These Seattle artists had to think outside the box to survive the city’s pricey real estate market
Georgetown is only five miles south of downtown Seattle, but it feels like another city. Instead of gleaming skyscrapers, this is a neighborhood of modest wood homes and low-slung warehouses that shudder every time a plane roars away from nearby Boeing Field. Michigan Avenue slices through the community, a path for the trucks that rumble between the interstate and the factories on East Marginal Way.
On an innocuous side street the industrial vibe suddenly disappears. Here, there's a row of warehouses decorated with quirky metal sculptures and giant golden eggs. Shipping containers kitted out with French doors sit in a semi circle near a craft brewery.
Welcome to Equinox, home to more than 100 artists and artisans working in a variety of media, from printmaking to dance. Seattle is home to other artist communities, but according to the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, Equinox is the only one that houses such a diversity of artists.
Another thing sets Equinox apart: its business model. Unlike most other shared studio buildings, Equinox operates a bit like a residential co-op; the rent the tenants pay goes toward shares in the company that owns and operates the four-warehouse complex. The idea: to provide affordable, stable art studios and rehearsal spaces in an increasingly unaffordable real estate market.
This community is the brainchild of sculptor Sam Farrazaino.
The Cleveland native came to Seattle more than 20 years ago, drawn by the city’s reputation as an arts mecca. Farrazaino needed a large studio where he could work with metal. “Mostly places that I could make a lot of noise and set shit on fire,” he says.
Even then, the year before Jeff Bezos started Amazon, finding an affordable studio space was difficult. Farrazaino knew he’d get a better deal if he could subdivide a large space into a number of smaller studios. Farrazaino found a battered warehouse in Pioneer Square, and coaxed a group of his fellow artists to split the rent. He called this community Equinox Gallery and Theater.
The 2001 Nisqually earthquake damaged the building, but the artists hung on for a few years. The City finally threw them out to make way for the Alaskan Way Viaduct demolition. Farrazaino moved from space to space before he finally landed in Georgetown in 2006.
On a recent sunny morning, Farrazaino leads the way into a 30,000 square foot blue warehouse, the original building in what Farrazaino calls his creative industrial complex. Nearly 80 years ago, this warehouse housed a company that made bombsights, the crosshairs pilots look through when dropping bombs from airplanes.
"This had been for sale for a year and a half, but hadn’t gotten anywhere," Farrazaino explains. "I said 'Hey, I can’t buy it today, but if you lease it to me, I’ll buy it within five years."
Farrazaino then recreated his Pioneer Square enclave, locating artists who would split the space and the rent. He saved enough to buy the warehouse in 2011. Three years later, he leased an adjacent warehouse, and in 2015 he secured a loan to purchase two buildings across the street. More than 100 tenants now lease spaces that range from a 3,000-square-foot metal fabrication shop to two small theaters.
Artists and warehouses make good partners. The buildings are big, and conducive to mess, noise and other non-traditional uses. But Seattle’s booming economy has made warehouses an increasingly hot commodity.
According to a 2016 study by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, warehouse and other small commercial building vacancies are at an all-time low, under 2 percent. Even if businesses can find a vacant building, prices are up at least 4 percent in the past couple of years. Artists now must compete for these buildings against other small businesses and light manufacturers, and they’re not usually the highest bidders.
This has pushed artists and other small businesses into neighborhoods like Georgetown.
Matthew Richter, cultural spaces liaison for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture, says city officials and private developers are aware of the scarcity of artist workspace. He and his staff have created an online service that matches artists with available studios, rehearsal, and performance space. The city also is working with developers to help them create cultural spaces in new building projects. But Richter also credits artists like Farrazaino with developing creative solutions.
Farrazaino’s business model at Equinox business isn’t likely to attract more traditional real estate developers, says University of Washington finance expert Tracey Seslun. It doesn’t make good business sense. “He’s giving up a lot in the future in terms of his own profits,” she says.
But Farrazaino isn’t looking for profits. His goal is to create a replicable model for other artists who want to secure stable workspaces.
“I will tell anybody all of the secrets,” says Farrazaino. “Let me hold your hand and help you do it.”