As new Seattle bumps into old, the losers could be people pushed out of their neighborhoods.
NORA LIU KNOWS the dizzyingly eclectic commercial hub surrounding Link Light Rail’s Othello Station well enough that she can reel off a few choice lunch spots at the King Plaza shopping complex without hesitation — a halal Asian restaurant over here, a Southern barbecue kitchen over there.
A casual visitor might get tripped up by the international panoply on view in this strip along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South between South Graham and South Othello streets, where more than 40 languages, from Amharic to Cambodian Khmer to Tagalog, are spoken.
But Liu, who works in the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, has reason to feel so at home.
As the office’s community development manager, Southeast Seattle — which includes the Othello transit and business hub — is one of the areas she’s taken under her wing.
Even with a forbiddingly broad major arterial and light-rail line running right through its row of mom-and-pop eateries, ethnic food stores and shopping plazas, the Othello district feels of a piece, a distinct, even special place.
Othello also is on the city’s heat map for future growth.
Part of Liu’s job is to make sure that discussions about how to develop the district don’t turn into one-way conversations.
When it comes to planning for growth, though, Seattle is playing some serious catch-up. One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Seattle has added about 70,000 residents since 2010, and the city expects the population to explode by another 120,000 people and 115,000 jobs by 2035.
In recently overhauling the city’s planning and development efforts to encourage greater coordination between the staffers who permit buildings and the ones who oversee parks, roads, housing and other public services, Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged that the infamous “Seattle process” is disjointed and that the city has been reacting to a growth spurt it should have been better prepared for.
The physical changes to neighborhoods such as South Lake Union, Ballard and Capitol Hill are both exciting to watch and unnerving in the speed with which formerly low-rise, low-density blocks have morphed into lofty, crowded urban hubs that take advantage of “upzoning,” or raised building-height limits.
There are checks in place to keep growth from happening randomly. The state’s Growth Management Act mandates that cities steer future growth toward urban centers to prevent suburban sprawl. Seattle, for instance, expected to issue permits for around 9,000 new housing units in 2015 alone, a 30-percent increase over 2014.
Murray’s draft updates to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which he’s planning to submit to the City Council this spring, will lay out goals for managing growth over the next 20 years, with a focus on creating dense, vibrant commercial and residential hubs, many within walking distance of major transit junctions such as Northgate, the University District, Beacon Hill and several sections of Rainier Valley, including the Othello district.
Until now, in some cases development has been done in a seemingly slapdash manner, resulting in unintended negative consequences, such as traffic congestion and strains on parking. There’s also the issue of older, smaller, more affordable apartment buildings being demolished to make way for all those new, tall, generally more expensive ones.
While planning is always an educated crapshoot, in this case, real lives and livelihoods are on the line. So is Seattle’s famed quality of life.
LIU’S OFFICE AT the City of Seattle might be high up in the Municipal Tower in the downtown business core, where a staff of 31 planners operated on a $5.8 million budget in 2015, but Liu’s other workplace is out in the city itself. And her job, she says, comes down to something pretty simple: building mutual trust between City Hall and the people shaped by its development plans and zoning rules, especially people in vulnerable racial and economic groups who tend to get squeezed out by neighborhood gentrification and who might lack the channels to advocate for their interests and needs.
“If I don’t have enough trust in the public, and if I don’t have the public’s trust, why have a conversation?” Liu asks. “The whole point is to have a shared understanding of what’s important to the city.”
That’s a tall order when even in the mixed-income, Southeast Seattle neighborhood of Columbia City, a new apartment complex with a PCC organic grocery store on the ground level recently advertised a two-bedroom unit for the eye-catching amount of nearly $3,000 a month.
In neighborhoods bordering downtown, it’s not uncommon to see anti-gentrification graffiti scrawled on land-use-notification signs posted next to lots where block-long apartment complexes and 40-story residential towers are planned.
Liu, 59, a longtime social justice and equity advocate who lives in Columbia City, is sanguine about the challenge she and her colleagues face in preserving the livability that inspires staunch civic loyalty among established residents and attracts hordes of newcomers.
“What do we do to both absorb growth and keep people here — not just hanging on by their fingernails, but prospering?” Liu asks.
For a planner, she says, this can’t be just a rhetorical question.
She recently invited a Seattle Times reporter and photographer along for a tour of some of the neighborhoods she works with most closely.
She drives us along an urban axis of racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, from the Central District around the suddenly densifying intersection of 23rd Avenue South and East Union Street to Rainier Beach in the far southeast, one of the most international but also most low-income sections of town.
In the CD, boxy, narrow town-house complexes with businesses on the ground floor are sprouting up among aging, single-family bungalows, the old Seattle bumping right up against the new.
As she drives through the city, Liu talks about the importance of preserving what she calls “community anchors,” such as an African-American church at 23rd and Union in the historic heart of Seattle’s black community, places where people can go to celebrate the distinct identity and heritage of neighborhoods.
The unavoidable fact for the CD, however, is that times have changed dramatically. In the space of two decades, the neighborhood has shifted from majority black to majority white, raising concerns about the dreaded “G” word — gentrification.
The city’s own research into what it calls “equitable development” backs this up. A recent “Seattle 2035 Equity Analysis” says the risk of displacement is highest in neighborhoods that historically have been home to communities of color and that the risk for some neighborhoods will remain regardless of how the city steers growth in those areas.
