (available to renters earning less than 60 percent of the area median income) are a beacon for artists who’ve felt pushed out of their own neighborhood. (A one-bedroom apartment is $883/month; a two-bedroom unit rents for $1,191.) The building also houses nonprofit and arts offices, ground-floor restaurants (Pel Meni Dumpling Tzar and U:Don noodles) and two performance theaters (one with 149 seats; the other, 80 seats). The Seattle Police Department gets its parking back, too, with 115 secure spots underground.
Owned and operated by Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), a local nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that affordable apartments don’t become a thing of Seattle’s past, 12th Avenue Arts is the result of more than 15 years of neighborhood discussion about how to keep the essence of Capitol Hill alive in the face of rampant development. CHH’s Michael Seiwerath, who led the capital campaign that raised $4.6 million for 12th Avenue Arts, says that for a long time, people have been asking, “How do we keep the funky fabric of Capitol Hill? How do we retain our soul?”
A watershed moment came in 2007, when nearby Oddfellows Hall—a longtime home to arts organizations and performance spaces—was sold and redeveloped, pricing out the arts groups. This sudden, tangible loss of cultural space was a punch to the gut of the Capitol Hill arts community, one that led to animated discussions about how to ensure that future development reserved space for affordable housing and arts activities. “After Oddfellows sold,” says Seiwerath, who at the time was executive director of Northwest Film Forum, around the corner, “there were a lot of meetings about ‘How do we stop this from happening again?’ Everybody saw the way real estate was going on Capitol Hill.”
Everybody, including Christopher Persons, who at that point had recently become CEO of CHH. The organization, which currently manages 44 buildings across the city, had already considered SPD’s parking lot as a possible location for more affordable housing. “When I first started working at CHH, I was briefed on a project that, at that time, was called ‘the police parking lot,’” Persons recalls. “It was pretty much dead, but when I pulled out the file and literally dusted it off, I knew this was something we had to do. The project just made sense, and a 29,000-square-foot surface parking lot in the epicenter of perhaps the city’s most vibrant neighborhood did not.”
With the Oddfellows object lesson looming large, CHH began collaborating with local arts organizations, businesses, neighborhood associations, Seattle City Council, SPD, then Mayor Mike McGinn and real estate developer Hunters Capital on an affordable housing/arts space combination. In the process, Seiwerath says, “the group heard from the community that there was an urgent need for stable, affordable theater space.” After working two theaters into the design plans, CHH sent out a request for proposals to determine which local theater company would use and manage the space.
“When I first heard about 12th Avenue Arts, I was not interested,” says Greg Carter. The artistic director of Strawberry Theater Workshop (“Strawshop”), Carter knew that managing rental space was a full-time job. But then he had an idea, and added fellow indie theater makers New Century Theatre Company and Washington Ensemble Theatre to the application. Under the combined name Black Box Operations, the three groups won the bid. They will rotate use of the theaters for their own plays 60 percent of the year, and rent the spaces to smaller companies the rest of the time.
The new performance venues arrived in the nick of time—Seattle Central College, which owns the Erickson Theatre (next door to SIFF Cinema Egyptian), and had been renting it to Strawshop and other nomadic groups, recently decided to reclaim the space for educational purposes. In addition to the steadier (and state-of-the-art) footing 12th Avenue Arts provides, Carter says the space gives the companies the chance to draw new audiences to their performances, thanks in part to the proximity of other respected arts organizations. “In conjunction with Northwest Film Forum, Richard Hugo House and Velocity Dance Center, 12th Ave Arts can centralize great art making on Capitol Hill,” he says. The heady mix of arts groups is one of the reasons that this month, the Office of Arts & Culture will designate the area as the first official Arts & Culture District in Seattle.
But while arts organizations may be thriving on Capitol Hill, fewer artists can afford to live there. Which is why Seiwerath stresses that although 12th Avenue Arts is a huge boon for strengthening the community, it doesn’t even begin to address the demand for housing. “There’s an affordability crisis under way in Capitol Hill—particularly in Pike/Pine,” he says. “We need every tool at our disposal to keep artists and regular working people living in the neighborhood.”
12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave. Facebook: “12th Avenue Arts.” For theater schedules, starting in January, visit blackboxoperations.org