You can't put an exact price on an encounter with an artist toiling away in a studio or greeting guests at an open house. The alchemy of urban vitality isn't easy to track. But, no doubt, a street full of empty buildings is a lot less worth visiting.

Share story

THE OLD 619 Western Avenue artist lofts in downtown Seattle have what a generous observer might call “character.”

In the building’s darkened stairwell, graffiti and fliers compete for attention.

On the sixth floor, a huge crack in a central, supporting wall exposes the interior to daylight — and residents to an obvious safety hazard.

But aside from these scruffy physical features, there’s something special about this place. In the eerie quiet, you can almost hear the echo of all the artists who have come and gone from this hulking former industrial building over the decades.

Despite or maybe because of its shabby condition, the 619 offered affordable work space for artists both starving and successful in the bustling center of town, cheap parking and a loading dock for art projects.

However, because of the building’s poor condition and the risk of future damage from the boring of a planned tunnel to replace the adjacent Alaskan Way Viaduct, the state evicted its tenants early last year.

The eviction spurred a slow-moving exodus of artists, designers, craftspeople and other creative professionals in need of low-rent space to do their work. Some lucked out and moved to other studio buildings in and around Pioneer Square, or farther afield.

But the painter Jane Richlovsky, who worked and rented studios to fellow artists at 619 Western, says the new studios her colleagues have found can’t match up in two key, and not unrelated, ways.

“None of them is as cheap a space as 619 was,” Richlovsky says during a tour of the sixth floor shortly before she moved out this past fall.

She lets out a laugh when pointing up to that huge crack in the wall by her studio. “It was cheap because it was dangerous!”

Richlovsky knew she wanted to relocate in or near Pioneer Square. Her plan came together when the Washington State Department of Transportation, which is leading the tunnel construction, offered up to $50,000 for each business owner in the building to get re-established in a new location.

As a landlord, Richlovsky qualified. Individual tenants received relocation money, too.

Richlovsky used her check to set up shop in a historic building nearby at First Avenue and Cherry Street. She renovated an entire floor’s worth of commercial spaces in a project known as the ’57 Biscayne artist studios. About a dozen of her former neighbors from 619 Western have since followed.

In Seattle, artists have to be developers, landlords and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs, marrying a right-brain sense of creative possibility with a left-brain business savvy that’s more common in an MBA.

In some cases, such as Richlovsky’s, moonlighting in these new roles has grown into a full-time job.

If there’s an artsy variation on the American dream, in which professional viability, upward mobility, the prospect of going into business for yourself and having a foothold in the community are prime features, then the project Richlovsky has spearheaded is a prime example.

The dream of achieving middle-class bliss happens to be the subject of many of Richlovsky’s recent paintings, which are commentaries on a midcentury suburban Americana, the type of worry-free living one associates with Southern California in the 1950s and ’60s and that is glorified in the cheerily optimistic advertisements of the time, “when everything was presented as this ideal, and everybody was all about the vignette of the happy family in their home,” she says.

“That is our collective unconscious manifested through the ads. Even those of us who are very cynical about it or who are artists and want a more bohemian lifestyle, that’s still our dream.

“That’s our dirty secret,” she says with a grin. “We still actually want that!”

RICHLOVSKY SEES that, since starting out as an artist two decades ago, her outlook has evolved. She says she’s more honest now about her ambivalence. “It’s like, yeah, who doesn’t want a good life? That’s why my grandparents came to this country. That’s what my working-class parents wanted for us. No matter how much I rebel against it, there is something in that.”

Now as well-known artist and landlord to other artists, she is feeding the dream in an edgier way, working it from a different angle — cracks in the wall and all.

“I complain about all the things I don’t have, like health insurance, but I totally chose this life,” she says. “I’ve worked very hard to get to the point where I can live like this, and I take risks and live with the uncertainty of income and the uncertainty of my physical surroundings so that I can do the work that is important to me.”

Being part of an extended family of artists, designers and craftspeople at 619 Western and now at ’57 Biscayne is icing on the cake, she says.

Last summer, when the 619 tenants received notice they’d have to move out sooner than planned for safety reasons, Richlovsky did some soul-searching.”It really made me say, ‘What’s important to me? How do I reorder my priorities?’ “

Adding to her anxiety was the financial fallout from the recent recession. Richlovsky had gotten used to making a large portion of her living from her paintings. Slow sales during the downturn cut deeply into that revenue stream, and it made her question her self-image as a vital, professional artist in good standing among her peers who could actually support herself by selling her work.

For an artist, this is always a sensitive issue.

“You think about it when you go visit your family and they’re like, ‘What do you do again?’ ” she jokes. “Maybe that idea of the free spirit does apply to a lot of people in their 20s, but the people who then stick with it have to have something more to go on.”

It might seem nuts to think that an artist, the very definition of unconventional living, may want what bankers, engineers, teachers and corner grocers do, that they might measure their success with benchmarks embraced by the 9-to-5 cubicle crowd. But it’s not such a stretch. Serious artists struggle to find a place to work, earn a living from what they do and manage their money like everybody else. In fact, they are small businesspeople, and many, like Richlovsky, believe it’s crucial for artists to establish themselves in the same way that other professionals do.

With the $50,000 from the DOT to develop art studios, though, Richlovsky was able to start turning a vision into a reality.

Richlovsky has been managing properties ever since taking over a set of leases from her late friend, former 619 landlord Drake Deknatel. But this time around, she’s had to find outside property owners willing to support her plans. It’s a good time because commercial space in the city is less in-demand than before the recession.

