Is White Center really part of Seattle?

Legislative tinkering is making annexation of the North Highline/White Center area slightly more attractive, but the City Council is not buying Mayor Nickels' numbers. If Seattle helps thy neighbor might it also beggar thy neighborhoods?
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Should White Center be annexed by Seattle, Burien, or no one?

Legislative tinkering is making annexation of the North Highline/White Center area slightly more attractive, but the City Council is not buying Mayor Nickels' numbers. If Seattle helps thy neighbor might it also beggar thy neighborhoods?

'ꀜWhite Center is southeast Spokane,'ꀝ says former King County Executive Ron Sims, speaking of the eastern Washington neighborhood where he grew up. 'ꀜAnd I can tell you, nobody gave a rat about southeast Spokane.'ꀝ

White Center, just across Roxbury Street from West Seattle, may be, as Sims suggests, the most "urban" area in the entire state. It has a wide assortment of ethnic groups, and many recent immigrants. Appreciable numbers of residents speak Spanish, Chinese, African languages, and Tagalog. Nearly 6 percent of the population speaks Mon-Khmer, or Cambodian, and 9.2 percent speaks Vietnamese. The web site for the Greenbridge public housing project, which stands on a hill above the White Center business district, notes that 'ꀜFamily Services staff have the capacity to serve residents who speak Vietnamese, Cambodian, Somali, Khmu, and English.'ꀝ

White Center's shopping area certainly includes some of the metropolitan area's more interesting blocks — the halal butcher shop, the carniceria, the Salvadorean Bakery — but the accompanying problems are hard to miss. Census numbers show a median household income more than 20 percent below King County's, and a percentage of adults with bachelors' degrees less than one-third the county level. An estimated 13.7 percent of households are 'ꀝlinguistically isolated.'ꀝ King County's Office of Business Relations and Economic Development says: 'ꀜWhite Center is characterized by a crumbling infrastructure and a myriad of social and economic issues."

White Center's diversity and urban problems reside in a peculiar governmental limbo: unincorporated King County. The blocks north and south of the Seattle city limit form parts of the same urban fabric, and King County Council Council chair Dow Constantine, whose district includes both, says some of his White Center constituents don't even realize they're not in Seattle. Nevertheless, no one even pretends that King County has provided an urban level of services. Constantine, a candidate to succeed Sims as King County Executive, points to sidewalks he got installed in the White Center business district, but he says bluntly that King County 'ꀜhas not kept up with the infrastructure needs.'ꀝ

One close observer suggests that despite Sims' personal appreciation of its urbanness, the county officials over whom he presided and the regulations they enforced tended to treat White Center — inappropriately — as just another suburb.

State Representative Ross Hunter, another candidate to succeed Sims, says that providing services to White Center and other unincorporated urban areas has created one-third of the county's enormous budget gap.

That may all be about to change. Or it may not.

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels has wanted to annex at least parts of 'ꀜNorth Highline" — White Center and neighboring Boulevard Park, just east of it — for years, as have some Burien officials. This would be an expensive proposition for either city. To improve the numbers, the state Legislature enacted a statute that would allow a city annexing an unincorporated area to keep an extra .2 percent of the sales tax collected within that area for the next 10 years — unless that city was Seattle. (Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden notes that in Olympia even legislators from Seattle often seem hostile to the city.) The sales tax break would probably provide an extra $5 million a year to help Seattle defray the social service and infrastructure costs of annexation. The city failed twice to get legislation allowing it to collect the extra sales tax.

Last year, after the city's second defeat, Aimee Curl wrote in Seattle Weekly that in 2007, 'ꀜthe proposal to extend the credit to Seattle passed the House, but died in the Senate when Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, wouldn't hear it in her Ways and Means Committee. The House approved the bill again this year, and Prentice made good on her promise to Nickels to hold a hearing — but declined to schedule a subsequent vote on the measure, which once again assured its death. Nickels' office vows to continue the fight. "It's not over," says Kenny Pittman, a senior policy analyst who's been coordinating the effort. But it's not going to be easy. 'ꀜ

And it wasn't over. Late last year, King County, Seattle, Burien, and local fire and water districts signed a memorandum of understanding under which Burien could annex the southern part of North Highline, which includes more established single-family neighborhoods and fewer poor people. Seattle could annex the northern part. Next month, Burien will put annexation up to a vote of the potential annexees. But there's no annexation vote in the northern half of North Highline.

And so the plot continued to thicken. Not long after Seattle signed the MOA, the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 against annexation, fearing it would cost the City money and that Seattle still had a lot of catching up to do for earlier annexed areas still waiting on pledges to build sidewalks and the like. Constantine suggests that the vote was 'ꀜbased on, to put it charitably, a lack of information.'ꀝ

Subsequently, the Legislature gave Seattle the tax break it wanted. Pittman explains that the legislation finally passed largely because of efforts by Rep. Hunter, who was eager to get the cost of urban services off the county's back. (Hunter himself observes that a City Council statement that if the legislation passed, the City would annex North Highline is probably 'ꀜworth a bucket of warm spit.'ꀝ)

After the tax-break legislation died last year, Curl reported that the outcome had made 'ꀜwinners out of...White Center card room owners. Seattle doesn't allow card rooms, but King County does. Doug Harrell, who owns a pair of White Center bowling alley/card room hybrids, Magic Lanes and Roxbury Lanes, testified against the legislation. ''If we were annexed [by Seattle today], my two places would shut down. That's 250 good jobs," Harrell says. "Having the traffic to survive on bowling alone is getting tougher and tougher. My centers wouldn't survive without their card rooms. Right or wrong, that's the fact.'"

