Arts Interview with a Landlord
posted by January 17 at 12:43 PMon
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.