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Artists Ask Seattle For Building Code 'Flexibility' For Creative Spaces

Christine Armario
AP Photo
Underground music venue in Los Angeles. Seattle artists say similar venues here should be preserved.

How does a city make sure all performance spaces for musicians and artists are safe without quashing creativity? That's something Seattle is grappling with in light of the deadly fire in a warehouse in Oakland, California last month. The space was being used by a group of artists.Seattle artist S. Surface, who is associated with The Alice artist space in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, told a Seattle City Council Committee she knew four people who perished in the Oakland fire. And, Surface says, it feels personal for another reason as well.

When she was a teenager, she often spent time in what you might call underground or do-it-yourself artist venues.

“Personally, I would consider them to have literally saved my life on many accounts, including when I was very economically unstable, those were the folks that took me in and were able to help,” Surface said.

Surface sits on the Seattle Arts Commission, which sent a letter in late December to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray urging him to continue to support spaces for artists even as he works to improve safety in the venues. The concern,  Surface says, is that the city would react to the Oakland fire by just shutting down spaces that aren't in compliance with city codes. 

One suggestion is for the city to be flexible when it comes to code compliance.

“Allowing the Fire Marshall to engage with venues and have incremental compliance rather than only immediate full compliance,” said Surface.

She says it's not that artists are opposed to making the spaces safer. In fact, Surface says artists in the city have put together their own voluntary "harm reduction" list for underground and do-it-yourself spaces. It includes things like painting clear evacuation and exit routes.

For the city, though, being more flexible with code compliance could be problematic. Seattle City Councilman Mike O'Brien says he wants to support artists and creative spaces in the city, but has some reservations about how far the city should go in loosening regulations.

“You know, I don’t want to have anyone die in any building on my watch, but if we react with the pendulum swinging the other direction and just say shut everything down, that would be devastating to these communites.” he said.

While the Seattle City Council discusses what might be done to support artists, Mayor Ed Murray has directed his department heads to weigh in on what they can do to help preserve spaces for artists while ensuring the places are safe.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.