What's Going to Happen to Oddfellows Hall?
Three Real Estate Deals and What They Mean for Seattle Theater
Capitol Hill: Oddfellows Hall
The tenants of the brick building on the corner of Broadway and East Pine Street are nervous. For many of its 98 years, the Oddfellows Hall has been a cultural nucleus and point of convergence for community and arts organizations. But its owners are in the process of selling the property to a local developer and the clutch of nonprofits and small businesses that live here (including the Century Ballroom and Velocity Dance Center) are bracing for the worst. Even the optimistic tenants wonder if the building will be pulled down to make way for condos.
"We're worried about how this developer's economy will interface with the economy of the arts," says Kara O'Toole, director of Velocity. "I'm hoping he will be a champion of the building and its tenants."
The tenants don't even know who this developer is. The current owners—Paul Verba and David Angel—aren't saying much to anyone and declined to comment for this story.
Rumor around the building has it that the new owner is Ted Schroth, developer of the Trace Lofts on 12th Avenue and East Madison Street, a project hailed as a smart blend of renovation and preservation. And O'Toole and other tenants note hopefully that Verba has said he won't sell the Hall to anyone who will end its role as an arts and community center: He wants to sell without selling out.
Hallie Kuperman, who runs the Century Ballroom, remains skeptical: "This new guy might be a really nice guy, but if something happens and he has to dump the building, who knows who he'd dump it to?"
Then there're the economics. One developer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the property is selling for $8 million. "At that price," he adds, "it's clearly not going to be a home for low-budget arts organizations anymore."
So the tenants are nervous. Scott McCoubrey and his wife Leslie have owned the running store on the first floor since 1999. Last year, they invested $84,000 in a new addition with rooms for exercise equipment and massage. "That was the first time we'd leveraged our home," Scott says, smiling ruefully. "Before, we could've walked away from the business. Now we're waiting and hoping, just like everybody else."
The Central District: Washington Hall
A mile and a half south, in an office on the corner of 14th Avenue and East Fir Street, Charles Adams is sitting in his office in Washington Hall, waiting to talk to a developer. Adams is a lawyer, a wearer of suits and signet rings, and he presides over the Sons of Haiti, an African-American Masonic lodge. A few of the younger Sons, some with dreadlocks, sit quietly. They're waiting for Mark Blatter, a developer from Historic Seattle, to discuss the sale of Washington Hall.
The Hall is a dilapidated building with a dignified history. W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in its theater and Count Basie played there, as did Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and Jimi Hendrix.
It was built as a community center by a Danish brotherhood, with meeting halls and one-room apartments for new immigrants. In 1973, the Danes sold the building to the Sons of Haiti, who kept the building active, leasing to tenants like On the Boards. But the Sons have grown too small for Washington Hall and let it fall into disrepair. Now there are missing windows, pigeon shit on the inside, and, on the outside, soft green columns of moss and ferns growing up the brick toward the leaky roof. A few people still cling to their one-room apartments; an Ethiopian church rents the drafty theater.
"We want to make sure the place is saved," says Stephanie Ellis-Smith of the Central District Forum. Other developers have made offers to buy the property and raze the Hall for condos. But Ellis-Smith, Jim Kelly of 4Culture, and Blatter of Historic Seattle have come together to buy the building, restore it, and turn it into an arts and community center. They say the negotiations are going well.
Blatter says the Sons have "agreed to sell," but the deal isn't closed yet and he's reluctant to discuss the particulars. So is everyone else. "Without any papers signed, nobody says anything," Ellis-Smith says. "No one wants to mess this up."
Georgetown: Eagles Aerie #1
Patti West and her partner Amanda Slepski, who run Theater Off Jackson in the international district, have made an offer on an Eagles lodge in Georgetown. The Eagles have accepted. West and Slepski plan to convert the building on the corner of Michigan Street and Corson Avenue South into a cultural nucleus like the Oddfellows Hall with two theaters, a meeting hall, and a restaurant (run by a yet-unnamed person who, West says, "manages restaurants for a prominent local chef who has a lot of locations"). Theater Off Jackson will keep producing theater, but concentrate more on Asian-American work while the new space, called Exit 162, will be a home base for a coalition of companies, including Printer's Devil, Macha Monkey, Our American Theater Company, and Actor's Theater of Georgetown, a new company run by actor Hans Altweis and his wife, the actor and Stranger Genius Award-winner Amy Thone.
West and Slepski moved to Georgetown a year and a half ago and argue against the idea that it's too far away from central Seattle to be a viable arts destination. "First, we polled our current audience, and 98 percent of people who come to Theater Off Jackson drive there," West says. "Second, in a few years, many more people will already be living there. I'm betting on it."
All neighborhoods change, West is saying. The fall of one will be answered by the rise of others.