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The U District’s getting a makeover. Will it displace homeless youth?

One concept for the area around the U District's new light rail station Credit: Credit: U District Square/Studio Meng Strazzara

Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series on how U District development will affect one of the neighborhood's longstanding groups: street youth.

If all goes according to plan, Sound Transit will open its new, North Link light rail underground station in the University District in 2021. It will be one busy station, planners say, whisking passengers from the U District to Westlake in eight minutes and to Northgate in five, some 12,000 boardings per day. Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray calls the station a "catalyst" for U District change. Indeed, the train is expected to open the floodgates of growth in one of Seattle's most crucial, vibrant and complex urban neighborhoods.

The promise of transit-oriented development has shaped plans for the U District over the last decade and those plans continue to evolve. Longtime landowners are anticipating a rush of new high-rise apartments where funky, old rental houses stand today. That transformation is already underway as turn-of-the-century rentals are increasingly being replaced by apartment blocks and townhouses.

As home to the University of Washington, one of the state's great economic and educational engines, the impact is already being felt. The UW has picked up the pace of development in the area. It is building more housing for students on the West Campus (west of 15th Ave. NE), adding some 2,000 units to the existing 3,000 by 2015. The university needs more office space too. The UW Tower is maxed out, says Theresa Doherty, the school’s director of regional and community relations.

The school is also trying to turn itself into a vital hub for new private ventures, commercializing ideas that emerge from its labs and research departments. Condon Hall, the old law school on Campus Parkway, has been re-dubbed “Start-Up Hall”, a nursery to incubate new ventures. As high-tech and biotech companies have flourished, whole neighborhoods like South Lake Union and Fremont are getting makeovers. The U District presents another intriguing urban canvas.

University-driven startups have been crucial to cultivating high-tech regions like Silicon Valley, which is closely connected to Stanford University. UW president Michael Young is a commercialization booster, telling GeekWire it would be great if the effort put “a few more Porsches in the faculty parking lot,” though he sees the main purpose as extending the UW’s mission to do “good.” UW associate vice president Norm Arkans calls what’s to come “South Lake Union North.”

Along with Porsches, the UW's commercialization efforts will likely draw new residents and employees to the U District. Workers for the “next Amazon” promise to alter the economic ecology of the neighborhood, which has until now been home to students in affordable housing. The UW's Theresa Doherty says the neighborhood, which is represented by the planning group University Partnership, wants to see more non-student residents.

Construction of the U District light rail station is well underway at Brooklyn and 43rd. Credit: Allyce Andrew

While private developers will serve that emerging housing market, the university has pledged to emphasize transit-oriented development. It owns the development rights to build on top of the underground U District Station under construction at 43rd and Brooklyn. The station is ground zero for U District change. While the UW has no specific plan as yet, officials are looking at both office space and housing for the site.

To guide all the change, Seattle issued a new Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in April. The EIS looks at three zoning strategies for the neighborhood's future. The DEIS defines the neighborhood as running from Portage Bay on the south to Ravenna Boulevard on the north, and from 15th Ave. NE on the east to I-5 on the west. In other words, it excludes the UW's main campus, which operates independently and where most of the UW's employees work.

The DEIS explores three alternate development scenarios: dense, denser and densest. As a basic proposition, it assumes a new U District capacity for 3,900 more housing units and 4,800 new jobs by 2035. Needless to say, property values are expected to soar along with high-rises that could reach 340 feet in some places. That's taller than UW Tower.

The neighborhood has been discussing the potential and planning for years. Sound Transit is opening the floodgates. Change that seems like a slow-moving tsunami now will pick up speed.

Everyone — business, university, retailers and residents — seems to like the idea of a more urbanized neighborhood. The U District has always had plenty of urban edge, what with crime, drugs, hard partying frat boys, hungry artists, protesters, dropouts, eclectic retail and immigrant businesses. It’s already heavily reliant on transit — more than 70 percent of the people who work there commute by means other than single occupancy vehicles. And let's face it: Few U District residents live there for the neighborhood's old Seattle, low density residential style. Bob Quinn, late founder of the District's needle exchange liked to say, "The U District is my city and Seattle is my suburb."

