Seattle Is Too Expensive For Artists Who Help It Boom

Jan 4, 2016

When Chris Lomba and his partners decided to open a music repair shop, they chose a storefront near the corner of Pike and Broadway on the edge of Seattle's Pike/Pine corridor.

"I've always liked the neighborhood," says Lomba. "Throw a rock and you're gonna hit a musician!"

But last summer, just three years opening High Voltage Music Store, the owners abruptly called it quits. With the rising rents of Seattle’s current boom, many of their customers couldn't afford to stay in the neighborhood, and a key rehearsal space that attracted musicians was lost to redevelopment.

Region Of Boom: Explore A Map Of What’s Happening In Your Area

South Lake Union may be ground zero for all the new construction, but Capitol Hill’s Pike-Pine corridor isn’t far behind.

The neighborhood, just a short walk uphill from South Lake Union’s tech giants, has attracted hundreds of new residents from that work force. It bustles with new clubs, restaurants and an active night life scene.

But the rising cost of living there has made it hard on musicians and the businesses that support them.

'The Wave Has Crashed'
The edge of Seattle's Pike/Pine corridor. Can the struggling artist afford to live in this neighborhood?
Credit KUOW photo/Marcie Sillman

Matthew Richter tracks the rise, and fall, of cultural spaces for Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture. He's compiled a database of more than 800 commercial and non-commercial arts spaces citywide; 40 are on Capitol Hill.

Although Richter doesn't have hard data on how many cultural spaces have fallen victim to new development, he says it has hit many neighborhoods like a tidal wave.

"There are neighborhoods where the wave has crashed, neighborhoods where the wave is actively crashing, and neighborhoods where you can see the wave coming," Richter explains.

"In Pike/Pine, I think, the wave has crashed and the undertow is in the process of pulling affordability and the cultural footprint out of the neighborhood."

In November 2014, the Seattle City Council created a program to protect cultural and arts neighborhoods. They crowned Capitol Hill as Seattle's first official Arts District. In late 2015, the Central Area became the second Cultural District in the city.

Unfortunately, that designation doesn't come with much legal protection against new development. Right now the city provides what Richter calls "tools" to help support artists and cultural spaces. Most involve branding: help with banners, street signage and the like.

'Give Them A Road Map!'

Seattle's new cultural district designation made way for this large mural on a building in the Pike/Pine corridor.
Credit KUOW photo/Marcie Sillman

Commercial developer Kevin Daniels says the cultural district designation is more of a political than a  practical statement. "Designating something a cultural resource is one thing, but not providing incentives, financial backing or support doesn't accomplish much," he says.

Daniels recognizes the value of arts and cultural resources in the region. Many of his company's projects involved the preservation of historical cultural amenities, or the creation of new ones. Right now he's redeveloping downtown Seattle's historic First Methodist Church into a performance hall topped by a high-rise hotel and office tower.

Daniels would like the arts/culture district designation to come with specific incentives like those that follow redevelopment of historic buildings. He also says the city should provide clear guidelines for what it wants in the new cultural districts: performance venues, galleries or artists' live/work spaces.

"Give them a road map!" Daniels stresses.

Matthew Richter says those guidelines will come at some point. For now, he has a message for commercial developers: Artists and arts organizations are the geese that lay the golden eggs in Seattle neighborhoods. Richter says they bring the vibrancy, vitality and livability that attracted new development in the first place.

"Improve the neighborhoods. Make them denser," he says. But Richter also has a warning: "Don't mess with the goose! If you mess with the goose, it's all over."

More Fans, More Musicians

Guitars line walls of Chris Lomba's backyard shop in north Seattle. He says he'll open a retail shop -- the question is where.
Credit KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter

Chris Lomba says that what ultimately killed High Voltage was the demise of the Chop House, a nearby building that once housed a warren of rehearsal studios for rock bands. Now the Chop House is called Chop House Row, housing hip restaurants, vendors and a private club.

The musicians who once rehearsed there had to find new space in other parts of town. The writing was on the wall for High Voltage: pre-emptively close or wait for business to trickle away.

Lomba still makes his living repairing instruments. But these days he operates out of a shed in the back yard of the North Seattle house he shares with his father. The shed is filled to the rafters with the guitars and amps that Lomba and his new partner, Tannar Brewer, collect every week from a Capitol Hill business that serves as a drop-off point.

For Lomba, this shed is just a stop-gap. “As much as I like working at home, 10 steps away, I really do like to be more in the public,” he says.

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He vows to reopen a retail shop.

But most likely that won’t be in the Pike/Pine corridor. Development continues at a rapid clip there. There’s no evidence that real estate prices will drop, and that means the musicians and bohemians who used to populate the area will probably continue to move out.

But Lomba sees a possible silver lining in all the changes. More young residents with money in their pockets could mean new audiences for live music on Capitol Hill and all over Seattle.

"There's certain an opportunity for more fans, I suppose," Lomba says. "More consumers of art and music."

Where there are more fans, there will be more musicians. And just possibly, more customers for Lomba's instrument repair business.

Region of Boom: In a new project, KUOW examines what we give up for growth – and what we get in return.

The corner shop on this row of storefronts once housed Capitol Hill's High Voltage Music. At the far end of the block is the Comet Tavern.
Credit KUOW Photo/Marcie Sillman