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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Interview with a Landlord

posted by on January 17 at 12:43 PM

It should’ve been a shitstorm, but it wasn’t.

Over one hundred people congregated at the Capitol Hill Arts Center last night (yesterday’s Slog post about it here) to talk about how artists are being squeezed out of Capitol Hill—and, sometimes, out of existence—by the city’s overheated real estate market.

All the combustibles were there: aggrieved artists and theater companies, Nick Licata (city council), Susan Shannon (Mayor’s Office of Economic Development), Michael Killoren (Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs), Charlie Rathbun (4Culture), and Ted Schroth, the commercial developer who just bought Oddfellows Hall.


(A brief history: Oddfellows has been an incubator for low-rent arts organizations for decades. Since its sale a few weeks ago to Schroth, current arts tenants—Velocity Dance Center, Freehold Theater, the Century Ballroom—have said the developer’s proposed rent increases will displace them. And that Oddfellows Hall will, most likely, become all offices and retail.)

Before the meeting began, artists huddled, muttering darkly and drinking beer.

Shitstorm, right? But no.

The discussion was occasionally heated, but predictable. Artists blamed the city (“give us money”), city officials gently chided the artists (“make a fuss, give us a reason”), and the landlord said nothing—nobody asked him. Nobody asked about Oddfellows Hall, or what anybody could do to keep developers from kicking artists out of buildings.

So, after the meeting ended, I asked Schroth.

“Of course arts are important,” he said. “A lot of people are angry that Oddfellows sold, but the owners wanted to sell and we paid ten times as much as they did for the building. Now I have a mortgage and partners to pay and I can’t operate at a loss.”

So you have to raise rents.

“Look, landlords are easy targets. I’ve got a bulls-eye on my chest. But there’s a new economic reality [for the Oddfellows Hall and, one gathers, for the city]. I don’t want to sound like a victim, because I’m not, but I can’t afford to subsidize the arts.”

So if we could wave a magic wand and invent a plan that would help you keep arts organizations in the building, what would it be?

“Government incentives to bridge the gap between what the artists can pay and the economic reality, property tax breaks like the ones for 501(c)3s, and more from the end user: Hallie [the proprietress of the Century Ballroom] charges $5 for people to dance—pretty cheap. If her patrons value the arts, they should pay $12 instead of $5.”

(Which recalls a quote from Lucky Jim: “If one man’s got ten buns and another’s got two, and a bun has got to be given up by one of them, then surely you take it from the man with ten buns.”)

It seemed like a depressing evening, but today Licata is all excited about it: “That was a tremendous turnout! The next step is to have something like that in city hall, in front of council members. Then the council needs to devote its resources, and maybe a new dedicated staff member, to help identify buildings that need to be saved and help broker the deals between artists and developers.”

This could, he said, be the beginning of something good.

RSS icon Comments


Maybe if Schroth hadn't issued that bullshit press release about wanting to support the arts without offering a single specific about what form that support might take people wouldn't be so quick to write him off. Basically he seems to be saying he wants to support the arts in a way that doesn't require him to expend any money or effort.

If millionaires like Schroth can't afford to subsidize the arts, they shouldn't try to spin it with PR bullshit that implies that they plan to do just that. But more importantly, if millionaire developers can't afford to subsidize the arts in the neighborhoods where they are asking people to move, then who can?

Schroth's answer: You, the taxpayer. And those who attend the arts. To continue with the Lucky Jim terminology, the man with two buns must give up a bun, because the man with ten gets to make the rules.

Posted by flamingbanjo | January 17, 2008 1:00 PM

i don't know, i can kind of see his point. it's really not the business of a landlord to think about the arts and artists that live in his/her space. if he wanted to protect the arts, he would've chosen a different field. i don't think he can be chastised for working in his chosen field and trying to get ahead.

which is not to say that it doesn't piss me off that he can't take it for the arts orgs that live in the building he's trying to make his living off of. but then, the arts are far more important to me than real estate, which is why i work in the arts. but, i don't think my cause needs to be his cause.

in other words, what's my point? i wish i would've gone to that meeting.

Posted by kim | January 17, 2008 1:09 PM

The artist community in this case is royally fucked. No landlord is going to give a shit about them and no, they are not going help them out on rent.

The artistic community in Seattle has laid quietly for too long for the city to really give a shit. Now, the artists are royally screwed. Oddfellows = high rent office space in 18 months. Deal with it. Maybe you should have bitched about this gentrification a few years ago when it may have mattered AND made a difference. You made you bed now sleep in it Cap Hill.