Quinn''s comment captures two interesting U District qualities. One is its strong urban flavor: walkable, edgy, diverse, real. The other is the loyalty and commitment it engenders from its denizens, including its large populations of homeless and at-risk youth. According to new survey work by King County, an estimated one-fifth of 12-24-year-olds who sign up with social service providers make their first contact in the U District.

Numerous churches and social service programs that support the homeless and at-risk population make their homes there. A response in some cases to empty pews has turned into a spirited commitment to providing food, shelter and help for those in need. The area is currently home to approximately one-third of all youth homeless services in King County, according to Mark Putnam, director of the Committee to End Homelessness. That makes the U District perhaps the largest single youth node, attracting hundreds of young people, though the exact numbers are elusive. Estimates of the county's population of homeless (of all ages) comes from a one-night count by volunteers. This January's count tallied 3,117, the vast majority in Seattle. That represents a 14 percent increase over 2013.

Shilo Murphy is executive director of The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance, the organization that runs the District’s needle exchange. Born and raised in the District, he was once a homeless "Ave Rat" himself. Murphy says that his commitment, and the commitment of other young people, to the District is intense.

Young people who are living on the streets build place-loyal communities. Formerly homeless youth who have stayed and now work in the neighborhood provide support for young people just hitting the streets. Murphy hosts an annual barbecue for current Ave Rats and fellow alumni, who even have their own Facebook page. The sense of continuity and connection is important. Murphy has adopted Bob Quinn’s idea of the U District as his city as his own “mantra.”

Street youth here are a fixture in the neighborhood. They settle there for specific reasons. Unlike Murphy, most don’t hail from the District. It’s a hangout and a refuge from troubles elsewhere, especially at home. Yet they are not strictly an itinerant, couch-surfing population that is easily displaced. Street kids become family, the streets become home. For some, the Ave is quite literally their living room. They stake out spots to sit, lie and congregate, annoying as that is to many locals. In the parking lot next to the Radio Shack on the Ave. the other day, I saw a young man relaxing in a discarded easy chair, sprawled like the TV character Al Bundy in his Barcalounger.

Kristine Cunningham is executive director of ROOTS (Rising Out of the Shadows), a homeless shelter for 18 to 25 years olds that's run out of the District's University Temple United Methodist Church. (Disclosure: My wife's family has a long association with the church and the programs there.) Cunningham says the young adults she works with have a stronger sense of home in the U District than many of the UW students who volunteer at the shelter. When she runs clean-up crews prior to the U District's annual May street fair, she says her street kids do the best job. They not only know the neighborhood's nooks and crannies, they care about it more than anyone else.

Young people sink roots in the District for several reasons. For one thing, to paraphrase the old saying, it's where the young people are. And they’re there in large numbers: 75 percent of U District residents are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to the 2010 Census. Street kids may not be in school, but they want to be near their peers, for both social and safety reasons. Homeless youth often self-segregate, steering clear of the older homeless population to avoid being vulnerable and exploited.

Another reason is fitting in, "camouflaging." In the District, kids with backpacks don't stand out as homeless. Also, the shops and retail services for college kids — coffee houses, fast food joints — work for street kids too. There’s also a higher degree of diversity in the neighborhood, and as many as 75 percent of homeless youth are either LBGTQ or kids of color. The U District is 46 percent minority, compared with 34 percent city-wide. Tolerance seems stronger in the college community.

For some homeless youth headquartering in the U District is a business decision — they might be selling pot or other drugs to a ready market of more affluent university students. With pot legally available for those age 21 and over there is still going to be, like it or not, a significant number of potential customers there.