This time, however, everybody wins. The card rooms have been transformed from sacrificial lambs to cash cows, since the legislation lets them stay open if White Center is annexed. And it lets Seattle tax them. Pittman suggests that a tax on the casinos' net receipts will close most of the gap between the annual cost of annexation and the revenue that the extra sales tax will provide.

What's in it for Seattle? That depends on whom you talk to. The city has 'ꀜan opportunity to incorporate some great neighborhoods .. . jewels,'ꀝ Pitman says. Besides, 'ꀜwe believe in the goals of growth management"; counties shouldn't be in the business of governing urban densities.

Three years ago, Angela Galloway reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that 'ꀜsome Seattle City Council members are skeptical that it's a good deal for Seattle, despite assurances from Mayor Greg Nickels that the city has an opportunity and a responsibility to annex the area dubbed North Highline, which is home to more than 32,000. 'Initially, I was in favor of it, quite honestly,' said [then] Council President Nick Licata. 'Now I'm leaning against it.' When he asked the mayor's office why Seattle should take in the area, Licata said he was told simply it's 'the right thing to do.''ꀝ

'ꀜ'Being a liberal, I said, yeah, sounds good. But then, you know, you look at the numbers,' Licata said. 'To do the right thing is very costly to the City on an ongoing basis.'"

'ꀜThe sales tax break does not return enough money to the City of Seattle to cover either the one-time amount or the ongoing cost,'ꀝ says City Council candidate David Miller, who has been an activist in his Maple Leaf neighborhood. Sure, 'ꀜI'd like more diversity'ꀝ in the city, Miller says, but instead of annexing new residents, 'ꀜI'd rather do a better job of taking care of the diversity we already have.'ꀝ Seattle's neighborhoods already have a huge backlog of unmet needs. If Seattle annexed North Highline, the list would just get longer. 'ꀜAre we going to go another six decades to get sidewalks in Northeast and Southeast Seattle?'ꀝ he asks.

City council member Jan Drago, who is running for Nickels' job, agrees. Drago says she's 'ꀜskeptical'ꀝ that the numbers will work out as advertised. She also says that by putting Pittman — 'ꀜa good man'ꀝ — on the issue full-time, Nickels has kept the prospect of annexation alive. She suggests that if Seattle government wants to annex part of North Highline, it should ask the people of Seattle what they think about it. 'ꀜWe've put advisory measures on the ballot for less important things,'ꀝ she says.

As for the current line-up of neighborhoods that would like their own infrastructure spruced up, too, Drago agrees with Miller that 'ꀜother areas are still waiting. The best example is the area north of 85th. They still don't have sidewalks or drainage.'ꀝ

Godden acknowledges that some people say, "you can't take care of the neighborhoods you've got.'ꀝ But it's not as though existing neighborhoods were paying their own way; indeed, 'ꀜthere isn't a neighborhood in Seattle that pays for itself . . . except downtown.'ꀝ She says she voted to annex North Highline because 'ꀜI just felt that it's part of Seattle.'ꀝ

Pitman insists that 'ꀜnobody should have a reduction of services as a result of the annexation.'ꀝ

What's in it for White Center? The answer lies mostly in the eye of the beholder. Constantine observes that the preferences of White Center residents are, 'ꀜliterally, all over the map.'ꀝ Some would like to be part of Seattle, others part of Burien; still others would rather keep their separate identity and maintain the status quo.

Social service providers and foundation officials have favored annexation by Seattle. They have reasoned that the bigger city has deeper pockets to pay for services and infrastructure. But others are skeptical. Drago argues that adding White Center would force Seattle to spread the same social service dollars more thinly. The agencies and foundations 'ꀜassume that there are deep pockets in Seattle,'ꀝ says Burien and former White Center activist Cherisse Luxa. For this misconception she blames the mayor. 'ꀜHe's convinced them,'ꀝ she says, but 'ꀜshow me the money, Greg.'ꀝ

The hope that Seattle will open those deep pockets for White Center 'ꀜis illusory,'ꀝ Council candidate Miller says, 'ꀜbut that's what they have been told.'ꀝ Miller thinks Seattle would upzone the area, creating 'ꀜthe same kind of gentrification you see in the Rainier Valley.'ꀝ For that reason, 'ꀜI don't think [Seattle annexation] is'ꀝ in local residents' best interests, he says. Pittman counters that if Seattle annexes the northern part of North Highline, 'ꀜwe'll be sitting down with the communities and determining, with their help, the way they want the community to grow'ꀝ

The state Growth Management Act calls for channeling future growth into urban areas, as do the Cascade Land Conservancy's ambitious Cascade Agenda and the Puget Sound Partnership's Action Agenda. But the region still has a long way to go. Can we make the cities more attractive to more people? Can we make them affordable to those who don't have the bankrolls for downtown condos?

Ron Sims suggests that the way we treat White Center will be "the test of our commitment to urbanism.'ꀝ He may be right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.