Young Waiters in Old Buildings
The other day I was standing outside of Oddfellows Café on Capitol Hill talking to a recent transplant from small-town Pennsylvania.
“You know the difference between my hometown and Seattle?” he asked. “The age of the waiters. Where I’m from, waiters are way over 60 years old. Here they’re all in their 20s.”
Seattle does not make many babies; kids move here. And they seem to be attracted to the neighborhoods with old buildings. You find them on Ballard Avenue, Airport Way, Pike/Pine, in Columbia City and Pioneer Square. They’re spending their time in old Ford assembly plants, breweries, vaudeville theatres and assayer’s offices.
This is no coincidence. As the urban activist Jane Jacobs said, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
Older buildings give you something to push against. They offer the constraint of spaces designed for other uses, thin walls and columns where you don’t want them. They lack ample parking, but are scaled to the pedestrian, not the driver looking for convenience. They have character, some lower rents and, if you’re lucky, high-ceilinged basements.
Unlike new construction burdened by heavy bank loans, old buildings are often owned debt-free, so landlords aren’t desperate to squeeze every penny out of tenants. In old buildings, storefronts are often small, so rents can be low—a great recipe for beginning a business. First and second floors become offices for small startup companies. Creative firms like World Famous start with film production, migrate to video and soon are running 3-D printers in 100-year-old lofts. Sole Repair opens an event space in an old shoe repair supply center, sharing the liquor license and kitchen with the restaurant next door. A pizza shop and bar is carved out of half of a storefront coffee bean storage room.
Right now, basements are in great demand. Instead of opening up second locations, business owners are doubling down underground. For the last 75 years, most Pike/Pine basements have been used for car storage. It’s still easy to find a Bentley or a gullwing Mercedes below ground, but that’s quickly changing. Within three blocks on Pike/Pine, subterranean versions of a boxing studio, a nightclub, bars and co-working office space have proliferated, like truffles, deliciously just under the top layer of soil. None of this is good for our vitamin D absorption, but it makes for a dense, dynamic neighborhood.
For the first time in 50 years, more workers young and old are rejecting the sameness of the suburbs for the character of old neighborhoods. They want to live amid history, art and authenticity. Where they can work, play and sleep in the same community without being a slave to the steering wheel.
But the appeal of old neighborhoods also leads to new construction. The charm of old Ballard Avenue fuels demand for new apartments nearby. There are probably seven cranes around Pike/Pine. And Wallingford’s Stone Way, long a home to pre-war light industrial buildings, is having its moment now. Expect more construction to follow.
Small arts venues like the Sunset Tavern or Annex Theatre give old neighborhoods character, but are the types of business most threatened by new construction and rising rents. When a neighborhood is (re)developing, those with the least resources—often artists and small arts organizations—are among the first to go. To preserve the soul of a neighborhood, we must preserve affordable arts space—or create it.
On Capitol Hill’s 12th Avenue is a surface parking lot that was long owned by the city and used for parking police cars. Gradually, the street around it has changed from a corridor to a destination. After years of conversations and the loss of a lot of affordable arts space in 2008, four neighborhood groups went to city hall and asked to repurpose the parking lot for higher use: permanent space for arts, affordable apartments, community groups and small businesses all under one roof. Police parking, they suggested, could go underground.
Last month, the 12th Avenue Arts building finally broke ground in that police lot. When it opens next year, it will give neighborhood artists and arts organizations what they need: flexible performance space that works for multiple users; quality black box theaters, with green rooms, dressing rooms and proper sound isolation. And perhaps most importantly, something that we consistently heard was lacking at small theatres across the city: clean bathrooms.
Seriously. Clean bathrooms are the sign a space is well managed; filthy bathrooms are a sign you’re in the Rendezvous in 1992. (Back then, the Belltown bar spread flattened Rainier half-rack boxes on the men’s room floor. Every few days the piss-soaked boxes were tossed and fresh ones put down. That was a new idea.)
Now the idea is to create something smaller theatre companies never get: quality performance space. In a neighborhood where the presenting arts organizations rent their space, here’s a rare case of new construction providing a new home, new partnerships and new ideas.
Just be clear on who is cleaning those new bathrooms.
Michael Seiwerath is the executive director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, which is leading the Capital Campaign for the 12th Avenue Arts project. He chairs the Seattle Arts Commission’s Facilities and Economic Development Committee.