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2013’s #8 Most-Read: How city wastes light rail in SE Seattle

Good thing it's not an ugly parking lot. Credit: Eric Scigliano

It might not be obvious what bowties, vacant lots and urban transit have to do with each other. But they all coalesced in a coincidence of recent events that shed new light on what is, for me, a too-familiar subject: Southeast Seattle, and just what a misunderstood, often mistreated misfit it is within the broader city of Seattle.

First, the bowties. An ebullient gent who always wears them, name of Charlie Staadecker, marched into the Crosscut office to break pizza with editors and explain why, after a lifetime in business, he should become Seattle’s mayor in order to (you guessed it) “give something back.” Well, City Hall once had its “Streetcar Charlie” (Councilman Charles M. Carroll), why not a Bowtie Charlie? With a difference: Bowtie Charlie would surely never be indicted for corrupt gambling ties, as Streetcar Charlie was. (The charges were dismissed.)

The session soon took a slightly surreal turn. Staadecker got off on the wrong foot with one attendee, Beacon Lights blogger and City Living columnist Craig Thompson. “You look skeptical,” Staadecker said earnestly, like a salesman tugging the line. Thompson, feeling challenged, recounted his civic awards and other neighborhood bona fides and recited a familiar factoid, that the Rainier Valley’s 98118 (where I live) is “the most diverse zip code in the United States.” And he suggested, more than skeptically, that Staadecker and a lot of other folks around town didn’t know anything about the neighborhood.

Staadecker didn’t help that impression when he started talking about “Southeast Asia — I mean, Southeast Seattle.” But he recovered by showing he did know where Columbia City is (the one showpiece Southeast neighborhood everyone knows about, and where they’ll likely assume you live if you’re down here) and used it to illustrate his politics of collaboration and conciliation: He recalled the lethal, predawn March 22 raid on a Columbia City home by a Bellevue Police SWAT team. Seattle police, who accompanied the raid, should have gone door to door, said Staadecker, and explained to neighbors what was going on so they wouldn’t feel frightened or confused. That presumes the police could and would give a coherent, forthright explanation of what they were doing, which they haven’t done since. And  it’s not clear that residents in a city with a dismal recent history of police over-reaction, who’d just watched suburban ninja cops gun down a guy who was trying to drive away and then (according to one neighbor’s account) stand around chatting over coffee and donuts, would feel relieved at having more cops knocking on their doors.

That evening I attended a much larger forum in the heart of the Valley — a public meeting at the New Holly Gathering Place, the meeting hall for the mixed-income community that replaced the old Holly Park projects. It was convened by the Othello Station Community Advisory Team, which assists the City of Seattle and its partner agencies in their struggle to build a showpiece TOD (transit-oriented development) community around the Othello light-rail station. It too soon took on an air of unreality, making me wonder if the officials who are supposedly guiding a glorious revival of the Othello junction and rest of the Rainier Valley have any better idea what’s going on down there than Charlie Staadecker.

The session's hosts promised to answer two questions: “What’s going on with the vacant and underused land around Othello Station?” and “How can the community help attract new development and jobs to the area?” The answers from the representatives of various civic, transit, housing and development agencies sitting on the stage boiled down, for the first question: Not much. And for the second: Trust us.

The billions of public dollars spent to build the Link rail line and transform the drab old Rainier Vista and Holly Park projects into leafy, attractive new-urbanist villages were supposed to make the MLK corridor a magnet for private investment. But so far it ain’t happening; just one market-rate project, the spiffy 351-unit Station at Othello Park apartments at the southeast corner of Othello Street and MLK Way, opened, bravely, two years ago. Othello Station, as everyone calls it, jumped out ahead of the market, then struggled to get tenants and reportedly began accepting subsidized vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority, leading some paying full freight to complain about living in a "ghetto"; class and racial lines aren't easily effaced. (Othello Partners, the developer, hasn't returned calls for comment.)

