People priced out of Seattle have long turned to South King County. But things are changing. Amid Tukwila’s dreams of transformation, penthouses at one new development go for $6,000 a month, while immigrants who invested in the city when few would may be pushed out.

Share story

Ten years ago, Abdi Mohamed Adan saw opportunity in a patch of vacant land just off Tukwila International Boulevard. It was not generally considered a nice area.

The boulevard was so plagued by drug-dealing and prostitution that hundreds of police and federal agents eventually raided and closed several motels there.

Yet it was also known for cheap rents, attracting wave after wave of immigrants and refugees — most recently, from Somalia, like Adan — who were reclaiming the area.

With loans and help from family members, the former Seattle Public Schools interpreter and airport parking valet settled into one of several clusters of immigrant-owned businesses, blocks from what is now the Tukwila International Boulevard light-rail station. He expanded a former bank building on the lot and put in shelves and refrigerators, filling them with Lebanese olive oil, Algerian dates, cardamom and halaal goat and lamb meat.

“We’re doing good,” said the 42-year-old proprietor of Fresh & Green Produce Market. Until recently, he hoped to buy the property he rents.

But now the city of Tukwila wants him and a number of other small-business owners to move so it can build a new justice center on the boulevard.

It’s part of a makeover the city envisions as it attempts to ride the region’s development wave, improve its infrastructure, and overcome negative impressions that sometimes make it the butt of jokes about sex and crime.

Many business owners facing displacement see themselves as collateral damage.

“A whole community will be crushed, ” said Mohamed Sharif, whose family owns the Tawakal Mini Mart, also on the site where the city plans a courthouse, police department and emergency-operations center.

Two nearby mosques, including the large Abu-Bakr Islamic Center, help draw Somalis and other immigrants to the neighborhood from throughout the region.

“They did it to get rid of us,” said Adan, maintaining officials’ pitch to corporations will be easier without immigrants around.

Derek Speck, Tukwila’s economic-development administrator, said the justice center’s placement has nothing to do with the current businesses or the clientele, but relates to qualities such as access to roads and transit.

“We’re a diverse part of the county and we want to stay diverse,” he said. On its website, Tukwila highlights its demographics and 80 languages spoken in its schools.

For years, South King County cities including Tukwila, which encompasses part of Boeing Field and heads south past Southcenter mall, have served as the place to go for those priced out by gentrification in Seattle neighborhoods such as the Central District.

But gentrification is now pushing south.

“I think it’s where everyone is going to be moving,” said Stefanie Overstreet, about to decamp from a West Seattle condo for a house in Normandy Park, which lies south of Burien along the water.

Cities are seizing the moment.

SeaTac is putting city-owned land, also near the Tukwila International Boulevard light-rail station, up for sale. The goal is a mixed-use, commercial and residential project that will serve as a linchpin of redevelopment, said Planning Manager Steve Pilcher.

There, too, immigrant entrepreneurs, including dozens in the Bakaro Mall, may have to move — one aim of a former mayor, according to revelations in a lawsuit over backroom dealing that led to the city’s acquisition of the land.

In Tukwila, officials can see the future and it’s near Southcenter mall: a 19-story hotel and apartment complex with penthouses that go for $6,000 a month.

South King’s “Bellevue”?

One late April afternoon, men were moving mattresses through the Hotel Interurban and Airmark Apartments. Developer Omar Lee, who with his wife, Christine, was getting ready for a soft May opening, walked past them and into the lobby.

“How do you like the check-in counter?” he asked Speck, who had spotted the developer while driving by and stopped to talk. Lee pointed out the natural, grooved wood along the counter’s edges — one element of the project’s “Class A” status, as he described it.

Other elements: polished concrete floors; a coffee shop and restaurant offering room service to apartment-dwellers as well as hotel guests; a pool; and a big common deck with views of Mount Rainier and the mall.

A whole community will be crushed.” - Mohamed Sharif

The Lees, who live on Mercer Island, like it so much they built an alternative residence for themselves in the building.

