Seattle architect: Let’s ask how we can benefit from gentrification, not stop it

If you live in or near the Central Area, or follow any news about it at all, you know the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying. Its Red Apple grocery store is closing for good. Its shrinking black community is being pushed further south and being evicted from their homes. The city has  rezoned it for taller high-rise buildings. And those are just the most recent examples.

This has many Seattleites asking how can we stop the gentrification?

But Donald King doesn’t think that’s the right question. The architect and longtime Central Area resident says what he and his neighbors should be asking is how they can make gentrification work for them. So we asked him a few questions about what that means.

What does gentrification mean to you in this moment in Seattle?
For many, gentrification is a good thing. It’s a sign that there’s been improvements to the neighborhood, that the neighborhood has become attractive to others and those with money. And therefore it should be a win-win for everyone. Property values go up, tax base goes up.

But the uglier side of that is the displacement of people. And the displacement, ironically, of a lot of people who wanted their neighborhood to improve and now aren’t able to enjoy the improvement of their neighborhood.

What’s an example of that?

Many people comment on seeing the physical differences in the Central Area and say wow, that would’ve been great to have about 20 years ago. Like crosswalks that have flashing lights, so you can get across the sidewalk safely. Improved parks, improved streets and street lighting. Those are the kinds of things that also make people really question, ‘Why are these improvements happening, and why aren’t they for us?’

One thing you’ve said is there’s no way to stop the growth from happening. Change is coming whether we like it or not. Why shouldn’t we be trying to stop gentrification?

Yeah, I don’t even think it’s the question to ask. I think those who are impacted by it negatively, they just want it to stop. It’s somewhat of a NIMBY attitude. This is my backyard and changes are happening and I don’t particularly like them. Whether it’s density, a change in architectural style, a change in the people they see on the street.

I think we should be looking at what can be changed in the approach of gentrification. Can it be more equitable? Can it be more inclusive? Can it involve an economic lifting of all boats? How does it actually help you? And that’s a tough one for a lot of people to see. Because a lot of people aren’t going to have the opportunity to be involved in the profits of gentrification.

So are the right questions, ‘How can gentrification help you? How can you take advantage of gentrification?’

That’s closer. And the flipside of that is what relief can there be from the negative impacts? For example, can there be support for people that may lose their home because property values have risen due to gentrification?

We should be thinking about gentrification as an economic opportunity. How can those people who have been left out and underserved for the decades, particularly living in the Central Area, now be able to benefit from what’s happening? Specifically, can there be more equitable development? That’s where I’m more focused.

And you’ve identified a couple of promising Central Area projects that want to be more equitable development. Tell us more about those.

The first is a housing development at 23rd and Union that is being built as a partnership between local developer Lake Union Partners and the Africatown Community Land Trust, a group buying land to help Seattle’s black community.

The second is Vulcan’s development at 23rd and Jackson.

What’s unique about these projects?

Both have been created with community input from the very beginning of the process. And both think of that community input as being good for business – not just as a social gift to the community.

By getting genuine community engagement at the beginning of the process and throughout, it makes it easier to get your project approved and, what at least one architect has told me, it makes for a better project – the design is more equitable and more usable and community friendly.  

How did that play out with Vulcan’s project?

Vulcan [the developer] and their architect engaged the community early before any drawings were shown to the public. The first meetings were with a select focus group of community leaders, planners and architects. The developer sought input on structure and content on the design of the project beginning with the site development. A “wish list” of items was recorded. At the second meeting, Runberg presented a concept site plan and massing model responding to each wish list item. The project was designed cooperatively with community members from that beginning.

This was likely an additional cost to the developer in project management and design fees, but Vulcan was able to avoid delays from community opposition and gendered good will. That resulted in many individuals and organizations writing letters of recommendation to approve the project.

And for the 23rd and Union project?

The developer Lake Union Partners has partnered with the Africatown Community Land Trust, which owns about 22 percent of the developable site. They’ll use that to build affordable apartments, family housing and opportunities for local small business spaces. If the community wants this Africatown project to succeed, the entire project should gain community approval.

What I think is important here for developers to realize is that you can do a good thing and still have a viable and financially feasible project. That they aren’t mutually exclusive. These are projects to watch because they can set an example of a new development approach for the rest if the city and beyond.

So for a Seattleite who cares about this city having racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, what can they do to help?

Just be aware of what’s going on. Understand and seek out information and not just hear the rumors of what’s happening. There is so much attention being paid to the Central Area now. I think the more light that’s shed on it, the more chance of success they can have because the more people will be attracted to support it.

Also be engaged in the process. Join a design review board. Join a community organization – anywhere in the city – that’s working with planning efforts in your community. What we’re seeing now is across the city, communities being empowered and taking control of the planning and design of their communities.

Finally, get involved in the political scene. Vote for the mayoral candidate who has a history in doing empowering communities and neighborhoods. The fight for Seattle mayor has always been ‘are you focused on neighbors or downtown business.’ Again, it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Donald King is an architect with more than 40 years of professional experience in planning, design and project management. He currently works as the principal architect at Mimar Studio and is a visiting professor of architecture at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments. He’s lived in the Central Area for more than 30 years.