Seattle artists fundraise to buy former INS building, now home to 100-plus studios

For Kirsten Mohan, “art is salvation.” Since her husband passed away, the photographer and single mother of two has dedicated herself to growing her business and her craft.

In 2021, after a decade of hard work, she was able to sign a lease for a studio at Inscape Arts, which bills itself as Seattle’s largest arts and culture enclave. Soon after moving in, Mohan said she was disappointed to hear that the historic, 76,600-square-foot building, located in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, was in danger of becoming a redevelopment opportunity.

“It’s the largest arts building in the city — it’s the only one with so much cultural and historical significance — and it just would be such a tragedy if this was lost to both the arts community and the community at large,” Mohan said.

At a time when Seattle rent prices are skyrocketing and artists who have been hit hard by the pandemic are looking to recover, Inscape Arts’ building owners are looking to sell, a decision that risks the loss of more than 100 artist studios and possible erasure of the 91-year-old former Immigration and Naturalization Service building’s complicated history as a detention and processing center.

In response, tenants formed Friends of Inscape last year to raise money to purchase the property themselves and pursue landmark status. They’ve started fundraising and have garnered support from the city of Seattle, King County and community stakeholders.

“The pandemic has, if anything, made our effort to preserve the building that much more relevant,” said Tara Tamaribuchi, part of Friends of Inscape’s leadership team, elected by tenants. “With so much economic uncertainty and so many people’s lives being shifted in all kinds of unexpected ways, having access to creative space that is equitable and accessible to the community is more important than ever.”

A purchase would be no small feat. The property is likely worth millions; so far, Friends of Inscape has collected just under $69,000.

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Tamaribuchi said about $43,000 in individual donations came through a fiscal sponsorship with Northwest Film Forum — as a nonprofit, Northwest Film Forum can collect donations for the Friends of Inscape’s charitable cause. (Friends of Inscape was set up as a limited liability company; its leaders hope to eventually turn it into a nonprofit.)

Friends of Inscape has also received $20,000 from the Metropolitan King County Council and a $5,700 grant from 4Culture, the cultural funding agency for King County.

Tamaribuchi said this combined funding is being used for capacity building, such as hiring a project manager and a grant writer. Friends of Inscape is also hoping to form an advisory group whose members would receive stipends for their efforts.

To fundraise, the group is working with the Cultural Space Agency, a new public development authority chartered by the city of Seattle in 2020 to develop cultural spaces. Matthew Richter, the Cultural Space Agency’s interim executive director, said he has spoken with multiple interested investors but has not received any financial commitments yet.

Richter said they are hoping to purchase the property for $10 million to $15 million. A 2020 assessment values the property at about $10 million, according to a report from CoStar, a commercial real estate database.

The listing does not include a price, but Richter speculates the owners are wanting much more than $10 million — the property’s large parking lot is advertised as a redevelopment opportunity.

The building’s current owners did not respond to a request for comment.

Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, whose district includes the Inscape building, sponsored a capital budget request for an additional $257,500 during the last legislative session, but the request was not funded. According to Santos’ office, the legislator said it is not uncommon for a first-time project to miss out on this competitive funding source, and she will continue to work with the advocates of Inscape to seek funding opportunities, as well as try again next year for funding in the biennial budget.

Friends of Inscape has also garnered moral support from Greg Smith, the CEO of real estate development firm UrbanVisions, which owns property adjacent to the Inscape building. If Friends of Inscape is able to purchase the Inscape property, Smith said he would be interested in buying the transferable development rights from them, providing the group with extra funding in exchange for the property’s development potential.

As Chinatown ID grows — and Smith believes it’s the next neighborhood in line to do so — he said it’s important that the artists remain the “nucleus” of the neighborhood, rather than getting priced out. Inscape’s presence benefits other property owners, like Smith, by creating a “destination and a cool factor that just another office space doesn’t do,” he said.

Support also comes from more than 500 people who have submitted their names on the organization’s website as “friends of Inscape.”

Friends of Inscape, with the help of a consulting firm, is also working toward nominating the former INS building for landmark status with Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board. The building, opened in 1931, was used to detain Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act and incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. Its grim past is memorialized all over the building, like on an outdoor wall in a former exercise yard that has detainees’ names and nationalities written on it in softened tar. 

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, which would limit substantial changes to its exterior. But that wall, and other parts of the building, are not currently protected, which makes Tamaribuchi anxious. Friends of Inscape, she said, wants to preserve this history and combat gentrification in Chinatown ID.

“It’s an opportunity to reclaim space,” Tamaribuchi said. “A lot of art spaces, traditionally, are white spaces, and this would be an opportunity to have a space, an art center, that, from the beginning, is working to provide this art space that’s for community and is interested in these critical issues.”

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.

Anita Shire

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