3 ways cities can save cultural spaces

A performance for families at the Seattle club Neumos. The city is taking a number of steps to protect cultural institutions from rising rents as Seattle undergoes a development boom. (Mat Hayward/Shuttesrtock)

SEATTLE — In London, night owls bemoan the loss of 50 percent of the city’s nightclubs. In Hong Kong, bibliophiles fret about the city’s disappearing bookstores. And in New York, theatre lovers worry about “off-Broadway” playhouses succumbing to rising rents.

As booming cities around the world grow more and more expensive, cultural establishments like these — as well as live music venues, dance studios and art galleries — are facing a squeeze. That’s certainly the case in Seattle, the fastest growing big city in the U. S., where the ever-growing headquarters of Amazon.com and investment from mainland China are pushing up rents and making it harder for cultural venues to survive.

For the city that gave the world grunge music and inspired sci-fi writers such as Neal Stephenson and Octavia Butler, this is not acceptable. That’s why the local government here has created a position tasked specifically with maintaining Seattle’s cultural vibrancy.

That job is held by Matthew Richter. Based out of the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, Richter’s official title is Seattle’s Cultural Space Liaison — according to him, no other city in the U. S. has such a position.

But cities around the world can benefit from the latest work emanating from Richter’s office. A report released in May puts forward 30 ideas for creating, activating and preserving cultural spaces. While designed with an eye toward Seattle, ideas that help cultural institutions survive redevelopment pressure can work anywhere.

“You might tweak it to meet your local needs,” Richter said in an interview with Citiscope. “But more and more [local ideas are] going to be applicable around the country and around the world.”

Above all, Richter insisted that the report should serve as a reminder to keep culture in the centre of broader conversations about urban growth and inclusion. “These silos in which planning offices and arts and culture offices tend to live in cities — they have to connect,” he said. Richter said it’s important to integrate cultural planning into broader decisions about zoning, density and urban planning.

Here are three of the most urgent recommendations from the report that Richter advises any city hoping to keep its culture alive as it grows.

1. Use certification tools for cultural protection

Just as the construction industry has tools to certify “green” buildings, for example, cultural advocates should have their own certification tools, Richter said. Certifying buildings as having a cultural use could allow for stronger protections from demolition or eviction.  Existing designations, such as historic registries, are not up to the task — they don’t protect, say, a cherished record store located in a building without historic character.

What’s more, the report argues, practitioners should have certifications available to them. Just as architects, real estate developers and land use lawyers can qualify for “green” building professional status, the same cast of people that affect the built environment of the city could be certified as sensitive stewards of cultural spaces.

[See: Lessons from Amsterdam’s ‘night mayor’]

Cities can help this cause by designating cultural districts, which Seattle has done with three neighbourhoods thus far, making them eligible for city grants. The cultural district designation is like a cultural designation for an entire neighbourhood, which can help strengthen the case for maintaining or increasing cultural uses. It also can serve as a public signal to the real estate industry that they should be thinking about cultural uses if developing in that neighbourhood.

2. Create a city-owned real estate holding company

Many cultural institutions lease, rather than own, their buildings. This makes them vulnerable to rising rents. Only the most well-established organizations have the capacity to buy space — and when they do, it is likely to be the only big capital project in the organization’s lifetime.

This lack of real estate experience leaves cultural organizations at a comparative disadvantage against private developers eager to build lucrative housing and retail. That’s where a public real estate company could enter the picture. Such a body would do deals on behalf of cultural organizations by leveraging the municipal government’s bonding capacity. It would develop, own and lease large amounts of cultural space and serve as a landlord whose goal is to support cultural organizations.

In Seattle, such entities exist under state law. They’re called “public development authorities”; one of them helps preserve and maintain the city’s historic Pike Place Market. The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture is attempting to try something similar when it moves from the city’s Municipal Tower to the currently vacant third floor of a vintage train station, where it will turn over 1,200 square metres for use as community cultural space.

3. Move the arts ‘upstream’ in the development process

Oftentimes, neighbours don’t learn of a real estate developer’s intentions until after the company has made its first enquiries with City Hall. Even at that early stage, it can be almost too late to influence the project.

One idea to counter this is to make cultural impact and potential cultural uses part of the conversation as soon as a developer submits a pre-application. Getting further “upstream” in the development approval process can get a cultural component into the conversation while ideas are still on the drawing board.

[See: Detroit looks to Berlin to reclaim title of ‘Techno City’]

Advocates have a strong case to make to developers. According to data assembled by the City of Seattle and a private consultant, there are many naturally occurring benefits of having a cultural space in a building.

A commercial block with a cultural space — as compared to an equivalent block without cultural space — is twice as likely to have permits for outdoor dining on the sidewalk, and three times as likely to have photos uploaded to Flickr. These are indications of more patrons, and thus more revenue, for the businesses on that block. What’s more, the hours that businesses are open extend further into the evenings and deeper into the weekends. Occupancy rates are higher and lease-up speeds are faster.

Developers may not know it intuitively, but embedding culture from the get-go may help them as much as it does everyone else.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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