by Ben Adlin
Artists and other creatives who call Burien home are banding together to establish a state-certified creative district, a move they hope will reinforce the local arts scene, boost the economy, and curb displacement of the city’s creative class as the Seattle-area real estate market continues to boom.
Organizers are still in the initial stages of the project, but they envision a pedestrian-friendly space in the city’s heart that showcases an array of creative businesses. Picture grabbing an espresso, then strolling past art galleries, dance studios, architecture offices, or — well, just about any other kind of creative business you can imagine.
“It’s about everything,” said Andrew McMasters, one of the project’s co-chairs. “It’s about the gallery, it’s about the bakery, the brewery, or the wine shop. Anything that is creative. That’s the point of it.”
McMasters himself typifies the hard-to-define creative class he’s describing. An actor and co-founder of Jet City Improv, he now runs a business in Burien using theatrical techniques to improve communication and team-building.
While Burien already boasts an eclectic mix of artisans and independent businesses, organizers say a formal creative district would bring additional benefits, such as signage, grant money, and even the possibility of affordable housing or office space.
“I think it kind of formalizes it and hopefully draws other people to be part of it,” McMasters said. “There’s so much art that’s happening in Burien. How do we capture that?”
If the plans still sound a little nebulous, that’s by design. The project’s small steering committee so far has sketched out only a broad vision for the project. Now members are asking the community to help fill in the details.
A planning meeting on Zoom last month was open to anyone interested in the project and drew a mix of creatives and curious residents. Among them were a violinist, a painter, an arts curator, two school teachers, a county employee, a comedy writer, and someone who described themself as “just a citizen.”
Also present was Eric Dickman, artistic director for the Burien Actors Theatre (BAT), which has been without a venue since the Burien City Council voted to demolish the Burien Annex. “We are currently looking for a home,” Dickman said. “If you know of a city looking for a theater, hopefully Burien, let me know.”
Over the coming months, organizers will assemble a steering committee for the project, then draw out boundaries and other details of the district, such as what types of businesses will be part of the district. For now they’re in brainstorm mode, working to reach out as broadly as they can.
“If there’s more people that you know of that you think should know about this, please pass it along,” McMasters said at last month’s meeting. “The goal right now is to gather. Gather, gather, gather.”
Helping coordinate the planning process, which will eventually require a formal application to state officials, is the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce. Andrea Reay, the group’s president and CEO, said the idea was born last year after a member suggested that Burien might be a good fit for a creative district.
While the coronavirus pandemic has slowed planning, Reay admitted, it’s also underscored why the project is important.
“As we start looking towards what the new normal will be, ensuring that we have a vibrant cultural economy is huge,” she said in an interview. “We really want it to be a celebration of who we are as a community that strengthens the livability and quality of life … not just for businesses but for anyone who wants to live in or visit Burien.”
Reay described the project as an updated version of “smokestack chasing,” whereby municipal leaders would seek to woo large factories into setting up shop in a city in order to create jobs and boost neighboring businesses. “Economic development now is so much more about diversifying your marketplace,” she said. “No one wants to move their business to a community where there’s no arts and culture.”
There are, to be clear, various types of creative districts. Some are unofficial — a collection of quirky shops and public art — while others are sanctioned through a local government, like Seattle’s Arts and Cultural Districts, which include Uptown, Columbia City and Hillman City, the Central Area, and Capitol Hill. Burien plans to establish its creative district through a state-level program overseen by the Washington State Arts Commission, one that nearby cities of Edmonds and Issaquah have already taken advantage of.
While the certification does bring a few formal benefits — including limited grant money of up to $5,000, which is often used for signage and other physical improvements — the project is mostly about anchoring the artistic community.
“We look at this as a way for a community to promote itself and its unique identity,” Annette Roth, who manages the state’s creative districts program, said at last month’s meeting.
She urged organizers to reflect on what Burien’s space might look like: “What’s the special sauce? What’s the thing that would make your creative district unique and different?”
Certification could ultimately bring other benefits too. Reay at the Southside Chamber said, for example, that a formal creative district could help add legitimacy to grant proposals. Roth said it could aid expansion of affordable home and office space, helping prevent displacement of the area’s creative class.
“It’s really expensive to live here, and we want to make sure that the communities that are cool, and the people who make those communities cool … don’t get priced out,” she said at the meeting.
In a follow-up email to the Emerald, Roth clarified that the state arts commission “currently does not have funding to support capital projects of that size” but nevertheless “encourages Creative Districts to start thinking about incorporating those concepts early in the [planning] process.”
The Edmonds Creative District was the first to be certified under the state program, winning approval in December 2018. In a glowing endorsement published in the Seattle Times this summer, city leaders described the district as “the town’s downtown heart, in more ways than one.”
“It’s awakened a culture where creative businesses work to support each other — during normal times and during COVID-19 — through networking and innovation,” they wrote, pointing to new partnerships between artists and other small businesses as well as other cooperative business-building. “It’s a model that translates to communities everywhere.”
As organizers in Burien work to define what the city’s own district will look like, they’re hoping to get as much feedback as possible. “We don’t want to be prescriptive with what the identity of our creative district is,” said Reay. “We really want our community to come together and determine that.”
At last month’s meeting, Roth encouraged broad inclusion. “There are folks in the community you’re going to want to get input from, that it’s going to be really hard to get input from,” she said. In Issaquah, organizers installed displays in local libraries, providing pens and sticky notes for people to leave suggestions. “They got something like 700 to 800 responses,” Roth said.
Social distancing has made planning harder, but Reay says she’s still pleased with how the project — so far coordinated virtually — is progressing. She estimated the application process could take another six to 12 months.
“I’m confident that as a community we will work together to form what should be a successful application,” she said, “and that realistically that is going to take some time.”
Once the district materializes, organizers expect it to be a central piece of Burien’s future.
“This is the kind of work you read about in Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class,” said McMasters, referring to a book that argues that attracting creative residents helps build stronger, more prosperous communities. “The goal is, hopefully, if we can get some of this done, we can keep that arts community living here.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured Image: Burien Art Alley (by Alex Garland)
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