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Sunday, September 29, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Belltown Inside Out -- This Festival Celebrates The Art Of Regrade Living

IN THE MID-19TH CENTURY, THE area north of Pike Street extending to the foot of Queen Anne was dominated by the steep, unwelcoming grades of Denny Hill.

To the west, on the accessible plateau above Elliott Bay, pioneer William Bell's claim was developed as a community with a commercial center of brick-and-frame buildings along First Avenue. In 1888 and 1889, architect Elmer Fisher designed the Odd Fellows Hall and the Austin A. Bell Building in the 2300 block; they have become the area's landmarks. Although major plans have come and gone with political administrations, few have had a lasting impact on Belltown.

Yet changes have come. Luxury condominiums and offices have made themselves at home along its avenues. There are few survivors of the once-plentiful modest wood-frame houses. A number of the brick apartment buildings that offered inexpensive housing are demolished or "gentrified." Chic new restaurants have opened their doors next to clothing boutiques and accessory stores. And design firms have taken up residence in former garages, storefronts and warehouses.

But somehow Belltown has managed to survive - even flourish - as an inner-city residential neighborhood. Earlier this year, a group of residents, artists and business people came together to plan a celebration that recognizes Belltown's "livability" and to showcase the remarkable diversity of housing that exists, from single-room occupancy units, low-income studios and cooperative housing to high-rise luxury condominiums and artists' studio lofts.

"We hope that this festival will focus much-needed attention on this area," says Nanz Aalund, one of the organizers of the resulting Belltown Inside/Out festival, which begins Thursday. "Just recently, the Denny Regrade was turned down for neighborhood status by the City Council. Mayor Norm Rice is very adamant about cleaning this area up, but if we can't even get neighborhood status, it denies all the residents that are here the recognition that we do live in a community that is just as worthy of funding as Wallingford or Capitol Hill or the University District."

Events during next weekend will showcase what Belltown has come to represent - the fringe artist community - and will draw attention to the thriving retail/business core and its housing options. Here are some of the locations that will be open to the public Saturday:

A sign on the Western Avenue facade reads "Acme Restaurant Supply new and used." The brick turn-of-the-century warehouse at 66 Bell St., in the shadow of the Alaskan Way viaduct, has seen many uses, including studio and performing space for the Lincoln Arts Center. It now appears unoccupied but is, in fact, a lively and creative working and living space for 20 artists in 10 units on the second and third floors. They include photographers, a jeweler, a video artist and animator, and several painters.

The building is not a cooperative. It is owned by a group of investors who are repairing the brick and replacing decaying windows. They are also providing some extras for tenants' benefits, such as a buzzer system and a roof deck.

Shawn Farris shares a 1,300-square-foot studio on the second floor with two other painters, Harold Hollingsworth and Paris Broderick. Nearly 20-foot-high ceilings permitted the construction of two-bedroom lofts within the space, freeing up the main floor for three working areas, another bedroom and a kitchen. They pay about $700 in rent, plus utilities. Their studio space evolved over three years as they defined their needs.

"It took about a year to figure out how we wanted the space laid out," Farris remembers. "Things were pretty flexible then. The lofts were built but the rest of the space changed until we decided what would work best and where to build permanent walls."

For Farris, 66 Bell St. has great advantages. "Artists can live and have studio space here, whereas it would be cost-prohibitive to maintain two separate spaces."

David Millpointer has lived in the Rivoli Apartments for 12 years - he was the building manager for nine of those - and remembers when between 30 and 40 percent of its residents were senior citizens on limited incomes. "It was a haven for seniors downtown. They are almost gone. They can't live here anymore. Either the buildings that they did occupy have become gentrified, like the Palladian up the block. Or else they don't want to deal with the problems - panhandlers, drug dealers, the intimidation they have to deal with just going to a grocery store . . . I've gone through all the changes, except for the major changes still to come of seeing it as a cleaned-up, safe, "real" neighborhood, the vision that former Mayor Royer always talked about. We've never seen that."

For Millpointer, some of the allure of Belltown has been its gritty, rough qualities on the edge of downtown. "It's amazing to live so close to the core of the business area, just a few blocks from the market and the department stores. A lot of times, weeks will go by and you won't go south of Virginia Street. But you know it's there, that you are a part of that environment, and psychologically it gives you energy."