“I’m kind of an accidental developer,” Richlovsky says. But ’57 Biscayne is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“We’re going to have ‘to-code’ electricity and wiring — true luxury!” she jokes when talking about the differences between 619 Western and ’57 Biscayne. “And no giant crack in the center of the building.”

But what started for Richlovsky as an accident represents a new way of thinking about how to keep artists in a city where the cost of living and working can be prohibitively expensive, and where the middle class is ever-more burdened.

WHEN STEPPING inside Inscape, at the old Immigration and Naturalization Service building in Seattle’s SODO neighborhood, you have to give yourself a second to realize that the voices and noises bouncing along its asylum-like corridors aren’t ghosts from another time but the sounds of a building that’s been brought back to life.

The man behind the resuscitation is sculptor and fellow 619 Western alum Sam Farrazaino, who used credit cards and small bank loans to establish Equinox Studios in Georgetown in 2006. The 30,000-square-foot former factory is now sublet to about 50 working artisans.

For his part, Farrazaino calls himself a “reluctant developer” and describes Inscape as “ambitious . . . and maybe crazy.”

One thing is for sure. It’s a massive project: Five floors, with room for 108 studios in a structure that once was used to process, detain and, in many sad cases, deport immigrants.

The main benefit of such a large artist colony is something hard to put a finger on. The simple way to describe it is “creative energy,” Farrazaino says, the invigorating sensation that results when talented people are thinking and creating in close proximity to each other, bouncing ideas across hallways and assessing each other’s work.

For the visitors to the periodic open houses held at Inscape, located by the junction of Seattle Boulevard South and Sixth Avenue South, the atmosphere is akin to walking down a historic main street lined with mom-and-pop shops.

“It’s a pretty powerful place,” he says. “But our thing is, how do you take those raw materials and turn it back into a brilliant community? It’s really more about building community than providing art spaces,” Farrazaino says.

Farrazaino has been working with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience to document the building; many of its architectural features and artifacts have already been preserved. Some of the tenants are using different spaces and structures in the building to honor its heritage, too.

Farrazaino says he’s not a fan of “art slums,” improvised spaces that are forged out of necessity and financial need more than anything.

Inscape is intended to be much more than the sum of its studios.

Farrazaino has had a crush on the INS building for years, admiring it from a distance and dreaming of all the ways he could preserve the historic property by turning it into a thriving haven for people who make a living creating art in its various forms.

Then in 2008 a group of business partners purchased the building at auction from the federal government with plans to do just that. Farrazaino, with his background as an artist and developer, was brought in as an adviser, but soon he was spearheading the transformation.

To connect the building to the city, he plans to install a café, a dance-rehearsal room and other features that will draw the public inside to explore “and experience art in the place where it’s made.” The Satori Group, a Seattle theater ensemble, plans to move in in May.

“At the same time, they’ll see this edifice, this amazing monument to the good and bad in America — the American dream and what we do when we don’t like people.”

The timing of Inscape was perfect, because just as its renovation was wrapping up, his former neighboring tenants at 619 Western were scrambling to relocate.

About a dozen have moved into studios at Inscape.

Like newlyweds with visions of owning a nice house on a pretty street sitting down with a no-nonsense mortgage lender, Farrazaino and his business partners have had to match his blue-sky thinking with some concrete economic realities. He may have the soul of an artist, but developing a property takes sheer brainpower more than anything, a willingness to sweat the tedium of financing, permitting, remodeling and leasing.

He admits that public-private collaborations can be a slow grind, but the payoff is worth it.

To finance Inscape, Farrazaino and his business partners kicked in about $2 million of their own money and secured a $3 million low-interest, Section 108 loan from the Seattle Office of Economic Development; a $2 million loan from Chase Bank; and $3 million in federal tax credits for restoring landmark structures and improving neglected neighborhoods.

Farrazaino has been in talks with city officials about locating artist work spaces in other important buildings, such as in the upper floors of King Street Station.

All of this is an indication of the resourcefulness and seriousness of purpose needed to pull off ventures of this scale.

WHILE ARTISTS struggle with questions of viability, there’s a bigger issue for the rest of us: Do we want a city that bustles only with those who can afford to consume culture or a city that’s also busy with people who create it?

You can’t put an exact price on an encounter with an artist toiling away in a studio or greeting guests at an open house. The alchemy of urban vitality isn’t easy to achieve or track. But there’s no doubt that a street full of empty buildings is a lot less worth visiting.

One recent evening during First Thursday, the long-running downtown art walk that gives the public a chance to meet and mingle with local artists and view their work, the benefit of having artists in the city is clear. Locals are popping into work studios and browsing art for sale at ’57 Biscayne, crowds are sipping wine alongside artists at other storefront galleries in and around Pioneer Square.

Several storefronts in the area, previously vacant, are pulsing with energy, thanks to the city-sponsored Storefronts Seattle project, in which properties downtown and in outlying neighborhoods are rented temporarily from private landlords for just $1 a month. The goal is to fill those otherwise lifeless spaces with art installations, artsy businessness and working studios, if only for a few months at a time.

In one storefront, The Adventure School, a collective of artists, cultural event planners and small-business people, sets a chill mood in which guests can shop for crafts made by members, meet artists and even contribute to the making of a Web-based movie on-site, all in keeping with its mission to “dissolve the line between art and life.”

“We’ve never done this before — have a bricks-and-mortar store,” says Erin Gainey, the collective’s chief curator. “It’s wonderful to have the foot traffic, but what’s more important is being able to settle down and be a part of the community. The Storefronts program has hit the nail on the head.”

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.