That’s the roof of the Frye Art Museum on the lower right, and the proposed development across the street, where a parking lot is now. Perkins+Will

In January, the Frye Art Museum came out with the news that it's working on a partnership to sell its parking lot to build two 33-story towers full of apartments that will be as expensive as the skyrocketing market will bear.

People are noticing, they're objecting, and they're asking questions, because people trust the Frye. Its admission is free to all, and so is its parking (for now). Its exhibitions have boldly addressed issues of economic inequality, displacement, race, and the housing crisis in Seattle. Founder Charles Frye, the son of German immigrants and a meatpacker by trade, didn't see an oil painting until he was 35 years old. His tastes ran to the gilded and European, but he did stipulate that his museum be forever free of charge, making it the only art museum in the city where no one is economically excluded.

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Plenty of museums are in the real-estate game; the Frye is not unusual. It's sitting on a parking lot in a prime central location in the middle of a booming market, and its neighborhood, while still quiet today, is already zoned for high-rises that will inevitably arrive. Of course the Frye would develop now. But its ethos also suggests that it might be more intentional about it than, say, the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, which sold its air rights for millions to builders of super-luxury condos, or Seattle Art Museum, which financed its expansion by jumping into bed with Washington Mutual, the doomed financial giant that became notorious as a key player in the subprime scam that brought the US economy to a standstill in 2008.

The problem is not that they're doing it—nothing can stop the flow of money inundating this city, or the development boom that's rolling toward First Hill. The problem is the way they're considering doing it.

In introducing the idea, David Buck, the attorney who is also a trustee on the board of the museum, gave what in another city or another time might have been a promising description of what is to come. Buck said the Frye selected the developer, Westbank Corp. of Vancouver, BC, because it creates "state of the art, extraordinary buildings, sustainable, artsy, a lot of attention to design."

Don't worry, in other words, it's not going to be another of those ugly buildings.

Well, yes, good, thank you (although in a rational world that should be a given when the codeveloper is an art museum).

But the fact is that the Frye and Westbank are building a big chunk of high-end housing during "a housing affordability crisis unlike any Seattle has experienced since the Second World War," as described by Mayor Ed Murray, a politician not known for passionate hyperbole. "Crisis" is the generally accepted term, not a fringe idea. More and more, our city is a place affordable only for the affluent. Attractive design is not unimportant or mutually exclusive, but it has certainly dropped on the priorities list.

Yet the Frye is discussing its project as though it were happening in a neutral environment. As a bonus, the Frye says, Westbank is known for incorporating public art into its buildings and hopes to do that here. There will also be "public open space on the project site" to be shared by the museum and the towers, Buck said. The towers would house retail and restaurants on the ground floor.

In its land-use application for the city, the Frye describes the towers as an "extension" of the museum, which also suggests the museum will be an extension of the towers, too. There will be a "strong" relationship between the museum and the towers "physically and operationally." They will be, it is implied, simpatico.

The deal is not yet inked. This means there is still time to think hard about whether Seattle's free museum is buying into a false notion of "public" space and "public" art, and squandering the leverage it could be using to create something more meaningful for art and the city.

Better ideas are still possible.

"I'm haunted by the Frye Art Museum's decision to sell its parking lot to a developer that will build two 33-story luxury ('market-rate') apartment towers," Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Seattle-based author of The End of San Francisco, wrote on Facebook. She continued: "It appears that the Frye has chosen a developer that believes in public art—but, what about public housing? Public art without public housing is just a distraction from structural oppression."

Bernstein Sycamore's comments were some of the first to emerge after the museum's surprise announcement.