At the Rivoli, studio and one-bedroom apartments rent in the $225 to $350 range. For the first two years, Millpointer had a studio in the building. Then the owner let him combine it with an adjacent studio to form a one-bedroom unit. He has an antique business, and his successes at auctions, estate sales and shopping trips are shown off to good effect against faux-finish walls in rich, saturated tones.

The rooms are decidedly Classical and 19th-century in character, with some choice early 20th-century landscape paintings and art pottery. The second kitchen has been reincarnated into a bookcase-lined study. The faux-finish mosaic-tile designs that cover every inch of the bathroom walls and ceiling took three years of painting to complete. Millpointer's choices were based on his own academic art education. "I select objects because I have a historical perspective, not just because I like them. I put an intellectual veil on a lot of things. I buy a thing because it is pivotal or important and like it for that reason."

THE APEX COOP SHARES space with Egbert's, a home-furnishings store on First Avenue. Twenty people, including workers in film and video, singers, actors and visual artists, own the top two floors. They are members of a cooperative living experience that includes weekly chores in the communal areas and even the shared expenses of a recent surgery for their communal cat, Ernie.

The cooperative was established in 1984 with a low-income housing loan through the City of Seattle. It was originally conceived to allow for both working and living spaces, but the number of units required did not leave enough space for both. Studios and one-bedroom units have sinks, but bathrooms, kitchens and lounges on each floor are shared.

Members pay a $1,300 annual fee, and monthly rates range upward of $150 for the smallest studio, which according to resident Nina Evers "we call a Zen unit because you have to have Zenlike qualities to live in this small a space." According to Evers, "You can do whatever you want to a space, but if it costs $250 or more, then you have to get Board approval." The marks of the original artists are still very much in residence, from the colorful tile breakfast nook in the third-floor kitchen, entitled "Ode to Celery," to mosaic tile on bathroom walls, and patterned-linoleum-tile floors throughout the common areas.

Several blocks south, high inside a Continental Place condominium, the views of Puget Sound and Queen Anne Hill are splendid. There are 124 units with a variety of floor plans, from studios to townhouses priced $200,000 to $1.5 million. Robert Eichler moved here from his Hunt's Point residence when a fire destroyed it. He leased an apartment in the building, fell in love with living downtown, put the rebuilding of his house on hold and bought this condominium unit. He has a very easy commute - his office is in the apartment next door.

Eichler commissioned noted Northwest designer Bill Stickland to remodel the two-bedroom unit to have a Northwest feeling. The walls have been softened with rough-sewn cedar and artwork by Northwest artists, including Stephen Dale Edwards, Galen Garwood, Richard Yoder, Ansel Adams and Paul Horiuchi. In the bedroom and wet-bar areas are hand-painted wallpapers by Steve Jensen. Teak cabinetry in the bedroom and in the study reflect simplicity and quality. The deep window-bay seat was treated to look like stone, and a railing and plexiglass stands were added for displaying Eichler's sculpture collection. He had mirrors installed to expand the views. "During the fireworks, it was really fun. I sat here and watched both sets of fireworks - Fratelli's and Ivar's at the same time." To add warmth to the concrete balcony, Eichler installed a wood deck and benches, and planted a little vest-pocket "lawn" for his dog, who was accustomed to a large yard.

For Eichler, the tradeoff between the country house and the in-town house has been worth it. "My social life and business life are in Seattle. Bridge traffic made it increasingly difficult to go back and forth from the Eastside. Living here is very exciting - being near the Market, having such a diversity of people around. You can walk everywhere. You never have to leave the area for restaurants and shopping. And I never tire of the views of the waterfront and the mountains."

The Belltown Inside/Out Festival will be Oct. 3 through 6 and includes Latte Lane Friday morning, the home tour Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Ice Cream in Regrade Park Social Sunday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. (a benefit for the El Rey mental-health program; $4), and art shows and film events throughout. Tickets ($10) for the home tour are available in advance at Antiques and Art Associates, 2113 Third Ave. Day-of-the-tour tickets will be available at the 2nd and Bell Gallery, or call 298-0989 for information.

LAWRENCE KREISMAN IS THE AUTHOR OF "ART DECO SEATTLE," "HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN SEATTLE" AND "THE BLOEDEL RESERVE: GARDENS IN THE FOREST." GREG GILBERT IS A SEATTLE TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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