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Capitol Hill confronts change

Hill denizens gather for a forum on change. Credit: Capitol Hill Housing

It seems ironic that in the midst of Seattle's booming urban growth the big complaints about it would be coming from Seattle's most urban of neighborhoods, Capitol Hill.

But angst is palpable, even in a neighborhood that has mostly embraced change. A recent Capitol Hill Housing Community Forum took "There Goes the Neighborhood" as its theme. The core of that neighborhood is the Broadway business district which is the center of the Hill economically, culturally and geographically. It is dense, filled with young people and small retailers, and features all the urban vibrancy planners and developers pine for.

There is a lot of new development in the corridor. Chris Persons of Capitol Hill Housing said there are 2,816 apartment units in the pipeline. There is the Sound Transit remake around Broadway's light rail station-to-be. There is work on the new streetcar line. Even positive changes can trigger uncertainty. The environment is challenging for retailers because of high rents and disruptive construction. Even some iconic standbys have fallen victim: The Bauhaus project looms, B&O Espresso has fled to Ballard, and the Egyptian Theater is closing. There are worries that cheap retail space is being replaced by pricey new space, endangering small, funky, local businesses.

There is concern about life on the streets too. Some business owners and landlords see their beloved Pike-Pine turning into another Belltown with young club-goers puking on the sidewalks and homeless people sleeping in doorways. A recent Kidder Mathew's report for the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce recommends a crackdown on public drunkenness, more cops and stricter handling of panhandlers in the supposed capital of Seattle tolerance.

There is angst too about "outsiders." Partly this stems from the Hill's residents feeling priced out. The median rent for a two-bedroom unit, according to Zillow, is $2,100 per month. And there is the apodment controversy, worries that somehow it will attract the "wrong" element. Many Hill residents are young with below-the-median household incomes. Apodments or no, one question raised at the forum was whether artists, one of the Hill's cultural backbones, are being pushed out. Keeping the "creative class" creating in a neighborhood where it has flourished for decades is a challange.

Recent news coverage of a hate crime incident on East Pike described the five men accused as "outsiders" who all had "out-of-state home addresses," as if to suggest such problems are due to transients or newcomers, not locals. That characterization raised some eye-brows.

Who on the Hill is not an outsider, at least originally? Is Capitol Hill being invaded by people who don't share the neighborhood's values? Outsiders are also blamed by some for the Belltown-ization of Pike-Pine. This is the alleged place of choice for new Amazon workers (dubbed Am-holes in South Lake Union) looking to party.

Another question raised at the forum was whether Capitol Hill is still the center of the city's LBGT community. Panelist Sally Clark said that it was "one" of the centers, a polite way of saying things have changed. Evidence of that shift was immediately forthcoming when an audience member asked, "What's LBGT?" Clark had to explain the acronym — on Capitol Hill!

All of this suggests a broader anxiety that something good and character-defining is being jeopardized or replaced with something worse, or at least unknown. That concern, in different forms, has been heard throughout Seattle for years, in Ballard, West Seattle, the Central District, Cascade, the South End, Mt. Baker, Pioneer Square. . . This tension creates a civic chafing.

Those who complain about change are frequently dismissed as NIMBY's, and often rightly so. Some people are selfish assholes. But it's too easy to dismiss change skeptics. They are often the straw men and women of local debates. It's crucial that people care about their backyards, their streets, their pocket parks, as well as the well-being of their neighbors. There is plenty to suggest that Capitol Hill residents care a great deal about their turf and the urban ecosystems they have cultivated for generations. Urbanization is a phenomenon that must be managed.

Seattle neighborhoods may never achieve the perfect balance of work, play, affordability, lifestyle, social justice, innovation, heritage, urban edge, public safety. The parts keep moving and the experts say more growth is coming. Economies boom and bust. Jobs come and go. They move overseas or, if you're Boeing, to South Carolina. Immigrants arrive, native sons and daughters move elsewhere.

Density offers solutions. It also brings challenges. Single family homes aren't the enemy, but they're not what all people need — or can afford. Resisting change as an end in itself is not a sustainable strategy, nor is building one's way to happiness with construction cranes.

The answers to livability are a continuously negotiated settlement, not a permanent contract set in stone.

Capitol Hill is an extraordinary neighborhood — unique, historic, dynamic, chaotic, creative. In many ways, it has the least to fear — It is the envy of regional urbanists — and the most to lose.

No culture, much less a vibrant one, is immune from change. Nor is it immune from trends beyond local control, such as the impacts of chain retail, cuts in mental health programs, displacement, the corporatization of everything. Rapid change is part of our culture. Capitol Hill, and Seattle, must face what seems like a tricky contradiction: Embrace the change and stand our ground, at the same time.

Author's note: Capitol Hill Housing is a public corporation created by the city of Seattle that builds and manages affordable housing on the Hill and elsewhere. They currently own or maintain 44 buildings in the area. The Community Forum is an annual event that tackles different topics. I served on this year's panel, held on June 11 at the Broadway Performance Hall. The Forum is available for view at The Seattle Channel.

Queens of The Hill photo courtesy of sea turtle/Flickr.

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