Fenced off and chained, the old Chubby & Tubby garden center on Rainier Avenue South looks like a rusting relic after sitting vacant...

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Fenced off and chained, the old Chubby & Tubby garden center on Rainier Avenue South looks like a rusting relic after sitting vacant for two years.

But competing factions in Seattle see the abandoned garden center as much more. It’s caught in a growing debate over economic and social changes coming to Rainier Valley, spurred by Sound Transit’s new light-rail line.

For Latino immigrants, activists and their allies, the Chubby & Tubby parcel could be the new expanded home of CASA Latina, the day-labor center now located in Belltown, where it lacks plumbing and heating.

“It would be better because it’s closer to my home, and we can help people who need help in the neighborhood,” said Alecis Pallajo, 21, an immigrant from El Salvador, who regularly gets work landscaping, digging and painting from CASA Latina.

To business groups and some longtime residents, the site is crucial to their hopes of economic revitalization after decades of disinvestment and decay in Southeast Seattle. They want commercial development, not CASA Latina on the property.

“We see that particular corner as really key. We want to make it one of the gateways into our neighborhood, give it some real character and say, ‘This is Southeast Seattle, look at us,’ ” said Earl Richardson, executive director of SouthEast Effective Development (SEED), which just opened a senior housing complex two blocks away.

Richardson also wants to redevelop what was the old Chubby & Tubby retail store, which for 56 years sold everything from shovels to snail poison. It’s located across the street from the former Chubby & Tubby garden-center site that CASA Latina aims to buy.

The tug-of-war over the future of the Chubby & Tubby site is more than a clash of dreams. It involves Rainier Valley’s pride in diversity and a fear of gentrification.

“It’s real sensitive,” acknowledged Richardson of SEED, a nonprofit that’s been encouraging economic development in Rainier Valley for 30 years.

Mauricio Martinez, a long-time Latino activist in Rainier Valley, supports CASA Latina’s move to the area. “It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “I am happy with the way Rainier Valley has developed. But we also need to invest in people.”

In the middle are city political leaders who pledged to give CASA Latina $250,000 for its new home if it could quell community opposition.

Provides jobs, education

Since 1994, CASA Latina has provided employment and education opportunities to immigrants in Seattle. The nonprofit’s day-labor program was invited to its current Belltown location at Western Avenue and Battery Street by neighborhood activists who wanted help with a long-standing problem.

For decades that corner had attracted unemployed people — including immigrants — looking for day jobs because of its proximity to Highway 99.

CASA Latina’s worker center, consisting of a trailer and two wood-framed rooms, is on city-owned land once used for a electricity substation.

But after the Nisqually earthquake of 2001, city officials decided the space was needed for eventual reconstruction of the quake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct.

CASA’s board of directors unanimously agreed that the former Chubby & Tubby garden center best met its needs. (CASA is an acronym for Centro de Ayuda Solidaria a los Amigos, which means Center for Help in Solidarity with Friends.)

“Most workers depend on public transportation. The location is central. It’s convenient to find,” board member Lori Rath said.

Last fall, CASA Latina appealed to the City Council for help. The city has funded CASA Latina’s programs, earmarking about $130,000 a year since 1999. CASA Latina this year aims to put 112 people in permanent jobs, register 750 more in its day-work program, and get more than 500 clients to participate in its education programs, according to Executive Director Hilary Stern.

While Belltown neighborhood activists praise the organization, they also note one problem linked to it.

Its worker center has been a magnet for some belligerent behavior. Unemployed people who don’t want to abide by CASA Latina’s rules stand near the center and try to get potential employers to hire them before they get to the worker center.

When they don’t get jobs, some men hang out nearby, drink beer, urinate, litter and ogle women.

“It’s really just problems that you’d call uncomfortable, particularly for single women walking down the street. We’ve noticed intimidation but not any violent crimes yet,” said Mark Baerwaldt, chairman of the Belltown Crime Prevention Council.

The City Council appropriated $250,000 for the organization in 2006 to help it relocate, provided CASA Latina came up with a business plan and “assurance that community members support the plan.”

That’s where CASA Latina has run into problems.

Unhappy surprise

Some Rainier Valley activists were surprised to learn that CASA Latina intended to acquire the Chubby & Tubby garden-center site for $1.4 million.

Darryl Smith, president of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, fired off a Dec. 8 letter to CASA Latina and city officials asking the group to find a different site. The letter was also signed by representatives from the Mount Baker Community Club, Southeast Crime Prevention Council, SEED and Powerful Schools.

The letter stressed that the site was within five blocks of Franklin High and John Muir Elementary. It noted that two nearby markets sold alcoholic beverages, “setting the stage for people who are seeking work and social support to be undermined by easy access to alcohol.”

It also emphasized that local activists had spent months working with Mayor Greg Nickels’ staff to draw up a “Community Development Action Agenda,” a 15-page blueprint of goals and recommendations.

The agenda is aimed, in part, at capitalizing on the $2.4 billion, 14-mile light-rail line being built from Tukwila through Rainier Valley to downtown’s Westlake Center. For example, it calls for the city to develop incentives — such as reduced parking requirements — to encourage new transit-oriented development in business districts along Rainier Avenue.

“We recognize that there’s going to be a lot of investment from light rail and the Seattle Housing Authority that will really change the landscape,” said Jill Nishi, the city’s economic-development director.

Smith insists that putting CASA Latina at the Chubby & Tubby property could hinder that economic agenda.

His chief problem with CASA Latina is not the organization itself — he says he would welcome it to other sites in the area — but rather the unaffiliated day laborers who congregate around its Belltown site. If they follow the worker program, they could inhibit growth, he contends.

Diversity issue

Smith’s letter struck a nerve with people in Rainier Valley.

The Seattle Star newspaper editorialized that the local chamber was wrong to “take up the pitchfork” against CASA Latina. The editorial said the chamber needed to “walk the talk” about embracing diversity and welcome CASA Latina.

Latino activist Martinez emphasized that the chamber’s views do not represent all of Rainier Valley, particularly when it comes to development that might displace residents. “I have watched the good and bad and seen long-term residents driven out by rising housing costs,” Martinez said.

Smith, an African-American real-estate agent who ran for City Council in 2003 on a platform that stressed the need for affordable housing, was stung by the reaction to his letter.

“I am sorry and disappointed if people took offense at it,” he said.

Smith chafed at suggestions that he does not welcome diversity in Rainier Valley. Speaking personally and not for the chamber, he said the area’s diversity “is why many of us are here.”

CASA Latina’s Stern maintains that unaffiliated workers wouldn’t follow CASA Latina to Rainier Avenue. Others, including Belltown’s Baerwaldt, agree it’s unlikely.

But city officials, including Nickels, say Stern must resolve issues with community members before the city will release money to help purchase the Chubby & Tubby property.

Stern plans to meet with a group of community activists Thursday in an effort to mediate differences. On Feb. 15, Stern and CASA Latina supporters will visit the Mount Baker Community Club, a meeting that is expected to be crucial in taking the community pulse and resolving conflicts.

Richardson, a former affordable-housing director for the city, said he would give CASA Latina a chance to make its case.

“I want to be as politically sensitive as I can. I’m concerned about the location of the day-worker program. But out of fairness to them I have to give them their day in court to show us how this can work,” he said.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com