A volunteer Frye guide, Virginia Rankin, was concerned that the Frye would become more corporate in its exhibitions given its new "extension." She was also concerned for the neighborhood. She called the Catholic church across the street to see if they knew about the development and to drum up support for vigorous debate. The church serves free dinner to all comers five days a week, and its clients can often be found lining up on the sidewalk throughout the afternoon to wait. Rankin worried, "The 450 luxury tower residences are lauded as providing a ready-made audience for museum exhibits, an audience that might desire very different sorts of exhibits." The worker Rankin talked to at the church hadn't heard anything about the development, but "my winning argument with her was that Pope Francis would be on my side." (The worker agreed, Rankin said, to carry her message to the archbishop.)

I thought I'd call some of the artists and thinkers the Frye itself has commissioned to see what they think of the development deal as it's proposed. They all had "more questions than answers," as C. Davida Ingram put it.

Ahamefule Oluo, the Seattle-based performer/composer/comic whose work has been exploding nationally and who's been shown at the Frye, said it's not as if everyone who goes to the Frye is down-and-out, or that it's a squatter's warehouse or something—it is, after all, an art museum, where the cost of the frames alone would probably feed a family for a year. It's just that he's been taken aback to discover who does go to the Frye.

"Sometimes I'll be on a bus and I'll see a... Juggalo-lookin' dude, the dude I least expect, some real scruffy folks, and they'll come over to me and say, 'I saw your thing at the Frye,'" Oluo explained. "I don't know if this development will make that happen less." The biggest arts institutions "need an infusion of the people," not a greater feeling of exclusivity. "And that's going to be harder to get with projects like this. You start to not be able to do certain things when you're catering to a different clientele. The Frye has always been the one museum that everybody can go to."

The Frye will still be free. I asked Oluo whether that, in itself, wasn't idealistic already in a world of crass capitalism. "I don't think we have a problem with the major arts organizations in Seattle being too idealistic," he laughed.

Making things more complicated, the Frye's board of trustees is working on this deal and one other very big-picture task at the moment: hiring a new director.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker is leaving in October after seven years on the job, and both Birnie Danzker and the board have insisted publicly that they're happily, mutually parting ways. But the fact that the "director that deeply cares about social issues is leaving" at the same time that the board is working on a high-end development deal makes this "a weird time" for the Frye, said artist Rodrigo Valenzuela.

Valenzuela had a solo exhibition at the Frye in 2015, of photography, installation, and videos depicting low-wage workers and the aftereffects of the building boom in Seattle; it was titled Future Ruins. Valenzuela asked whether the Frye could look to creative models of housing and art projects, like Project Row Houses in Houston, which provides housing for single mothers and for artist projects. Could Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses director, advise the Frye, he wondered?

Buster Simpson is the rabble-rousing, legendary Seattle artist who got naked and used a sling to fling chunks of limestone carved with the word "PURGE" at the towering symbols of American greed, the Twin Towers, in the 1980s. He's the man who occupied trees, built sculpture to be demolished inside buildings that were being torn down, and dug public toilets right into the ground on the streets during the period in the 1970s and 1980s when Seattle's Belltown was becoming upscale condo-land.

The Frye is the museum where Simpson had his career retrospective in 2013.

Now, he said, the Frye needs to be "responsible." It should fight to stop the monoculture that's swallowed so many other Seattle neighborhoods from gobbling its own. To be true to itself, the Frye—"the client in control"—must "mimic the creative community it serves by mentoring the housing market through creative economic strategies."

Here's an example of a creative economic strategy involving an art center and a private developer: A developer in Vancouver, BC, Westbank's home, agreed to pay its required fee for affordable housing to the city as well as a fee to the art center in lieu of providing public "amenities" of the sort that the Frye and Westbank are floating in early designs. The Frye and Westbank are proposing parklets and large abstract sculptures in glass-box lobbies. As CBC News reported—in a story headlined "Vancouver's Western Front, critical of developers, gets $1.5m from developers"—Western Front used that money to buy its building, securing its future. The Frye doesn't need a building. But maybe it needs to endow a residency, or a chunk of low-income artist housing.