Posted by Reality Check | January 17, 2008 1:10 PM

Shroth was there? Dammit, I would have loved to have cornered him. He at least needs to answer for his assertion that he was going to try to keep the building as an arts focused facility (and then obviously not).

For my part, I will come to city council meetings about the arts now (in my abundant spare time between working full time and running a largish small arts organization.) They were right at the meeting, we need to make time to make our voices heard...

Posted by Andre | January 17, 2008 1:16 PM

There was no announcement about Schroth being there, or I'm certain there would have been a lot of questions (or at least comments) directed his way.

It's important to note that sale of Oddfellows wasn't the focus of this meeting, and I thought Matthew did a great job facilitating, keeping on track and not mired down as a shitstorm.

That said, I left feeling like TPTB are basically saying that the only way artists can or should expect to have space anywhere in the city is to partner with developers. While I think there are some great opportunities there and I hope serveral organizations are able to capitalize on the suggestion, the lack of interest on the part of the panel in addressing how to serve the much larger percentage of arts groups that don't have the infrastructure and/or resources to undertake such a partnership was distressing.

Susan Shannon was pretty useless. All she did was talk about how she just moved to Seattle, how successful the development here is, and her big point was to tell artists that they need to start fundraising. Yeah, thanks for that huge insight.

The ED of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center was there, and the partnership that created that space was touted as a beacon for how arts groups can survive. I think YCAC is great - but guess what? I don't know a single dance artist or group who has used their (beautiful looking) studio, because their rates are astronomical. So it's really not the solution one would hope.

It was a good starting point, but not an encouraging one.

Posted by genevieve | January 17, 2008 1:36 PM

Bashing the new owner isn't going to help. Also, the seller decided to sell, and he didn't give it away, so it's his fault, too for not deciding to subsidize the arts out of his own pocket. But bashing him won't help either.

What will help is doing what Licata said:

organizing and getting in front of the City Council to say we want a share of the millions in subsidies that have gone to other arts/sports/music/etnertainment.

If we can subsidize mllionaire sports teams and high-brow opera, why can't we subsidize the arts and dance organizations that give us real people a chance to dance and participate in arts at Oddfellows Hall?
The thousands of people going to Oddfellows hall every week for Velocity, Century and other things also bring dollars and tax revenues to the City. Just like all those expensive studies show regarding those $.5 billion sports stadiums.

The City should share the wealth and not give huge handouts to just a few establishment arts and sports venues -- it should include neighborhood arts venues, too.

That's a win-win for us, for arts, for economic development, for wise use of our tax dollars, for the arts groups with leases at Oddfellows Hall, for the vibrancy of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and every bar and restaurant within 15 blocks, for the new owner, for cultural diversity, AND for the citizens who participate in dance and arts at Oddfellows Hall.

Posted by Cleve | January 17, 2008 1:41 PM

I had to duck out to another meeting before things really got rolling, so I'm a little disappointed to hear that Schroth was there, and that apparently nobody else knew that. It's a little disingenuous to suggest there was a missed opportunity, when in fact, only a literal handful of the 100+ people in the room were even aware of it; I mean, I certainly wouldn't recognize him by-sight, and I seriously doubt any but a handful of the 100+ in attendance could have done so either.

Licata did make one very important point, however, that is, if artists want to be taken seriously as a constituency group in this City, they have to make their presence felt by TPTB, and that means organizing, and agitating.

Which is all well-and-good, but in order to do that, there has to be some mechanism in place to do the actual job of getting artists organized. Matthew mentioned that the Capitol Hill Arts Council is still alive, and that would certainly be a logical place to start the ball rolling. But if it does exist, it's been hiding in the bushes or something for the past few years, because I for one certainly haven't seen any sign of it, and I've been looking and asking about it for the past six months, and getting basically the same answer - from The CapHill Chamber, from 4 Culture, and from the City's Dept. of Neighborhoods - which was basically, "beats, me. Go ask somebody else."

So, who else is there to ask? Matthew?

Posted by COMTE | January 17, 2008 1:49 PM

There is no incentive for developers to partner with the arts community. Shroth is a good example. There are three arts organizations that are very keen on partnering with him. Most developers won't budge an inch if it hurts thier bottom line in the least.
Not that I think that developers should be helped out. Neither NYC or SF have figured out how to keep artists from been displaced wholesale. Efforts on these types of things have been too little, too late. It looks like Capitol Hill is another chapter in the book. We need to plan towards keeping developers from hedging artists out of the next Seattle 'arts hub'.

