No federally subsidized housing anywhere in the country claims a better location, just minutes from downtown jobs and culture, a short walk to hospitals and services. And probably none has a richer history. Yesler Terrace was the nation's first racially integrated public housing. But to make sure low-income housing will be there for future generations,...

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SNUGGLED INTO the south slope of Seattle’s First Hill, Yesler Terrace is a far cry from the stereotypical public-housing vertical ghetto.

Its airy design plays to the natural terrain and emphasizes open space. Each of the 561 townhouse-style apartments enjoys its own little yard, and the splendid views from balconies would make a developer drool. Renters paying $245 a month can almost reach out and touch the ferries gliding across Elliott Bay.

No federally subsidized housing anywhere in the country claims a better location, just minutes from downtown jobs and culture, a short walk to hospitals and services.

And probably none has a richer history. Yesler Terrace was the nation’s first racially integrated public housing, a model of New Deal progressivism, and perhaps the finest expression of our city’s compassionate impulses.

But to make sure low-income housing will be there for future generations, the Seattle Housing Authority says it must bulldoze the well-worn Yesler Terrace to save it. The authority has plans to sell prime parts of Yesler’s 32 acres to private developers and use the money to rebuild, as well as expand, low-income housing there.

What would emerge: a high-density, vertical neighborhood of office and residential towers, up to 5,000 parking stalls and new seven-story buildings for low-income renters.

That means packing in a lot more people — as many as 8,000 — most of them affluent. Bring it on, says the housing authority, because the latest social experiment in public housing calls for renters to live in communities where income levels are mixed, not in enclaves of poverty.

A fine idea, if not for the “inconvenient reality,” says resident Kristin O’Donnell, that Yesler Terrace is a “community that works, that gives people easy access to the outdoors, gardens, views — and is walking distance to downtown.”

The people here already feel pride of place. Do they really need to live closer to middle-class role models? Is that compassionate or condescending? Progressive or patronizing?

“Just because you grow up close to someone with privileges,” O’Donnell says, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to give you any.”

HISTORY TENDS to repeat itself on Henry Yesler’s hill, where Seattle’s first elites built mansions to distance themselves from downtown’s ills.

In time, the wealthy moved farther east to get away. The county courthouse, standing where Harborview Medical Center does now, became king of the hill. Lawyers cursing at the steep climb called it “Profanity Hill.”

The nickname also fit the underground economy taking hold there. Prostitutes were the chief laborers, filling 18 brothels. Old Victorian houses fell into disrepair. The Great Depression and Hooverville shanties led the City Council to declare war on “shack towns.”

By the late 1930s, Jesse Epstein, a University of Washington law-school grad, had a better idea. He’d use the federal government’s economic-stimulus money to calm the clamor. This slight, modest 29-year-old from Great Falls, Mont., wanted to tap Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to replace the slums with decent public housing.

Describing himself as more bureaucrat than revolutionary, Epstein visited business and civic groups selling his plan, quieting concerns that it was socialist. He had the audacity to say enough with the backdoor arguments justifying low-income housing as a way to create construction jobs. Let’s do it, Epstein said, for the social benefits that accrue when people have “adequate not elaborate” places to live. While we’re at it, Epstein insisted, let’s bring races together — “an idea that was no one’s but his own,” writes local historian Roger Sale.

Epstein established the housing authority to receive a $3 million federal earmark. Then he tossed out the standard federal designs for low-rent housing. Epstein hired prominent Seattle architects, William J. Bain Sr., J. Lister Holmes, John T. Jacobsen, who used Swedish-worker housing as their model. Young Victor Steinbrueck, later renowned for saving Pike Place Market from glitzy redevelopment, played a lesser role in the design.

When it opened in 1941, with $18 rents, defense workers pouring into Seattle looked wistfully at Yesler Terrace, according to The Seattle Times, wondering why they couldn’t live in something so nice.

