In a surprise decision, a narrow majority of Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Board voted to nominate the community-center building and steam plant at the 580-unit Yesler Terrace public-housing project for landmark designation. If the board affirms its vote on Oct. 6 these two structures would gain protection under the state's historic-landmark laws.
While the board could reverse its decision or simply require Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to protect the façade or only a piece of either building, potentially SHA could be required to save both buildings. Without a doubt, this would throw a monkey wrench in SHA's plan to turn the 25-acre Yesler Terrace site into a dense, high-rise, office, retail and condominium complex.
However, another narrow majority of the Landmarks Board declined to protect the rest of the site saying it lacked historical value.
Look everywhere for value
The board's action was downright tragic and bitterly ironic. Yesler Terrace was built in 1941, after Jesse Epstein, the Seattle Housing Authority's first director, traveled to Washington, D.C., and convinced the Roosevelt Administration that a low-rise "garden-style" design was best for low-income families. Epstein also insisted it be a fully integrated community. On both counts, it was the first such public-housing project in the country.
Seven decades later, Yesler Terrace continues that proud tradition as a living, breathing community of people of color and first-generation immigrants. Former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke is just one of many community leaders who grew up there.
Epstein was a true visionary. The Yesler Terrace model was replicated here and across the country many times. The biggest names in Seattle architecture (including Victor Steinbrueck) were involved in its construction. In 1966, Yesler Terrace's design earned the Seattle Arts Commission's Citation of Excellence.
While we were disappointed in the Landmarks Preservation Board's actions, SHA officials also were stunned. They expected a dismissal of all claims of historical value. Between now and Oct. 6, expect an army of SHA attorneys, architects and consultants to do all they can to reverse the board's decision.
Argument not sound
SHA argues that since the buildings were constructed nearly 70 years ago, their useful life has ended - this is absolutely false. They were built on solid, concrete foundations and, so long as they're maintained, can last many more lifetimes.
SHA simply wants to tear down and replace the existing 580 public-housing units with more lucrative uses, but to get approval from the federal government to do that, it must prove that the site is blighted and that demolition is the only available option.
Ironically, to justify denial of a landmark designation, SHA made the exact opposite case before the Landmarks Preservation Board. It highlighted the many times the Yesler Terrace housing units have been renovated and thus argue that the buildings no longer share original design features worthy of historical designation.
This, too, is bull. Except for some superficial, exterior changes and the fact that about one-quarter of the units were removed in the '60s for freeway construction, the overall design and low-rise character of the site remain largely intact. Only about 50 of the remaining 580 housing units were added later and lack design characteristics of those built in 1941.
Plan under way
Unlike notorious Cabrini-Green in Chicago and some East Coast high-rise projects, these low-rise garden communities have always been a tremendous, untold success story. And now they are disappearing as public-housing authorities abandon their mission to serve the poorest of the poor and instead become profit-driven developers.
SHA's plans call for a dense concentration of condominiums, expensive apartments and office buildings rising to more than 400 feet. Only a fraction of the 580 public-housing units would be replaced on site.
The plans also include redevelopment of the area directly east of the current Yesler Terrace and into the neighborhood of Squire Park. Already, SHA has been buying up property there and cutting deals with Sound Transit and the county for joint redevelopment of other sites in that area.
SHA still has several hurdles to jump through. Next year, it must apply for rezones through a "planned development" process, and state and federal environmental review has only just begun.
However, if the Landmarks Board upholds its decision to save the steam plant and the community center, that would force a major reworking of the years of planning already done for Yesler Terrace.
A return to standards
We see this as an opportunity for SHA to rethink its plans and commit to no net loss of low-income housing on site. There are viable options that do not presuppose wiping out the buildings and displacing most of the low-income residents. These options would still allow for some increases in density and the addition of revenue-generating uses through infill on the site without loss of most of the existing historically significant structures or any low-income housing.
It is not SHA's mission to become just one more developer seeking to maximize redevelopment potential and profits under the guise of "deconcentrating the poor" (read, displacement of the poor.) Let's see SHA return to its vital mission and uphold the standard it set in 1941, when it built Yesler Terrace.
JOHN V. FOX AND CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization.[[In-content Ad]]