The cluster of social services in the District, like the needle exchange, thrift stores, teen feeds and shelters, is also an attraction. In his memoir, “Rites of Passage: Seattle in the Sixties," the late historian Walt Crowley wrote about the influx of street youth in the 1960s. Crowley helped set up an early District shelter program in 1970 and worked with local churches to get help for kids who floated through during the hippie era. Before that, there were the District's so-called "fringies," a population of young people who hung on at the edges of the university.

In 1965, the UW convened a panel to discuss the problems with these "fringies." Panelists determined that there were "good fringies," essentially bohemian kids who cleaned up nicely if they needed to, and "bad fringies." The latter were easy to detect, according to a report on the findings in The Seattle Times: "Bad fringies … do not bathe. They go barefoot, steal, bother old women, and in general are offensive to others. They are not university students. … Bad fringies have beards." The Times' front-page headline announced the panel’s bottom line: "Trouble Makers Smell, Panel at UW Concludes."

University Ave. has been a haven for street youth for decades. Credit: Allyce Andrew

If the faces and styles change, the fact is that street youth have been a constant presence in the U District for at least the last half century. Often misunderstood, conflated, stigmatized and "otherized," they are a multi-generational fact of neighborhood life, and while some view the coming changes as an opportunity to move them out, homeless youth are as much a part of the place as the students, professors, baristas and shopkeepers.

The coming changes pose challenges for this population, however. One challenge is what to do about public open space. A city parks report in 2005 estimated that the U District was running an open space deficit of two-three acres. The 2004 Comp Plan had already noted that growth was cutting into "Breathing Room Open Space." The need (and deficit) city-wide will only increase with development. With land values rising, open space won't get any cheaper.

The 2005 University District Park Plan stated that the highest priority was a "one-half acre [park], in a high-volume pedestrian area with current or projected multi-family mixed-use buildings; this type of park should be designed to accommodate a variety of recreation uses." In other words, the optimal spot — on Brooklyn Ave. between 43rd NE and 47th NE — is in the vicinity of the light rail station. That preference, according to the DEIS, was reaffirmed in the U District Design Framework developed in 2012-13.

But there is resistance to the approach. Some want to see the area immediately above and around the U District Station developed as densely as possible; put a park or a plaza elsewhere, they argue. Others question the need; it's not like nearby parks are totally inaccessible. Cowen Park is just north of the District, the Burke-Gilman Trail is on the south end. The UW’s Norm Arkans also points to the UW campus and Red Square. In good weather, a lot of non-students enjoy the beauties of what he called the “sylvan” campus. But the UW, with its lovely gardens and open space, is not a public park. There are no playgrounds, no public picnic areas, no skateboard parks and no room for the homeless. It's essentially a semi-gated community.

Some local merchants and shop owners who have dealt with the crime and hassle of the streets for years are opposed to anything that might get taken over by street youth or criminal elements like drug dealers. Alleys and parking lots, like the one adjacent to Jack in the Box on the Ave. at 50th NE, have been chronic trouble spots. For some, more public space just means more trouble.

Still, if the homeless aren't going anywhere, if homelessness isn’t in fact ended in the next seven years, if street kids are in fact at home in the neighborhood as an essentially permanent, albeit fluid community, why can't we develop public spaces that work for everyone? The fact that kids sit on sidewalks is no argument to stop building sidewalks. The same goes for parks and plazas.

The year 2021 and the surge of light rail-spurred change it promises is still a ways off. But key decisions are being made now. A series of three public forums will be held later this year to discuss the need for public space, and the UW’s Theresa Doherty says the neighborhood's parks plan will be updated. A design open house on the U District took place last week at University Temple Methodist Church, and comments on the DEIS are due in June.

This is the time to explore how homeless youth fit into the plans.

Part 2: Homeless Youth and Public Space: Is there a design for that?
Kristine Cunningham photo courtesy of M. Barrett Miller/Flickr.

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