SEWARD PARK - The free coffee and tea that was offered in the large open room that is the Lakewood/Seward Park Community Center wasn't the only thing that was served hot at the Seattle City Council Panel discussion. Over 100 members of the Rainier Valley community crowded the building Feb. 27 to voice their feelings to the four council members in attendance. And while most of the emotions of the night remained calm, there were a few boiling points that put the Earl Gray to shame.
Seattle City Council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata, Sally Clark and Tom Rasmussen sat for nearly three hours, listening and responding to a list of concerns that local residents and business owners presented them. While the lime-green agenda sheet listed seven topics, the topics were merely examples of the general feeling that drove the meeting. That communal feeling was that the South End is underrepresented and underappreciated by the city and those who run it.
The meeting began with Ray Akers, a South End resident and real estate worker, giving a list of more than 30 Rainier Valley businesses that have closed over the past five years. More than half of the businesses that he mentioned were locally owned, family operated organizations, many of which had been in the Valley for more than 30 years.
The three check cashing facilities, and multiple social service businesses that have replaced them serve as a telling barometer of the changing climate, according to Akers. His statistical recount of what has been going on over the past half decade was a perfect preface and reference point for the rest of the community speakers that followed.
Dan Fink, owner of Fink Construction, followed with a very unsatisfied recount of the city's plan called the community renewal act (CRA). He described a plan that allowed the city to condemn privately owned property and then turn it over to private developers at a huge profit. Fink felt the proposed plan would do very little to renew communities, and much more to help corporate housing developers. The majority of the work that was done by the CRA, which began as a four to five year process, was done "sneakily" and "hurried" in only eight months, noted Fink. He felt it was done so quickly that it gave community members no time learn of what was happening, let alone voice their anger toward the project. Fink described the project as "classist and racist."
His description of sneaky city leadership was a sentiment that was echoed by a number of the speakers. Additionally, the leadership of many of the city's projects that are currently being carried out in Southeast Seattle was called into question time after time. And when Anne Sharron and Kate Jackson stood to talk about the downtown emergency service center (DESC), faulty leadership was where they took dead aim.
The DESC project in Hillman City calls for a four-story building that the city will construct on a vacant lot located off of Rainier Avenue South and 52nd Street. The building will be a recovery house for chronically homeless and mentally challenged adults, and is set to break ground this summer.
There was no arguing that this is a project with the potential to be very positive. The problems community members presented had nothing to do with the ideals of creating a home for people with special needs, they where focused on the process by which the city took in creating the DESC. The Department of Housing and Urban Development makes clear recommendations that social services like this not be constructed in "fragile neighborhoods." Sharron and Jackson argued that drugs are a big problem in the project area, and that a recovery center might be better suited in a less dangerous place.
The DESC project was finalized by the city on December 31, 2005. By the rules of the Neighborhood Act, the city had 30 days to inform every resident living within 300 feet of the proposed site that there would be a social services building built. Admittedly, the leaders of the project didn't inform any residents until April 2006. More than 35 percent of the surrounding area speaks English as a second language, and when the DESC released information of its plans, they didn't take the language situation into account.
"We are ready to be engaged, but not without being notified," pleaded Jackson. "If this is our 10-year plan to end homelessness in Seattle, we need more analytical leaders. Who is in the driver's seat here?"
A FAILED PLAN
This was a question that seemed to capture the mood of the entire night. Councilmember Licata seemed to be in agreement about the failure of the Neighborhood Plan. He described Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods as being "chipped away."
Councilmember Clark, who is the chair of the Neighborhood Committee, argued that the burden is on the rest of the city to "raise its low-income housing rates." This, she argued, would narrow the gap.
Councilmember Conlin stated that "the job is not done." He reminded the group not to "sell Rainier Valley short." Meanwhile, councilmember Rasmussen referenced a study that he was heading that was investigating the effects of alcohol impact areas (AIA) on their surroundings.
Overall, the council members appeared very interested and responsive to the problems they were presented, but they didn't have many solutions.
"We want to work with you to amplify your concerns," Licata asserted before the meeting's close.
South End writer Andy Bunker may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.