How the new Yesler Terrace project was crafted

An architect of the new plan, before the city council for final approval next week, describes how an inclusive process welded together many aspirations for low-income housing.
Crosscut archive image.

A rendering of what the redeveloped Yesler Terrace could look like.

An architect of the new plan, before the city council for final approval next week, describes how an inclusive process welded together many aspirations for low-income housing.

We citizens of Seattle live in a beautiful city that has a well-deserved reputation for innovation and creative, forward-thinking approaches to progressive public policy.  We are a strong, flexible community that can embrace several driving aspirations at once.

As we prepare to celebrate the emergence of a new neighborhood at Yesler Terrace, policy makers are addressing and combining three compelling needs.  First is the provision of new, healthful, low-income housing that will serve current residents and low-income people for generations to come. Second is the region’s broad need for new housing, with good transit connections, for people of all income ranges close to downtown. And third is the social imperative that we do all we can to ensure that low-income people living in the Yesler neighborhood have the opportunity for good education and jobs into the future.

The current housing at Yesler Terrace is more than 70 years old. Both the housing and the infrastructure serving it are decayed and beyond the point where yet another patch-up job can provide useful life into the future.  People should not have to live there now, and the current housing most certainly cannot serve the future generations who will need low-income housing 10, 20, and 50 years from now.  Everyone deserves a safe, healthy place to live, whether they earn a lot of money or not.

Seattle Housing Authority, the agency I head, has planned for the reconstruction and expansion of low-income housing in the neighborhood over the past six years. We have worked with leaders from all sectors of the community, and – together – we have developed a vision for the Yesler Terrace neighborhood that dramatically increases housing options for low- and moderate-income people, and also meets other critical needs for our growing city:

•More housing close to downtown and jobs, with terrific mass transit options.

•A vibrant neighborhood, such as other parts of First Hill,  where people from all walks of life can live, work, and play together, across lines of income, race, and cultural heritage.

•And, since it is planned from the ground up, a neighborhood that can embrace goals for open space and environmental excellence.

To translate vision into reality, Seattle Housing has worked closely with Mayor McGinn and his departments and with the City Council.  Keenly aware that “the devil is in the details,” every piece of the vision has been vetted and examined for potential issues, and the concerns of citizens and residents have been heard and addressed through more than a dozen public meetings and three City-sponsored public hearings in addition to the six years of community engagement coordinated by Seattle Housing Authority.

The result of the last two years of close collaboration with city leaders is a package of carefully crafted land use controls and an historic Cooperative Agreement that the Special Committee of the City Council passed on August 16, and on which the full City Council will vote on September 4.

The plan is stronger, and the commitments tighter, because of this deep collaboration. Among the specific guarantees codified by the City are the following:

•All current residents will receive relocation counseling in their own languages, and the costs of any moves – on-site or off-site – will be paid.

•All 561 current units will be replaced within the immediate neighborhood, with strict controls on the location and timing of replacement.

•More than 1,100 new units of housing for low-and modest-wage workers will be built and, if funding allows, an additional 100 units of extremely low-income housing will be added.

•All current residents are guaranteed the right to return to new units at Yesler Terrace.

•Community services will enhance social justice through increased access to educational and economic opportunities for low-income people throughout the neighborhood, along with health care, good nutrition, and other essential services.

•City financial commitments to the neighborhood are tightly defined and constrained.

•Extensive monitoring and reporting requirements ensure that the collaboration between Seattle Housing and the City remains productive and focused.

The total cost of low-income housing and new infrastructure on the site will be approximately $290 million.  A full half of that ($145 million) will come from the sale or ground-lease of some of the land on the site.  Another $40 million will come from mortgage debt on the buildings and $47 million from low-income housing tax credits.  Up to $11 million in City funds, less than 4 percent of the total cost, are committed in the Agreement with strict controls laid out for consideration of any further City funding. The City contribution helps leverage an expected $33 million in grants from the federal government.

Thanks to the hard work and deep attention to detail of many citizens, elected leaders, and Seattle Housing staff, the resulting legislation lays the foundation for a new Yesler Terrace that is a dynamic, welcoming, mixed-income community with convenient connections to nearby neighborhoods and downtown Seattle.  It will be a safe, healthy, and sustainable community, incorporating green design practices, enhanced transportation alternatives including a streetcar, and economic opportunity for its residents.

In short, Yesler Terrace will be a premier neighborhood that embraces people of all backgrounds — a visionary project that current and future generations will be proud to call a part of Seattle.


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