Rents are still cheaper than in Seattle, Omar Lee said. One-bedrooms start at around $1,500 a month while they can top $2,000 in neighborhoods such as South Lake Union.

“Rather than just crowding into downtown Seattle or South Lake Union, why not set our own little record?” he said, explaining the decision to build a high-rise in Tukwila that would dwarf anything around it for miles.

“We feel this is kind of a unique situation that hasn’t been discovered,” he continued. Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue are all within a half-hour. It’s convenient to the airport, freeways and a Sounder rail station, which is a short walk away thanks to a new pedestrian bridge across the Green River.

And, Omar Lee said, the mall and surrounding businesses offer an “urban core” likely to appeal to upwardly mobile millennials and empty nesters.

Speck beamed. This is exactly the view of Tukwila he and other city officials have been pitching. The Lees are pioneers, he said, having developed property in Silicon Valley, then in the Pacific Northwest building the Great Wall Mall in Kent.

As Speck later noted, the couple also figured out a creative way to finance the $128 million project, which would have been tough otherwise given conventional notions about return on investment in Tukwila. They recruited Asian investors who would qualify for permanent-residency EB-5 visas by contributing at least $500,000.

The development already is attracting others, Speck said, including senior apartments to be built next door. Driving past, he marveled at how quickly the former building on the site was demolished.

The area around the mall, in Speck’s view, will evolve into a “regional downtown,” like Bellevue is for the Eastside — except not as affluent, he added carefully, mindful of the gentrification controversy raging a couple of miles west on the boulevard.

Speck said he sees that area developing on a smaller scale, to become one of the region’s “great neighborhoods” — like Seattle’s Columbia City.

$775,000 home

“It’s absolutely feasible,” said Windermere Real Estate chief economist Matthew Gardner of Tukwila’s aspirations. “But it is not going to be quick.”

Developers are shy about going into emerging markets, and Gardner doesn’t even consider the city at the emerging stage. He called it “pre-emerging.”

The city has 371 apartment units under construction, and 144 planned, he said. It’s a tiny market compared with Seattle, which has 12,000 being built and 25,000 in the pipeline. Tukwila’s amount of office space under construction, 8,000 square feet, is equally small.

Yet for all of the snobbishness about Tukwila, about 45,000 jobs are located there — outnumbering its residents 2:1. Thousands of Boeing employees work in Tukwila, which is also home to the Museum of Flight and the offices of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.

Shasta Beverages bottles cola there, La Panzanella turns out artisanal breads and Odin Brewing moved to Tukwila from South Park two years ago.

Over time, Gardner said, the ripple effect of development is bound to go south given escalating costs north of Seattle, in Snohomish County.

He noted you can already see such activity in Renton, where the shopping plaza Renton Landing is thriving, a new Hyatt Regency recently opened along Lake Washington and 735,000 square feet of office space is under construction.

Homebuyers can find better deals in South King County as well. The median home value, including condominiums, for six cities in South King County — Tukwila, Burien, Renton, Kent, Normandy Park and SeaTac — was $458,000 in April, according to Zillow. Seattle home values run $300,000 to $400,000 higher.

People are reevaluating places they may not have considered 10 years ago.” - Matt Klewin, real estate broker in South King County

“People are reevaluating places they may not have considered 10 years ago,” said Matt Klewin, a Windermere broker who works in South King County. Do people come to him saying they really want to live in Tukwila? No. But they may find a house there in their price range.

Or they may have to look farther out. In pockets of quiet neighborhoods removed from the bustle of the boulevard and the mall, homes can fetch surprisingly high prices. Checking out the Tukwila market on a recent day, Klewin found a newly built, 3,250-square-foot, five-bedroom house selling for $775,000.

He noted three recent clients had to go to Puyallup, 25 miles farther south, to find something they could afford.

Klewin stopped next at a funky and sprawling midcentury modern on a Tukwila hilltop. Complete with a built-in aquarium and basement bar, it was selling for $600,000. He thought one client, Overstreet, would love it.

