A historic building in Seattle’s Chinatown International District will soon be offered for sale, leading tenants to wonder whether a new owner will maintain what has become one of the city’s largest artist studio spaces.

The investors who bought the former Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS) building, now known as Inscape Arts, plan to list it for sale this year, said Brian Mayer, vice president of investments at the commercial brokerage Marcus & Millichap. 

Fred Lisaius, a painter who has leased space in the building for more than 10 years, said it has become “maybe the most important artist studio building in the city.”

“The unknown is kind of scary,” he said.

Mayer, whose firm will list the property, said “there’s no plan and intent to try to vacate these tenants or hurt that community in any way” while the building is for sale. 

The INS building, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was a detention and processing center for immigrants in the early 1900s, including Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act, and during the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. A permanent installation by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience includes signs throughout the building noting locations like detention cells and swearing-in rooms.

Words written in tar by former detainees mark the courtyard of the Inscape arts building, formerly the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Building, in the Chinatown International District.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times, 2014)

The building was vacated in 2004, purchased by the investors at a 2008 auction and then converted into leasable arts space in 2010. Calling itself the “largest arts and culture enclave in Seattle,” Inscape’s online directory lists more than 100 tenants, including painters, writers, architects and other artists. 

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Artist Tara Tamaribuchi said she and several other tenants are now looking for ways to preserve the space for the long term, like public or private funding, but discussions are still in the early stages.

“I’m an Asian American artist and my mom grew up in San Francisco Chinatown. For me it’s a really great gift to work in a building next to my cultural community,” Tamaribuchi said. “The history that’s here in the building, I find fascinating. … My family having immigrated several generations ago, I’m thinking about them and our shared community.”

The five-story building, including the basement, is 76,600 square feet and sits on a roughly one-acre lot.

The ownership group planned to list the site for sale early last year, but then the pandemic hit and it “wasn’t the right timing,” Mayer said.

Now, he said, “there is a plan to sell the property. The timing is still being worked out.”


Marketing materials posted on Marcus & Millichap’s website describe a “rare value-add and redevelopment opportunity” and say current rentals could provide “cash flow to an investor during the repositioning and redevelopment of the property.” 

Mayer said those materials were created before the pandemic and the firm is not yet actively marketing the property this year. The owners expect to list the property more widely by midyear, he said. The firm does not plan to list a price, and instead will seek offers, Mayer said.

The location could draw a potential buyer in part because it qualifies as an Opportunity Zone. The controversial federal program offers breaks on capital-gains taxes for projects in low-income areas.

While the building’s place on the National Register would limit substantial changes to its exterior, the parking lot could be redeveloped, Mayer said. 

Under current zoning, according to Marcus & Millichap, buildings up to 170 feet tall could be built on the vacant lot, and the property “can be repositioned into a wide range of commercial and residential uses such as office, multifamily, retail and hospitality.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.