The Artists Have Landed: Artspace Mt.Baker Has a “Grand” Opening

by Curran Knox

Mt Baker Art Lofts
Younger residents play at Artspace Mt. Baker’s “Chalk Walk.”

On October 1st 2014, individuals gathered in droves underneath the Mount Baker Light rail station in a space referred to as the Plaza, for the Artspace Mount Baker Lofts grand opening to the public. The seemingly ordinary space that is typically rushed by commuters, students and families had been transformed into an outdoor amphitheater. Rows and rows of seating visitors and residents faced the honorary stage while many more stood in bunches peering with curiosity. What exactly is Artspace and what does it mean for the neighborhood? “It encompasses everything that we stand for,” Judith Olson from Quantum Real Estate, one of the major funders for the project, expressed.

Artspace works to provide low income artists, their families and arts organizations with affordable and sustainable places to live and work. They do this with the hopes that the artists and arts organizations plant roots within the community, and thus become an inseparable force of revitalization and growth.

The Open House for the new Mt. Baker Lofts project provided visitors with the opportunity to meet the residents and to view the lofts, as well as the organizations that occupy the commercial spaces. It also provided residents with the opportunity to feature their work. Residents overwhelmingly express love for the project and their new residences, ranging in price from $428-1,281 per unit. Some of the residents have grown up in South Seattle while others are new to the area. Robert, a local who lives on the hillside just behind Mt. Baker lofts expressed concern about the whether or not Artspace is supporting the life and community that already exist in the neighborhood. Robert, who has seen many of his tenants move south to Renton because they could no longer afford rent, expressed frustration with revitalizing a neighborhood that cannot support its tenants. Two of his housemates did not make the cut after applying to live in the Mt. Baker Lofts.

Artspace has shown a deliberate investment into building partnerships with community based organizations and artist in the area. James Wong from the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) feels strongly that Artspace truly cares about cultivating the history and cultural identity of the neighborhood, referring to their efforts as “preserving the culture, language, and richness here,” as VFA prepares to launch the first Vietnamese-English bilingual preschool in Seattle out of the commercial space. A capoeira studio and a center that supports artist with disabilities have moved into two of the commercial spaces as well. Tobya Art Gallery, owned and operated by Admassu Guessese, opened to feature African artists. Urban Wilderness Works, an organization that has been in operation for 10 years out of South Seattle has also moved in, sharing a commercial space with Washington Trail Association, operating a gear lending library for leaders working with groups. These are only a few of the organizations that now call Mt Baker lofts home.

While Artspace does receive 10-15 percent of their funding from private funders, public funding makes up 75-80 percent of their funding stream, making Artspace residences quite sustainable. The public funding that each project receives is a combination of resources allocated for transit-oriented or cultural preservation real estate development, as well as Tax Credits reserved for Low Income Housing and also Historic Preservation. Other funders for this project include Impact Capitol, Washington Community Reinvestment Association (WCRA), The Department of Housing Trust Fund, and 4Culture. Representatives from all of the major funders shared some remarks on their willingness and excitement to continue funding the project. Since its inception in 1979, Artspace has opened the doors 36 artist residence projects and 11 more are in development. This does not include the 223 consulting projects that they have carried out. This particular residence is a transit-oriented space with no allocated parking associated with the building.

Artspace started with the intention to address gentrification in neighborhoods around the country. They strategized a way to keep artists in the district, moving from the approach of barriers, to seeing the infinite creative and cultural wealth. As a result, Artspace experiences artists as community builders, creators, and entrepreneurs.

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