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Think tank to Seattle: Forget redeveloping Rainier Beach. Try a little TLC.

Sound Transit's Rainier Beach Station Credit: Flickr user Dennis Hamilton

When Mayor Murray announced two weeks ago that a delegation from the renowned Urban Land Institute (ULI) would visit and advise on what to do with Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, it alarmed some wary Southeast Seattleites, for two reasons.

First, because of the ULI’s history. It was created by the real estate industry in 1938 to advocate “urban renewal,” which all too often translated into urban removal. And it has more recently endorsed the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment, a very fraught subject in Southeast Seattle following the Nickels Administration’s efforts to deploy it there.

And second because of the announced goal of the year-long consultation that the Land Institute would provide the city: “To review and comment on plans for transit oriented development and job growth in Rainier Beach.”

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is another fraught subject down here; one stop up the light-rail line at Othello Station, it neglected neighborhood needs and went bust. Patricia Paschal, a longtime Othello activist, summed up the apprehension: “Light rail has been operating for six years and none of the promised prosperity has materialized. How much of our tax money will this review cost? Maybe the City should take the focus off transit-oriented [development] and put it on strengthening the existing community.”

Paschal wasn’t among the dozens of citizens and officials the Land Institute delegation interviewed last week. But aside from the question of city funds (the Land Institute pays its way and covers the city’s costs to participate), her critique was prophetic. After three days exploring Rainier Beach, the delegation of design and development experts and officials from other cities came to exactly the same conclusion: Forget, for now anyway, about trying to lure developers to put up Othello Station-style midrise TOD. Concentrate on what the neighborhood needs and wants now. Which means (what a concept!) listening to it.

To understand how this change of focus came about, let’s go back to how this visitation came to be. Six years ago, with the National League of Cities lending its imprimatur, the Urban Land Institute founded the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership. Its declared mission: “To empower leaders in the public sector to envision, build, and sustain successful 21st-century communities.” (Why mayors rather than ordinary citizens need empowering, especially in cities like Seattle with strong-mayor charters, isn’t immediately clear). But as the Rose Center’s homepage goes on to explain, it’s really about supporting “excellence in land use decision making.” You can see why some wary residents worry about this being a stalking horse for big development.

The Rose Center’s approach is however more nuanced. Each year it offer mayors and key staffers in four cities the chance to become “Rose Center fellows” and receive year-long consultation on some major development or redevelopment challenge. This consultation comes not just from house experts but from past fellows, making it a sort of on-the-ground exchange program between cities.

Many of the fellowships have gone to cities such as Detroit. Philadelphia, Hartford, and Memphis that have suffered significant economic and/or population declines. But the Rose Center had wanted from the start to come to Seattle. “We like a mix of strong and weak markets,” says Gideon Berger, the program’s senior director, “and it’s hard to find a stronger market than Seattle.” Furthermore, Berger says, “we like to work with mayors when they’re newly elected. They seem most eager to get advice when they’re new in office.”

Finally, the fellowship program looks for “stability” – i.e. mayors who will be around long enough and have enough clout to act on what they learn. “There seemed to be a lot of mayoral instability before,” Berger says diplomatically of Murray’s one-term predecessor, Mike McGinn. By contrast, “Mayor Murray has had some early successes.” Translation: this mayor seems worth the investment.

The Rainier Beach focus reflected Murray’s declared equity agenda and promise to do more for Southeast Seattle. What the visiting Rose Fellows and development experts saw at Rainier Beach was a Seattle far removed from the prevailing narrative of Shanghai-pace growth at South Lake Union and nosebleed housing prices in once-sleepy neighborhoods like Ballard. Their preliminary findings, PowerPointed last Thursday at the downtown library, were a catalog of deferred action, missed opportunities, unmade connections, and enduring potential.

One thing to defer: TOD dreams. Light rail can hardly seed new development when it hasn’t rooted in the existing neighborhood. Rainier’s Beach’s commercial and civic life lies a half-mile away on Rainier Avenue. Henderson, the street connecting them, is a dreary gauntlet of worn low-rise apartments, vacant lots, and cracked sidewalks, passing under ominous high-tension wires. Rainier Ave’s transit lifeline, the Route 7 bus, bypasses the station; other, less frequent routes from Renton do connect along Henderson Street, but that compounds commute time and trouble.

Some of the out-of-towners seemed surprised to find no park-and-ride lot, or even kiss-and-ride dropoff, at the rail station. Here, as elsewhere along the Link line, the city forbade station parking to discourage driving, even driving to take transit. (Tukwila didn’t, so suburban trainriders get 662 free parking spaces, while Seattleites who can’t walk or bike to the stations play park-and-hide on city streets, wait for connector buses (if any), or just give up and drive. And struggling restaurants and other businesses near Othello Station miss out on an influx of potential park-and-ride customers.)