Posted by andre | January 17, 2008 1:49 PM

andre, despite NYC and SF not figuring it out, they still have an arts scene, correct? if you want to keep developers from edging artists out, artists need to figure out a way to pool their resources to do so. until then artists will just have to accept that the invisible hand is stronger than them.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 17, 2008 2:25 PM

Great interview with Schroth - thank you!

His position is far from unique. A lot of Seattle property speculators are getting caught with their pants down - from overmortgaged first-time flippers to wannabe moguls like Schroth.

Boo hoo. Schroth did not have to buy the Oddfellows Hall - nobody fucking did. The Oddfellows landlords would have just kept perking along sluggishly, leaving underpriced, poorly serviced rentals available for the arts - as usual.

Agitation has to be super quick now. Somebody needs to run a pro forma for Schroth to see if keeping arts orgs (with a little extra sweetener from the City if they can get it) can pencil out better in the long run than expensive renovation, then trying to get expensive retail or some such. That shit's drying up fast, and he needs to be make aware of the risk.

Need to agitate for that City sweetening soon. Fees had been pouring into City coffers from real estate transaction activity, but once the Council sees revised estimates based on projected losses from the slowdown, they'll be tightening their belts.

Posted by tomasyalba | January 17, 2008 2:31 PM

I know hundreds of artists in SF and NYC. None of them live in Manhatten anymore, or the Mission district. My point is that Capitol Hill is essentially too expensive to afford on the income that most artist make nowadays. Buying buildings in another area of town however may be an option. If the artists OWN the portions of a neighborhood that they create work in then they can't be bought out by developers right? We should have figured out how to buy the Oddfellows Hall years ago when it was still possible.

Posted by Andre | January 17, 2008 2:35 PM

exactly, unfortunately monetary acumen and artist ability don't go hand in hand.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | January 17, 2008 3:06 PM

the situation sucks but maybe the non-profits will get wise and band together and BUY a building to insure they have a home in the future. It's probably too late for anyone to buy anything on the Hill; too expensive, but the CD and Georgetown are still affordable. And if Schroth or any other landlord or developer wants to prove that they're a "good" guy and an arts supporter, they'd help out as co-partners and get a tax write-off and some good publicity.

Posted by michael strangeways | January 17, 2008 3:20 PM

Ms. Shannon wasn't useless. And I think a little perspective is crucial right now. She was the first one to mention the concept that we need to actually start owning art spaces.

My problem with that is that so many art organizations have such a hard time staying organized and civil with each other that having a board or group in charge of a highly valuable piece of property is a ticking time bomb. Instead of one guy selling to a developer you'll have an arts organization selling to a developer as soon as the bickering creates a rift and the taxes, maintenance, etc... start to be delinquent.

I think we should still try to engage the few individual or family owned property owners left to give them incentive not sell to the highest bidder.

A lot of them are already involved in the arts or have been supporters by default anyway. They're burnt out and I personally would get sick of being solicited day and night by every developer in the world.

Posted by diana | January 17, 2008 5:17 PM

#8: Sure they do. Sabey Corp. has adopted Theatre Off Jackson as its non-profit community group for 2008 - mentoring us through the purchase and renovation of an Eagles Lodge. Doing so supports their mission and somewhat mitigates the neighborhood's hard feelings about the demolition of the condemned Stock House.

#13: The new building is in Georgetown. Even in a more "affordable" neighborhood, it's ambitious for a small non-profit arts organization to purchase a space.

Obviously, we haven't demonstrated that we can raise those kinds of funds in the past - with a friendly landlord, we've been able to operate on a good deal of earned income. It's a catch-22. With our landlord (a PDA) seduced by market-rate rent, we are faced with either raising funds annually to afford triple what we're paying now, raising a one-time chunk of funds to own a home, or passing the rate increase on to the producers who rent our space.

Posted by Amanda | January 18, 2008 6:14 AM

He's right. Nothing in Seattle costs $5, and it's unreasonable to expect a landlord to subsidize below-market dancing or theater, especially individually. Ideal and appreciated, yes; reasonable, no.

Posted by Troy | January 18, 2008 12:00 PM

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