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Messenger Archives - April 2010

CLARK HUMPHREY has a partial solution to the housing glut
Bring Back the Artists


You may have read the recent obits for TV legend Fess Parker. The stories told how the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett, in which Parker starred, was kiddie TV’s second big merchandising hit (following the trail blazed by Howdy Doody), and how it was the first true hit show for the then-struggling ABC network.

But you probably don’t know the Belltown connection to Crockett-mania. Those tens of thousands of official Davy Crockett fur hats were sewn together in the Alaska-Arctic Furs factory at 66 Bell. That was actually the building’s second major use (at least). It was originally built as a commercial laundry, before the fur people took it over.

As changing tastes gradually put furs out of fashion, 66 Bell was divvied up into art-loft spaces, a live theater space, and other bohemian uses. The Messenger’s own Elaine Bonow started her Belltown Ballet and Conditioning Studio in there. A lot of creativity and partying and networking took place under those high ceilings.

During the early years of the housing bubble, the whole structure was turned into condos. But at least it’s still standing. Most of Belltown’s other artist spaces from the 1980s and 1990s were just torn down. (Again: For the purposes of this discussion, architectural offices are NOT “artist spaces.”)

Now that great bubble has burst. There’s a vast surplus of housing units on the market, here and around the country. As much as talk radio will rant against it, we could very well see a Federal bailout of the mortgage mess. It may involve the Feds taking a bunch of housing units off the commercial market. The purpose of that would be to reduce the current glut that’s holding prices down, leaving homeowners “underwater” and home builders unable to make back their costs.

What can society do with all this built space? (Beyond helping out those humans who currently lack housing, that is.) Some units could be converted into offices for government agencies, but that would just exacerbate the office-space glut. Some suburban and exurban tracts could be razed and returned to nature, or turned into small farm plots. Cleared but unbuilt in-city lots could become temporary parks, P-patches, and other public spaces. But what to do with the already built but unsalable condos, apartments, and townhome rows?

I say: Bring the artists back.

Lease some of these units to organizations like Artist Trust or the Tashiro Kaplan Building people. They, in turn, could rent them out to artists and arts groups on a year-to-year basis, at less-than-market rates, for as long as the glut lasts.

Alternately, developers and brokers could act on their own to rent their excess units out as artist live-work spaces. Doing this would keep these units both occupied and off the commercial market.

Then, when economic conditions improve, or when Americans finally breed enough to occupy all the existing housing stock, the industry can go back to kicking the artists out while simultaneously promising home buyers that they’re moving into the active heart of a way-happening cultural neighborhood.

By the way: Present occupants of these buildings should not worry about having wild bohemian neighbors. Unlike the “trustafarian” stereotype, most real artists are hard-working, motivated entrepreneurs. As long as there are windows or ventilation to take paint fumes away, and as long as in-house noise ordinances are enforced, they’ll surely prove to enhance the overall milieu of any low, medium, or high rise edifice. They may even make it prettier, inside and out.

Wouldn’t you like a gym room all done up in pixel-art tiles, or a laundry room festooned with faux-Raphaelite frescos?

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