At the same time, the delegation noted some important assets at Rainier Beach that have been underexploited and often unappreciated. One, the area’s rich ethnic diversity, gets much lip service. Others, less appreciated, are its natural beauty and water access, with a beachfront facing Mt. Rainier and flanked by a public high school and relatively inexpensive apartments and condos. This is one stretch of Lake Washington shoreline that hasn’t gone Gold Coast.

Surely the Seattle Parks Department and others could do more to exploit these advantages. How about kayak and paddleboard rentals, perhaps a human-powered boat fair to counter the Seafair thunderboats to the north?

It’s not fair to say that the public sector hasn’t invested in Rainier Beach. The school district installed a topflight Performing Arts Center at Rainier Beach High in 1998. Mayor McGinn persevered to fulfill a promise to replace Rainier Beach’s decrepit community center and swimming pool at Rainier and Henderson, even as he had to slash the overall city budget.

A contracting snafu delayed construction, and Rainier Beach languished without swimming, basketball courts, and other activities for three years. Maybe it’s just coincidence that street shootings spiked then. Maybe not. But the new community center may be the snazziest in town; its excellent swimming and play pools (I hate to publicize this) attract swimmers from across town. All this, plus the rail station and beach park and a new library one block down Rainier, ought to form the armature of a vital pedestrian district. But grim sidewalks, scanty and scary pedestrian crossings, chainlink fences, and bank-branch and fast-food parking lots. As the ULI/Rose Center presentation notes, there’s no “coherent sense of place,” no there between the amenities – “lots of open space but no common ground.”

The not-so-inviting view down Henderson from the Rainier Beach rail station.
The not-so-inviting view down Henderson from the Rainier Beach rail station.

“We heard about diversity,” Rose fellow Karen Abrams, who heads Pittsburgh’s Redevelopment Authority, told Murray and the other locals assembled last Thursday. “But we didn’t feel it when we got off at the light rail stop. We wanted to see a lot more public art there.” (Other light-rail stations have prominent artworks celebrating their environs.)

Rather than grand redevelopment, she (and the delegation as a whole) urged the city to go for “low-hanging fruit” and other measures that “could be implemented immediately”: art and way-finding signage, which is currently poor to nonexistent. Relocate Route 7 layovers to the rail station. Fix and maintain pedestrian infrastructure. Beautify the streetscape.

Private decoration on Henderson, in the absence of civic beautification.
Private decoration on Henderson, in the absence of civic beautification.

“Activate open space” – say, with community cookouts on vacant lots. Encourage street food.

Here, Seattle’s already ahead of most cities; Pittsburgh’s Abrams marveled at what she called a “food bus,” a.k.a. a taco truck. After last Thursday’s presentation, I chatted with another attendee, architect and development strategist David Harmon. He thought the ULI team missed an important piece: low-cost venues for fledgling retailers who can’t afford the storefronts in conventional TOD projects. For a model, Harmon suggested, look to the Pike Place Market. At its founding 108 years ago, it provided just the sort of entrée for Italian and Japanese immigrant farmers that today’s immigrants could use.

Indeed, why not a farmer’s market in Rainier Beach? It’s farther from Columbia City’s market than the Queen Anne and Fremont farmer’s markets are from each other. And many Rainier Beach lots are actually big enough for truck gardening.

All this, plus concerted graffiti removal, would serve an essential need to, in the ULI panel’s words, “change the perception of public safety.” The panel noted receiving three environmental design plans to that end from the Seattle Neighborhood Group. They join other plans that have been thoughtfully developed and thoughtlessly neglected over the years.

Foremost among these is the well-regarded Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan completed in 2004 and updated in 2012. It identifies many of same needs as the envisions a welcoming, tree-lined “gateway to Seattle” on MLK Way and “grand boulevard” along Henderson Street, plus downzoning Henderson to encourage neighborhood business and forestall Othello-style midrise TOD.

But as for implementation, “the plan is stuck,” the ULI panel’s co-chair Nadine Fogarty, a Berkeley-based TOD expert, told the Seattleites Thursday. “I would go further,” Murray responded. “It’s actually broken.” He noted diplomatically that while “two of the last four mayors were engaged” in neighborhoods like Rainier Beach, two (presumably Paul Schell and Greg Nickels) took a “more diffused” view. The result: “Our departments are very siloed.” Transportation doesn’t talk to Planning and Development, and so on and on. “Lack of integration is the problem we’re dealing with. We need not just a philosophical but a structural reset.”

So hizzoner gets it. Whether or not he learns anything new from this exercise, it ought to help concentrate his and his staff’s minds. But “structural reset” raises a familiar question: As City Hall sets out to fix itself, will it once again forget to fix up Rainier Beach?

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