Otherwise, the junction looks almost as blighted as ever. And change ain’t going to happen on the private dime, Tony To, the glowering director of the nonprofit housing powerhouse HomeSight, told the New Holly audience. “The cost of new construction doesn’t pencil out here. The cost of building is the same on Othello or Capitol Hill. But you only get two-thirds of the residential rent or half the commercial rent you get on Capitol Hill. And lenders want 40 to 50 percent equity to lend down here. Developers want 12 to 15, not 7 to 8 percent return on equity for the risk of building here. How do you fill that gap?”

The implicit answer: By running more housing levies and securing more HUD grants to fund organizations like To’s to build more subsidized housing. Some residents contend the overconcentration of low-income housing and social services in Southeast Seattle depresses the market, discourages private development (including commercial development that might bring much-needed jobs and amenities) and feeds the vicious cycle of private disinvestment. Still, Nora Liu, who oversees neighborhood planning at the city’s Department of Planning and Development, told the New Holly crowd to get ready for more: “Even though there is great affordable housing that SHA provides, there will be needs for additional stuff — as well as market rate.”

Others speakers voiced a more bullish view than To’s. They warned of a “land rush” and “gentrification” bearing down on the Rainier Valley. “There are early indicators of displacement happening,” said Ryan Curren, a community development specialist at the city’s Housing Office.

The city’s announced policy is actually to prevent private investment and development around Othello and other rail stations, if that development doesn’t have the height, density and affordable housing it wants to see there. A little over a year ago, the city’s housing director, Rick Hooper, proudly announced to the Rainier Chamber of Commerce that it had secured a grant from HUD to secure key sites around the stations — “to tie up property now while it’s just taking off. Eventually it will be used to provide affordable housing.”

When I asked Hooper about that strategy, he explained that “we’re trying to insure that new development right adjacent to the new station area is good transit-oriented development — buildings that make full use of the zoning capacity, five or six stories with commercial space on the ground floor” (rather than the smaller projects the market might actually support). And, he said, the experience of “other cities that are farther ahead with rail transit, such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco” showed that “if we don’t do something now to make sure development is affordable, land values will get too high and we’ll lose the chance.” As in the rest of the Seattle, where City Hall is content to let values rise and investors invest.

Different as such public-sector boosterism sounds from Tony To’s gloomsterism, it leads to the same strategy: public rather than private development. Perhaps it will lead to a TOD jubilee, a gleaming forest of suitably dense, suitably hip and urban midrises like the Station at Othello Park. But for now the view from Othello station looks more like Urban Removal — a preemptive version of the aborted Urban Renewal of the 1960s. A lot of “renewal” only got as far as tearing down old inner city neighborhoods, displacing their mostly minority residents, and leaving vacant wastelands in its wake.

Convenient though it is for many Southeast residents (including your correspondent), the rail line has spawned its own mini-blight. A spitball shot west of the Othello station, across a narrow, largely unpeopled sidewalk, lies a strip of immigrant-owned shops and phõ’ joints. Some are empty. Others have turned their main access and signage around to face the dreary parking lot on the other side; it’s more appealing than the trains passing eerily (if quietly) close.

The first question from the New Holly audience following the official presentations went straight to that point: “How about temporary uses for the empty lots, like parking or community gardens?”

Seattle Housing Authority rep Brian Sullivan shot down those ideas: Parking would go against “city policy” (which in the name of car transit purity denies Southeast Seattle the park-and-rides offered at transit hubs elsewhere in the region, including the Tukwila station on the same rail line and Northgate at the city’s other end). Plus it might be an “eyesore.” And gardens are “a lot of work.” Sullivan suggested instead a farmer’s market: “I’m interested in that idea.”

Not Tony To. “The problem with farmer’s markets is they don’t want to be temporary,” he interjected. “They’re fighting to keep one in Columbia City now.”

Sound Transit representative Rachel Smith, evincing her agency’s characteristic solicitude for the neighborhood, shot down the whole idea: “We want to focus on selling our lots, not waste energy on temporary uses.” (Sound Transit later sent this clarifying note: "Sound Transit is working to sell several small parcels along the alignment over the next year. In the meantime, we would entertain temporary uses and passed that along during the meeting.")

And so, as so often, the perfect trumps the good. The lots stay locked up and barren. Call it TOW — transit-oriented wasteland.

Disclosure: As a Southeast Seattle resident and property owner, the author has a financial and emotional stake in how the community fares.

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