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September 24, 2012

Forefront Excerpt: City on a Hill

Next American City
by Daniel Brook

Be afraid, Seattle, be very afraid.

On July 17, inside the council chamber with its swooping walls of blonde wood and brushed steel, council members were weighing far-reaching changes to one of progressive Seattle’s proudest accomplishments: The New Deal-era Yesler Terrace development, America’s first racially integrated housing project. Stroking their chins, looking overeducated and skeptical, council members pondered whether the Seattle Housing Authority’s ambitious plan to transform the low-rise, low-income public housing project into a high-rise, mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood truly reached levels of perfection worthy of Seattle.

Occupying some of the most potentially valuable land in the city, Yesler Terrace is within walking distance of City Hall itself. But just as the steep hill dividing the two sites renders the walk more arduous than it looks on the map, the social distance between the well-to-do white council members and the immigrants of color who constitute most of the project’s tenants may be even larger. For all the meticulous concern over the design of the redevelopment, there is a sense among Yesler residents and many area neighbors that the council is missing the forest for the trees. Critics see council as quite possibly well meaning but hopelessly out of touch, so concerned about the aesthetics and environmental impact of the project, they have lost sight of its social impact — and of safeguarding the public trust itself. In the Seattle Housing Authority’s plans, the 561 units of extremely low-income housing at Yesler Terrace will be rebuilt and more than 1,000 units of low- to medium-income “workforce housing” will be added. But the bulk of the development will be devoted to as many as 3,100 market-rate units.

The short list of real estate developers eager to get in on the deal is hardly allaying fears. Recent planning meetings have been attended by representatives of the man who owns Seattle, Microsoft co-founder-turned-real estate magnate Paul Allen, and Forest City Ratner, the famed antagonist in the most contentious community/developer fight of the last decade, the Atlantic Yards’ Battle of Brooklyn. That fight pitted Forest City — a company known for building publicly subsidized developments — against community advocates who said its multibillion plan for a basketball stadium surrounded by a new mixed-income neighborhood of high-rise towers would displace lower-income people.


NoLandGrab: Paging Scott Turner.

Posted by eric at September 24, 2012 8:14 PM