For this whole year, the New Foundation Seattle is sponsoring Housing Is a Human Right, a series of exhibitions and discussions in Pioneer Square, at Seattle Art Museum, at the University of Washington, and at the Central Library about Seattle's housing crisis, spurred by the work of Brooklyn artist Martha Rosler.

In Seattle, in 2016, arts groups are constantly coming up against these questions: How much good can we do in the world? How much good do we have to do? And why are we the targets of these questions in the first place?

"Seattle overall is on some bullshit, so what do you do when you're in the middle of it?" asked Ishmael Butler, the artist known for his groups Shabazz Palaces, the Black Constellation, and Digable Planets. "Can you really stop the tide or do you have to figure out the best way to surf on it and do something in the future? All these other buildings that were going up, I mean, where were these activists who are protesting this now? Where were they then?"

The truth is that the Frye is doing exactly what's expected of it.

"This is such a great example of what's happening all across the city," said Kelly Rider, policy director at Seattle's Housing Development Consortium, a think tank and advocate for housing across the economic spectrum.

If the Frye/Westbank project goes forward as planned, the developer will be required, as any developer would, to pay into Seattle's affordable housing fund in order to get the extra height it wants over the zoning requirements. This is part of a program called "incentive zoning" that's been in effect for a decade.

The Frye says it will ask the city to earmark that money for First Hill, so as to keep economic diversity in the neighborhood.

Because the proposed towers would rise 33 stories—two stories taller than the Rainier Tower in central downtown, four shorter than Amazon Tower I in South Lake Union—they'd exceed zoning limits by "something on the order of 250,000" extra square feet, according to very preliminary estimates from Todd Burley, spokesman for the city's Office of Housing.

In exchange for that additional square footage, the developer is required by law to give something in return.

For a project like this, the developer can include a certain amount of affordable housing on its own site, or it can pay cash to the city's affordable housing fund.

Westbank does not plan to include affordable housing in the towers. The average rent in the city today has mushroomed to $1,800, according to Burley. It's far higher for a unit built since 2010 in the First Hill/downtown/Belltown area today: $2,315, according to figures from research firm Dupre + Scott, provided by the Office of Housing.

Westbank, going the cash route, would owe about $3.78 million. But the developer has a further option for contributing less to affordable housing: Up to 40 percent of the money can be spent instead by the developer on the towers' "open space" amenities.

From early designs, that looks like the proposed plan, though the Office of Housing does not yet have an application for the towers.

How "public" those benefits are is debatable; take a walk through Amazon's campus, where pristine plazas feel, and are, different in kind from the steps of City Hall or a public park.

"When we look at the project, the best that we're going to be able to do is control the housing apartments, the apartments that we're going to be able to buy back," said Buck of the Frye, who through several back-and-forths was patient and responsive.

What he's talking about is the way this deal is structured. The Frye will sell its parking lot to Westbank, which will build the high-rises. Then the Frye will buy back a certain number of apartments from Westbank in order to rent those out. It will be a new stream of revenue for the Frye.

What Buck is saying is that the Frye can't impose conditions on Westbank. As far as its own units, he postpones any specific discussion or commitment: "It will be a policy decision for our board to make about whether we will allocate any of [our units] to affordable housing. If we were to do that, it would probably be artist housing. But that is a decision that we probably would make in 2 to 3 years."

He was very clear: Affordable housing is "not our core mission."

(From the museum's website, the mission: "The Frye Art Museum is a living legacy of visionary patronage and civic responsibility, committed to artistic inquiry and a rich visitor experience.")

Building on a parking lot where you're not tearing down existing housing "is absolutely the right thing to do," said Cary Moon, a prominent Seattle urban designer.

She was invited to the Frye in November to lead a discussion on "shared prosperity" called "Future Seattle: A People's Forum."

Moon thinks it's great that a nonprofit museum with a mandate to serve the community free of charge is flexing muscle as an active player in the development of Seattle's core.

