Community renewal legislation promises Southeast Seattleites development control

In Rainier Valley, a place like Columbia City is rare, a place where art gallery member Joan Robbins can meander on her lunch hour through a charming century-old business district. But much of Rainier Valley's development, especially along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Rainier Avenue South, is not so pleasant.

Along with well-known architecture critic, James Howard Kunstler, Robbins feels there is something wrong with many of the places where we live and work. We drive up and down typical post World War II suburban-style boulevards of commerce and are overwhelmed by the ugliness of big box stores, used car lots, chain link fencing, parking lagoons, gas station mini-marts, tumble down apartment buildings, the uproar of signs and the road itself clogged with cars.

As Kunstler said a decade ago in his landmark Atlantic Monthly article, Home from No Where, "It seems as though the whole thing has been designed by some diabolical force bent on making human beings miserable." And in the case of MLK and parts of Rainier Avenue South, Robbins and other Southeast Seattle Arts Council members notice that the original diabolical design has fallen further victim to neglect and environmental contamination.

A number of storefronts have been vacant and boarded up for months, or even years. According to Kunstler, this suburban pattern of development occurred across America because post World War II zoning for the automobile prohibited citizens from sitting down together and planning their communities as they had always done before. Meanwhile large development and retail corporations came in and priced out many local businesses.

Over the span of nearly a decade since the publication of Kunstler's article, an array of citizen groups around the nation have begun to fight back. In Southeast Seattle, a group of citizens used existing neighborhood plans to put together a number of recommendations known as the Southeast Seattle Action Agenda.

Besides promoting a vibrant, desirable community with attractive, pleasing public space, the agenda envisions a community that welcomes racial, cultural, and economic diversity, and promotes economic as well as educational opportunities. It encourages the use of "appropriate public and private resources in a community-supported and focused investment strategy." To help achieve these ends, the citizen group suggested that Seattle consider designating the Rainier Valley as a "community renewal area" under Washington state community renewal legislation passed in 2002. This law allows cities to designate neglected or run down neighborhoods as community renewal areas that could then be assembled and developed for the benefit of the community.

Starting points

From her vantage point as the Community Builder at New Holly Neighborhood Campus, Joy Bryngelson looks down over the new Chief Sealth Bicycle Trail and out across the future Othello light rail station area. Much of the town center is notably blighted even though small development efforts are already springing up in the midst of light rail construction. Bryngelson is vice-chair of the South East District Council (SEDC), which serves as steward of the action agenda. She says she is pleased that Othello is being considered as one of two possible community renewal demonstration projects. The other is the future station area near Rainier Avenue at McClellan Street south to Rainier Court.

Bryngelson sees community renewal as the best hope that residents and stakeholders will be able to gain control of the coming development boom around light rail. Both Othello and McClellan have neighborhood plans, pre-established design frameworks and/or neighborhood design guidelines that have already been created with broad-based community input. The community renewal law will allow adjoining properties within those neighborhoods to be assembled and developed as a unit in accordance with neighborhood guidelines.

"On the other hand," said Bryngelson, "if we don't have a community renewal program in place, the market will rule. Property values will skyrocket. Low-income people, non-profit developers and others who have the community interests at heart, will be priced out. Corporate developers will build whatever they choose."

Under the community renewal initiative, a community oversight group would be charged with helping to implement neighborhood plans and fulfill the goals of the Southeast Action Agenda in developing the community renewal plan. The citizen group would also provide input to the administrative organization about development decisions, including the purchase and sale of property and configuration of town centers to be pedestrian friendly with parks and open space.

The plan would encourage the development of projects that include affordable housing and are beneficial to local small businesses. In some cases, property could be purchased for future community purposes prior to its increase in value. This would prevent wealth from having the final say.

Another SEDC member, Siobhan Ring of the Seattle Tenant's Union, pointed out that Washington's community renewal law is patterned after legislation used in Boston's Dudley Street Neighborhood. There, neighbors gained control of a blighted and largely abandoned area and worked together with community non-profit developers to rebuild the area in accordance with their neighborhood plan.

That plan called for attractive, affordable housing and commercial property, housing assistance for ownership and rental housing, job opportunities, streetscape improvements, open space and historic preservation. The result is that Dudley Street has become a model community for the nation.

However, Ring cautioned that the community renewal picture has not been as rosy in some cities. To assure success, community oversight consisting of tenants, property owners, small businesses, and neighborhood groups should have true decision-making authority.

The little people

Denise Gloster, Hillman City property owner, also a member of SEDC, reacted positively to community renewal. However, she is concerned about "the little guy," and feels that special efforts must be made to involve small business people who, due to language barriers and the day-to-day hassles of making a living, might not otherwise be in the loop. Gloster pointed out that to assure fairness and equity, the program should be administered through a department of the city rather than by some affiliated agency that might be tempted to promote its own agenda.

Department of Neighborhoods Coordinator, Glenn Harris, has taken on the task of guiding SEDC in jump-starting the community renewal process. He helped obtain a grant from the city to hire an outreach coordinator, Angela Tarah, who reportedly has special skills and motivation to outreach into Rainier Valley's rich ethnic diversity.

Tarah will be charged with helping the Rainier Valley develop a community renewal plan that represents a broad consensus. After the community processes and develops the plan, the Seattle City Council will hold public hearings and decide whether to approve community renewal for the Rainier Valley.

Harris concedes that the community renewal initiative might prove controversial in some sectors. That is because of a provision in the law that says, as a last resort, blighted and neglected properties whose owners are unwilling to cooperate with the community's wishes, could be purchased at fair market value by the power of eminent domain. However, Harris insisted it is highly unlikely that eminent domain would ever be used because reluctant property owners would be brought into the discussion sooner and become part of a community wide decision making process.

"The most critical piece, however, is on-going community involvement," Harris cautioned. "People have to stay active in order to build the neighborhoods they want."

That said, Harris sees community renewal as just one critical tool in helping out the Rainier Valley. It promises to allow the community to assemble property for focused development planning, and this will enable the community to purchase and hold property for public benefit before costs escalate beyond reach.

"We can put the shopping and the offices and the movie theaters and the libraries all within walking distance of one another," Kunstler wrote. "We can live within walking distance of all these things... We can have our schools close to where the children live, and the school buildings don't have to look like fertilizer plants. We can insist that commercial buildings be more than one story high, and allow people to live in decent apartments over the stores. We can build Main Street and Elm Street and still park our cars. It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection."

For more information about community renewal in the South End, contact Southeast District Council Chair, Leslie Miller at 760-1793.

Southeast Seattle writer Mona Lee may be reached through[[In-content Ad]]