Not that this visionary project was perfect. Residency was restricted, not only by income but also to citizens and families, which effectively ruled out immigrant and single-parent families and unmarried poor, notes Trevor Griffey in an article for Historic Seattle. And a Japanese community of 127 families, churches, grocery stores and hotels were all displaced, says Griffey of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

As for Epstein, he went on to run federal housing in nine western states before a Nevada senator accused him of communistic tendencies. An investigation cleared Epstein, but he quit Uncle Sam and came back to Seattle, where he practiced law and was president of the Mountaineers Club before his death in 1989.

Now, on the 70th anniversary of Yesler Terrace, the agency Epstein created wants to clear away his crowning achievement for something it thinks is better.

YESLER RESIDENTS may be in a place for poor people (median annual income is $10,500). But try finding one of them to bad-mouth it.

Bill Francis, 64, lived there from 1948 to 1970. “We had the best of everything,” says Francis, now a Seattle Housing Authority inspector. “We could go down the hill and go fishing. Chinatown and the stockyards were entertaining. It was an adventure and it was free.”

Despite Yesler Terrace’s rough edges, it fostered community, Francis says, more than he’s experienced the past 35 years living on Beacon Hill. “I could be up by the hospital doing something I shouldn’t and when I got home my mother would say, ‘Mrs. Johnson called and said she saw you on the cliff throwing rocks.’ How much more community can you get than that?”

That’s not just nostalgia. Benton Strong, 24, graduated from Garfield High School and the UW and works as a communications consultant in Washington, D.C. He occasionally comes back to visit and sleeps on his mom’s couch.

“The benefits of growing up so close to downtown were immeasurable,” Strong says. “I’d walk down to the library or Barnes & Noble. I could see doctors making lots of money doing great things.” He witnessed a downtown development boom scraping the sky. “I could stand by the Harborview helipad and look out over the water and see where the city went from the 1980s to the tech boom. I knew I wouldn’t be part of that unless I stayed in school and out of trouble.”

Kristin O’Donnell, 70, doesn’t sugarcoat the Yesler experience. Some apartments haven’t been modernized in 30 years and need refurbishing, she says. The neighborhood has its share of crime. (It ranks low to medium in major crimes, according to Seattle police.) When the crack epidemic hit in the late ’80s, she says, “we didn’t have drive-by shootings, we were too poor. We had walk-bys.”

But for “most people it worked well most of the time.” She worries that won’t be true in the new version. Almost all residents, for instance, would lose their yards. “If you are bringing up children, there’s a whole lot of significance to that patch of yard with a fence,” says O’Donnell, who raised her daughter there. Parenting is a major issue in Yesler, which has a much higher percentage of children (39 percent) than the city as a whole (16 percent).

The new Yesler will not resemble the housing authority’s other mixed-income experiments such as Rainier Vista, which is full of two- and three-story houses and apartments. “This will look like New York, Hong Kong or Vancouver,” O’Donnell says.

True, the authority envisions 10 residential and two office towers up to 22 stories, possibly a hotel. Affluent people would outnumber the low-income (3,200 market-rate units to 1,800 low-income ones — and that’s if you count 950 apartments for people earning between $35,000 and $45,000 as low-income).

Much-touted income-mixing won’t occur within buildings. The affluent will be segregated in the towers.

Tenants, including Audry Breaux, worry that once they’re moved out during construction they won’t come back. They note that some 800 low-rent units were not replaced in the redeveloped Rainier Vista, New Holly and High Point. Instead, some tenants received rent-subsidy vouchers to live in privately owned buildings in other parts of the city. “Every time I think about it I just cry,” says Breaux, who’s lived almost half her 80 years in the project.

If O’Donnell had her way, the housing authority would sell a chunk of Yesler property and use the proceeds to renovate existing apartments.

Not everyone agrees. Yin Lau, who moved to Seattle from Hong Kong, waited three years before he could get into Yesler Terrace. Lau, 67, likes its friendliness and proximity to the Chinatown/International District. He also likes redevelopment; he says it’s important to create more housing for immigrants.

The towers wouldn’t bother him: “Compared to Hong Kong, this is good.”

As for mixing incomes, “no problem,” he says, “especially in the United States.”

WHAT WOULD Jesse do?

It’s tempting but dangerous to speculate because so much has changed, says Peter Steinbrueck, an architect and former City Council member. His father and Epstein were close friends.