"But I'm wondering why they are not trying harder to develop affordable housing," she said. "They're so kick-ass about civic responsibility in the way they operate their museum—moving beyond the spirit of Eurocentric art, being more inclusive, showcasing different voices—I don't know why they think they can't take this on... We have a crisis in our city, and I think everybody who has access to power and money should stop for a minute and think what they can do to help. There are these examples of private developers putting affordable housing in their projects. If you haven't done it before, it's daunting. It's difficult. But some number of affordable units should not be impossible. I feel like they owe it to themselves and the city to at least explore and push themselves as hard as they can to see if they can do it."

The Frye "needs a certain amount of revenue to come back to them," Moon said, "and I don't doubt their numbers. But I feel like the whole project could have some stipulations on affordability."

The developers could consider adding economic diversity to the towers by taking advantage of Seattle's recently renewed multifamily tax exemption, Rider said.

Part of the reason new high-rises cost so much is parking. The Westbank/Frye towers are concrete, and the developer will dig tremendously expensive parking garages multiple stories down into the ground. Wealthy renters not only pay more, they cost more.

The cost of building one residential parking stall in Seattle is $20,000 to $50,000 according to Mike Podowski of the city's and-use department.

When you look at the Frye's free parking lot today, consider that each of those stalls is its own little imminent money pit.

Buck said the new revenue is needed in order to continue the Frye's expansive programming of the past five years, a time in which the museum's budget has increased from $3.5 million to $4.6 million and when the museum has won loyalty and gratitude as the only institution steadfastly supporting local artists, some who have been unjustly overlooked.

Buck also said new money could be stockpiled toward a future expansion of the Frye, which could happen in a decade or so.

The Frye, which has about $60 million in assets including industrial real estate that it rents in Sodo, "shouldn't be framed as a struggling institution," Bernstein Sycamore said.

It's hard to get a clear and specific picture of the Frye's financials from publicly available tax documents on GuideStar, but nothing looks or sounds dire. "Our operating budgets are tight every year," Buck said, but that just sounds like every other nonprofit organization. Buck did elaborate that the board wants to rely less on the Frye endowment, which is invested in securities (stocks, bonds, and the like—not always so secure).

According to Frye spokesman Jeffrey Hirsch, the rents net $2.5 million to $3 million per year. Securities fill in the budget for whatever rentals plus memberships, donations, grants, and earned revenues don't cover. Money from the sale of the land plus rentals in the towers will be new earned revenue.

The sale price for the parking-lot land will not be publicly available until the sale is finalized.

There are higher questions here than whether the Frye is following the law.

Seattle's current development regulations are what got us into this mess in the first place. According to the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) committee organized by Mayor Murray, "we risk becoming a city accessible only to the affluent and privileged."

I expect a government that does better. And I'm not alone. This spring, Rider at the Housing Development Consortium said that many people are hopeful that new regulations will take effect.

Infuriatingly, what's now proposed has already been watered down from the HALA recommendations.

Rider said that the Frye/Westbank project would most likely be grandfathered into the current lax regulations even if new ones pass before any ground is broken.

I expect the Frye, which I love, to adopt higher standards—ones that help, rather than hurt, the people of Seattle.

In other words, I expect the Frye, which has a mission of "visionary patronage and civic responsibility," to do better than the market-cowed government that slept on the worst housing crisis in our city since World War II, a government that even itself is plotting to do better. The minute those recommendations are adopted, the Frye's development becomes economically and socially regressive.

Genius / 21 Century / Seattle was the Frye's last large-scale exhibition. It closed in January. Two large videos were projected onto the entrance walls. They documented postapocalyptic construction canyons, seen out the studio windows of the artist Victoria Haven, who has lost so many studio spaces in her time in Seattle—10 since 1990, all due to development—that she's made it a subject of her work. "I think," Haven told me, "they should put their money where their mouth is."

The question is not whether the Frye can change the world with one development project. The question is whether the Frye is going to live up to itself.