12th Avenue Arts Shows How Affordable Housing on Capitol Hill Can Be Done

But is it just too late?

The 12th Avenue Arts Building was voted Best New Building in the 2015 Best of Seattle Reader Poll. To view the other winners, go here.

The 12th Avenue Arts Building lies along, well, 12th Avenue in an obtusely angular way—obtuse in the sense that the angles of the building’s facade are greater than 90 degrees.

On a lazy Monday afternoon—and if you’re not working, Monday afternoons are the laziest of them all—a scattering of fashionable patrons sit in the pre-happy-hour calm of Rachel’s Ginger Beer, sipping various cocktails concocted with the bar’s delicious namesake drink. (I got a Montana Mule, which is a whiskey ginger.) Next door, the tasty Japanese noodle chain U:Don (see the smiley face?) dishes out bowls to a few late lunchers.

Aesthetically, I might gently disagree with our readers who voted my current locale Seattle’s Best New Building. Where one contender, The Wave apartment tower in Pioneer Square, has beautifully asserted itself into the city skyline, 12th Ave Arts is nicely done, but hardly stands apart from the scores of other nicely done low-rise urban developments in Seattle (though it does have a large garish sign to announce its presence).

However, at the risk of sounding like a hack self-help guru, a building is not judged simply by its exterior. What goes on inside also counts. And U:Don and Rachel’s are just the beginning for 12th Ave Arts, which was conceived and developed as a bulwark against Capitol Hill’s skyrocketing rents.

Funded through a combination of grants, tax incentives, loans, and a $4.6 million capital campaign, the $47 million building includes 88 apartments priced for people earning 60 percent of the area median income or less (about $37,580 for a single person). It also has two black-box theaters, a 140-seat mainstage and an 80-seat studio, that house three theater companies: New Century Theatre Company, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, and Washington Ensemble Theatre. When those companies aren’t using the spaces, they’re rentable at reasonable rates by other arts groups.

“The lack of affordable arts space was one of the issues we were trying to resolve with the building,” says Amy Allsopp, spokeswoman for the building’s nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing. “Capitol Hill is known for its arts community, but lots of arts organizations were getting pushed out because the rent was too high. The proposal we got from the three theaters, they were renting. They didn’t have their own space. Now they have a home.”

Recent theater productions have included absurdist sketch comedy (price: pay what you can) and a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well set “in modern-day France as if the French Revolution had never happened” (price: pay what you can).

With Seattle now embroiled in a sometimes-bitter debate over creating affordable housing, we may bestow upon 12th Ave Arts another award: Best Politically Relevant Development.

"You know what’s happening in Capitol Hill with rents—even this project is just not enough."

As we reported last year before it opened (“A Peek Inside Capitol Hill’s [Almost Finished] 12th Ave Art Project,” August 28, 2014), its housing units cost $883 for a one-bedroom and $1,191 for a two-bedroom. In contrast, at a nearby new market-rate building, a studio was renting for $1,650 a month, according to Capitol Hill Housing.

“You know what’s happening in Capitol Hill with rents—even this project is just not enough. This is one of the only crane operations in the neighborhood building something like this,” Capitol Hill Housing’s Michael Seiwerath told us at the time.

It’s an open question, however, how replicable 12th Ave Arts is—that is, whether it will be a model for creating lots more affordable housing. Some see the $4.6 million capital campaign—basically a fundraiser—as a barrier others may not be able to overcome. Development lobbyist Roger Valdez noted in our cover story about gentrification and the arts (“Art Vs. Tech Money,” April 29, 2015) that the building required “lots of money for lawyers and consultants and transaction costs—those units are very, very expensive.”

But the fact is that 12th Ave Arts is providing cheap space on the Hill, a phenomenal feat. It calls for a drink: Montana Mules all around.


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