She was bidding that day on a more expensive West Seattle house, but he expected a bidding war and wasn’t sure she would win.

She didn’t. It was the sixth bidding war she lost.

Her plan, she explained afterward, was to sell her West Seattle condo and buy a house with an increasing property value. If she couldn’t stay in Seattle, then she wanted to be south of it.

Traffic into Seattle is too congested from the north, she figured, and she needs to get downtown frequently for her work representing a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom products.

She opted against Tukwila, worried about airport noise.

When the selling price dropped $20,000 to $695,000 on a four-bedroom house in Normandy Park, she grabbed it.

“We’re all in the same spot”

Gentrification may be inevitable, but a number of the Tukwila businesses facing displacement have been fighting it.

At the end of the day, this is America. We can always thrive.” - Abshir Warsame

Aligned with advocacy groups including OneAmerica and Puget Sound Sage, they rallied at City Hall and filed a court motion to stop the city from using eminent domain to take the properties for the justice center.

Their motion argued that the city improperly rushed the process to avoid paying the businesses relocation money, which would have been necessary had Tukwila waited until after New Year’s because of changes in state law.

The city extended the time businesses could stay, to March 2019, but said initially it didn’t have much money to give. The justice center was projected to cost tens of millions more than initially budgeted.

In late May, the city and affected businesses agreed to enter mediation. The main point of discussion will be financial assistance, said City Administrator David Cline. The city is not considering a new site for the project.

Even with money, relocation might not be a simple matter.

“The main reason we’re doing good here is because we’re all in the same spot,” said Tawfik Maudah, a Yemeni immigrant who runs a small car dealership out of a building that also houses a cellphone shop and money-transfer service. Around him are restaurants, hair salons and a grocery store (as well as a strip club, Déjà Vu Showgirls, disliked but tolerated, according to Maudah and others).

Unless all the immigrant entrepreneurs move together, Maudah suggested, they are likely to suffer. The prospects are iffy.

Backed by a $10 million fund raised in part among tech investors, the nonprofit Forterra partnered with Abu-Bakr to buy a former motel across from the mosque. They intend to turn it into a space for affordable housing and immigrant-owned businesses.

But the timeline is up in the air and there isn’t enough space for all the businesses, said Abu-Bakr Executive Director Abdirisak Ahmed.

Cline, the city administrator, said Tukwila is putting a half-acre parcel it owns, the site of one motel shuttered by authorities in 2013, up for sale and encouraging displaced businesses to bid on it.

“It’s not a realistic option,” said Adan, explaining it would take years to buy the property and build on it.

Despite the time involved, some business owners suggested they might buy a larger city-owned lot nearby, but the city wants it for a multistory development, according to Speck. One such project, four apartment buildings for seniors next to a sleek new library, is underway up the boulevard at the new Tukwila Village.

Abshir Warsame, co-owner of popular Juba Restaurant and Café, can see the complex from his doorstep. “In the long run, I think it will be good for us,” he said of the city’s development one Friday. A crowd of diners, coming from afternoon prayer, was devouring huge platters of rice, noodles and spiced meats.

“Crime goes down … opportunities pop up. We might be able to take advantage of them.”

But in the short term, he added, “there is so much uncertainty.”

Juba is not facing displacement, but its lease is up in a couple of years, and Warsame suspects the landlord will raise the rent.

“I love this area,” said the 43-year-old Somali immigrant, who lives in Tukwila and previously worked for 18 years as a commercial vehicle inspector at the airport. He could find cheaper rent in Federal Way or Auburn, he continued, but isn’t interested. He wants to live close to Abu-Bakr, which he helped establish.

He and others will move if they need to, he said, as he later wandered through a space that Juba’s owners sublet, a warren of stalls selling shoes, perfumes, phone cards and more.

“At the end of the day, this is America. We can always thrive,” he said. “We have our money. We have our ideas. We can go anywhere.”