If you are anywhere near 12th Avenue and Pine Street on Capitol Hill, 12th Avenue Arts is one hard place to miss.
On the former site of a sprawling parking lot, the building now takes up almost a city block in the district’s trendy Pike-Pine Corridor.
But what you notice first about this new $47 million housing and retail complex is the signage. 12 Ave Arts is announced in towering red 8-foot-tall letters — an audacious marquee. Call it garish or cool, it’s imposing. And at night, the word “ARTS” lights up, like a beacon for culture vultures.
Inside the concrete and glass structure, built and managed by Capitol Hill Housing, are 88 units of affordable (and fully occupied) apartments — an endangered commodity on hyper-gentrifying Capitol Hill.
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Even more unusual: A spacious lobby leads you to two theaters that will soon showcase the work of several dynamic local drama troupes.
“This is a unique project in town, and probably in the country,” says Matthew Richter, the cultural-space liaison for the city of Seattle.
Michael Seiwerath, director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, says, “No one to my knowledge has ever tried to do all of this in one new building — create lower-income housing, multiple live theaters and a police facility.”
(A Seattle Police Department parking lot, formerly at street level, is now in an underground, soundproofed garage.)
Three Dollar Bill Cinema and Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences also have offices in the new structure. But the most excited “master tenants” in 12th Avenue Arts are likely the three theater companies presiding over the pair of flexible, well-equipped and intimate performing spaces.
And when they’re not presenting their own seasons, other performing outfits can rent the spaces from Black Box Operations, a nonprofit the companies set up to manage the venues.
“The rental rates are comparable to what you’d pay elsewhere, but the place has so many amenities — good dressing rooms, bathrooms, sound and lighting systems, a great lobby,” says Greg Carter, artistic director of the Strawberry Theatre Workshop (Strawshop for short) as he shows off the open spaces with 30-foot ceilings.
As designed by SMR Architects and the theater design firm Candela, the lights, seats and stages can be used in a variety of configurations.
“When you’re booked in, the place is yours — for shows, rehearsals, reading series, classes, whatever you want to do — which is major. You don’t have to work around anyone else’s schedule,” Carter adds.
In Seattle’s prolific theater scene, user-friendly and well-designed venues for small ensembles are rare. Strawshop has staged shows in the Erickson Theatre, part of Seattle Central College. But as the school used the space more, it became harder to get rental dates.
Edgy, vital Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) was long ensconced in a funky little storefront on 19th Avenue East on Capitol Hill. The space accommodates only a few dozen patrons, the stage is the size of a walk-in closet, and there is no backstage area.
Composed of A-list local stage artists, New Century has never had a fixed address but has had to theater-hop from show to show.
If 12th Avenue Arts is a boon for the ensembles and their fans, it may also be a boon for the neighborhood, generating more spending and foot traffic, or as Richter puts it, “walkability and livability.”
Want a preshow bite? The storefronts will house several on-site, budget-priced eateries, including Pel Meni and U:Don. Want to check out what’s new in dance and film? Across the street is the Velocity Dance Center and down the block is Northwest Film Forum.
“There are many advantages to having new theaters here, economic and otherwise,” suggests Richter. “It adds more nightlife that’s not about drinking and clubbing.”
Congestion in the neighborhood is an ongoing issue, however. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, paid street parking is generally at capacity from around 5:30 p.m. until after midnight in the Pike-Pine corridor. It’s one of a handful of parking problem areas the city intends to address.
But the neighborhood is well served by public transportation, notes Capitol Hill Housing’s David Dologite, who led the development of the project. He also insists there are more affordable lots in the vicinity than most people realize.
The official opening of 12th Avenue Arts (celebrated with a public open house and facility tour Dec. 10) comes just as the city has designated Capitol Hill as Seattle’s first official Arts and Culture District.
The new civic program at this point offers mainly marketing and branding tools (help with banners, kiosks, better signage) for galleries, theaters, dance spaces, and book and record stores.
There are more than 40 arts concerns on the Hill, says Richter. He’s working on a longer-range citywide plan to create fiscal incentives for landlords to keep rents affordable for artists and art groups, and for real-estate developers to include arts facilities in their projects.
But there are a lot of kinks to work out, and it won’t be easy. “There are commercial projects where a builder will develop an amenity for the tenants,” Richter says. “But it’s rare for one to put in an amenity for the neighborhood.”
Capitol Hill Housing is another animal. Its main mission is to create homes for less-affluent city dwellers outpriced by Seattle’s red-hot housing market. The 12th Avenue Arts units have below-market rents — $883 for a studio to $1,191 for a two-bedroom apartment. Tenants don’t have to be artists, but some have qualified (there is an income ceiling) and moved in, including actor Emily Chisholm and WET’s Leah Salcido Pfenning.
Because of its civic mandate, Capitol Hill Housing is eligible for public funding, foundation grants and special loans. About $12 million of 12th Avenue Arts’ $47 million building budget came from state, city and county sources. About $548,000 of that $12 million was a grant from the state’s Building for the Arts program, according to Capitol Hill Housing.
By contrast, most commercial developments are privately funded, and to maximize profit they charge tenants whatever the rental market will bear. (Commercial artists’ loft complexes in the city are no exception.)
But the 12th Avenue project may become a national model, and a bellwether for future nonprofit or even public-private funded arts and residential spaces, suggests Seiwerath.
The theaters will open their doors to patrons after the New Year, with WET’s production of the contemporary play “Sprawl,” and Strawshop’s version of the Thornton Wilder classic, “Our Town.” (The shows open, respectively, on Jan. 16 and Jan. 22.)
Carter says the collaboration between groups is going smoothly.
“This works out great for all of us,” he says. “Once people figure out there’s a great new place on the Hill to see theater, and drink and eat, with parking nearby, we could all really grow our audiences.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org