Good planning ideally should hit the sweet spot among differing economic and social priorities.
But when it comes to making sure private development fosters racially mixed and affordable neighborhoods, Liu says, “We don’t have much real leverage” other than zoning laws, limited public funds to help preserve or build affordable housing and incentives such as those encouraging private developers to include lower-income units in apartment buildings.
TONY TO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of HomeSight, a nonprofit housing developer that also offers homebuyer education and financing, particularly to first-time buyers and communities of color, and with a focus on Central and South Seattle neighborhoods, understands how hard it is to strike the right balance.
He says Seattle is actually at the forefront of a national movement to encourage greater community engagement along the lines of what Liu and her planner colleagues are doing.
“Now, how that translates into legislation and policy, that remains to be seen,” To says.
Liu, who worked at HomeSight before joining the city in 2006, says that from the mayor on down, the goal for future growth is “placing, not displacing.”
Even with ostensibly good intentions, though, there’s always a project, proposal or policy that causes major blowback.
Case in point: Last summer, Times columnist Danny Westneat reported that the mayor’s housing affordability advisory committee, mainly made up of developers, legal experts and community-organization leaders, was considering recommending heavy restrictions on single-family zoning to accommodate more duplexes, triplexes and other multifamily construction, to help temper rising housing costs. Among other things, the news stirred up old suspicions in Seattle about the influence of property developers, who have an obvious financial interest in any growth plans, over public policy. The idea was soon tabled.
In her daily work, Liu spends a lot of time tracking the unique needs of people and small businesses that might not have the means to ride out any growth wave.
One idea for the Rainier Beach area, Liu says, is the creation of an innovation district that would house training programs and technology businesses that employ low-income residents from that area — an economic zone that draws from and benefits the people who live closest to it.
BUT WHEN PLANNERS go out into the community, they sometimes encounter cynicism close-up, from a public that senses City Hall is still out of touch with the needs, desires and anxieties of everyday people.
This fall, the planning department hosted a series of Seattle 2035 open houses around the city to showcase the draft proposals for updates to the Comprehensive Plan.
The meeting for Southeast Seattle takes place on a cold, wet Saturday morning at the Filipino Community Center between Columbia City and Othello. With a host of programs on offer and large meeting spaces for special events, the center is one of those cultural anchors Liu speaks about.
Given her experience with the area, Liu, who is not part of the official Comprehensive Plan team, volunteered to help get word out about the meeting to make sure there was maximum diversity, and she decided to attend to help out colleagues who organized it.
A gymnasium-size room at the center quickly fills with an impressively wide range of residents, small businesspeople, community leaders and activists, from members of the Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Somali communities to African-Americans, whites and Filipinos.
Boards have been set up around the room with details about the city’s growth outlook and options for managing housing, transit, business development, parks and so on. Staffers from the relevant city departments are on hand to walk people through the overwhelming amount of information on display and answer questions.
The bottom line of it all is this: The city’s designated “urban villages,” the downtown area and transit hubs, such as the one at Othello, will absorb more than 80 percent of job and housing growth in the next 20 years, even though they make up only 17 percent of the city’s total land area.
The city plans to add about 30,000 market-rate housing units and 20,000 “affordable” units, mainly in those zones, the audience is told.
What is intended as an information session, however, turns into more of a town hall as a handful of residents vents concerns.
One woman pleads with a city staffer for better bus service so people who live in South King County can more easily reach culturally important small businesses and organizations, such as the Filipino Community Center’s food bank.
“South Seattle, you know, we’re always the last” on the priority list, the woman says glibly.
Her name is Emma Catague. She lives close to the center and works here.
Catague, who describes herself as a neighborhood activist, says she’s glad for the open house but feels the public-outreach process is too brief.
Plus, she’s skeptical that the community’s “input” — she makes air quotes with her fingers when saying the word — will matter in the end, anyway.
“We have to push,” she says. “We can’t keep quiet.”
Neighborhood activist Ron Momoda, who stands up during the city staff’s opening presentation to make an unsolicited presentation of his own, argues that the city’s growth plans obscure the risks to low-income residents. He wants to make sure affordable housing is spread fairly throughout the city, not clustered in already economically sensitive areas like Othello. The crowd gives him enthusiastic applause.
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After the presentations, another two attendees launch into a lengthy and heated debate with each other, inches from my face, about the possible encroachment of taller, multiuse buildings in currently low-rise areas bordered by single-family housing in the Othello district.
It turns out the two live only a couple of houses from each other, but miles apart on the growth question.
Many in attendance seem deeply engaged and curious about plans to spur business and residential development in the area, but skepticism about the city’s efforts at outreach keeps cropping up.
Benyam Stephanos of the Eritrean Association in Greater Seattle, which has a heavy member presence in Southeast Seattle, says he believes government officials genuinely care about people’s concerns. But he had this to say about the city’s goals and zoning plans: “Is this going to be done the way it’s been said?”
Liu knows that when all is said and done, one overriding question undoubtedly will linger in people’s minds — Whom is Seattle for?
People want to believe that Seattle belongs to them and that they belong in Seattle.
Planners can’t zone that kind of personal connection into the street grid.
But as Liu sees it, the city can help create the conditions for it.