“I don’t know if they’d defend Yesler Terrace against the emerging plans. I think they’d certainly defend the rights of residents to have their community protected, valued and respected. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t entitled to have housing standards more current with today’s standards, which Yesler Terrace is not.”

Housing authority head Tom Tierney has his own view on WWJD.

“I can’t imagine, as the progressive leader he was, he would argue ‘Let’s separate, segregate and treat as The Other’ the extremely low-income people we house. Neither would he say we ought not to move forward with future housing because we have some reticence from some current residents.”

The imperative, Tierney says, is to expand low-income housing. His proposal would add 290 apartments for individuals with incomes below $35,000, plus 950 units for people earning up to 80 percent of the local median income, or $45,000.

Rehabilitating the existing community is too expensive, says Tierney, who previously held top development jobs at City Hall and the Port of Seattle. Renovation would cost at least $62 million and could easily top $100 million — plus $80 million for infrastructure. And you couldn’t “induce or seduce” private developers to buy just a sliver of Yesler property surrounded by low-income residents, he says. The project has to be truly mixed.

Tierney’s hope is to get $150 million from selling property and an equal amount from other sources to build housing, streets, sidewalks, parks and new water and sewer lines.

No doubt, Tierney says, change makes some residents uncomfortable. But a survey of 325 tenants around the city shows Yesler Terrace getting lower satisfaction ratings than other subsidized housing.

All that’s not really the point, though. Tierney is convinced future residents ought to live in a mixed-income community — “a neighborhood the rest of us would choose to live in . . . I see no long-term value in assigning people to a low-income enclave and then telling them you should be a community.”

On top of that, the city and region demand more density in places like Yesler Terrace, close to transit and so many jobs. “If we’re building a 21st-century neighborhood, we can’t just build for ourselves,” Tierney says.

The most heated critique is coming from the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox, who wants a guarantee that all current residents can live at the new Yesler Terrace. That’s the most efficient use of resources, he says.

Tierney promises to replace all existing apartments within two blocks of Yesler Terrace. He says a citizen committee dealt with this in 2007 and concluded — with the exception of Fox and O’Donnell — that replacing apartments in the immediate neighborhood was good enough, all new housing didn’t have to stand within the existing footprint.

“It’s a shibboleth,” Tierney says, “something John says ought to happen, but why? Most people would say they don’t know where Yesler Terrace ends.”

EVEN IN this economy, the makeover — expected to take at least 10 years — seems almost certain. Tierney calls it a high likelihood, though the plan still must get approval from his board.

But it’s a little early to write Yesler Terrace’s obituary. In the late 1960s the housing authority rolled out similar plans, with towers and all, that were shelved by the Boeing bust.

New challenges loom: Harborview worries that towers might encroach on the flight path of incoming helicopters. The Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce says upscale housing at Yesler would cause rents to go up in nearby Little Saigon, accelerating gentrification and displacing small merchants.

And what about preserving all that rich history? Because Interstate 5 gouged an 11-acre hole in Yesler Terrace’s west side, taking out 263 apartments, and because the remaining units were upgraded, the site doesn’t merit landmark status. Even the Jesse Epstein Building, which houses Neighborhood House and other social services, faces the wrecking ball.

Mark Okazaki, executive director of Neighborhood House, says Epstein’s legacy deserves more than commemorative artwork and plaques, as planned. But what? How do you preserve soul? “I don’t know,” says Steinbrueck, “but it doesn’t mean everything has to be retained — and I’m a preservationist.”

Razing the place seems inevitable to Francis, the housing inspector. But he warns that mixing incomes isn’t the panacea it’s presented as.

As evidence, this Orwellian note appears on page 1-34 of the authority’s draft environmental-impact statement:

While the air around Yesler Terrace has been unhealthy since I-5 was built in 1962, the poor won’t unduly suffer in the new neighborhood. Thanks to mixed incomes, the authority assures us, pollution will still be a problem — but it will no longer have a “disproportionately high and adverse impact to low income and minority populations.”

For that, I’m sure, Jesse Epstein would be grateful.

Bob Young is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.