Urbanist redevelopment of Yesler Terrace would create new affluent majority

It was the first housing project of its kind. Built on steep ground, the homes had great views and yard space. And, at the time of its completion in 1941, Yesler Terrace was the first racially-integrated housing development in the United States. Jimi Hendrix grew up in Yesler Terrace. So did Gary Locke, the U.S. Commerce Secretary who was recently nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to China. When Locke was elected governor of Washington, he was the first Chinese-American in the country to be elected governor.

But the Seattle Housing Authority, which operates Yesler Terrace, is looking to redevelop the neighborhood block-by-block, selling much of the land to private development in order to fund a modern urbanist vision of sustainable high density, mixed-income housing. There is little debate that the aging housing units need renovation, but there is debate over how far the redevelopment should go.


From SHA. Note that building locations are merely demonstrations of where kind of buildings could go

The number of low-income housing units will be preserved, but market-rate units will make up the majority of units when and if the several-decades-long plan is complete. The SHA’s preferred alternative includes 3,199 new market-rate units as well as commercial space, such as retail fronts and office buildings. An additional 950 units would be available for people making up to 80 percent of the area median income, which is about $45,000 a year for a single person. 290 units will be available for those making up to 60 percent AMI ($35,000/year for a single person). The 550 “extremely low-income” units currently available in the neighborhood (30 percent AMI or $18,000/year for single person) would be preserved, said representatives from the SHA and project designers during a brownbag presentation and discussion hosted by Great City March 22. The median income for Yesler Terrace is currently $10,500 per year.

The SHA is pursuing this mixed-income strategy because they say it is a model that works, both socially and financially. Concentration of poverty is not necessarily a good thing, they pointed out during the brownbag. However, some Yesler Terrace residents find this attitude to be condescending, according to the Seattle Times:

That means packing in a lot more people — as many as 8,000 — most of them affluent. Bring it on, says the housing authority, because the latest social experiment in public housing calls for renters to live in communities where income levels are mixed, not in enclaves of poverty.

A fine idea, if not for the “inconvenient reality,” says resident Kristin O’Donnell, that Yesler Terrace is a “community that works, that gives people easy access to the outdoors, gardens, views — and is walking distance to downtown.”

The people here already feel pride of place. Do they really need to live closer to middle-class role models? Is that compassionate or condescending? Progressive or patronizing?

“Just because you grow up close to someone with privileges,” O’Donnell says, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to give you any.”

As high density housing moves in, residents will have to say goodbye to private yards. However, plans include a series of “pocket parks.” The neighborhood will also become more walkable by connecting Main St to the rest of the neighborhood and focusing on keeping walking connections through the developments. The goal is to utilize and maximize the ability for future Yesler Terrace residents to use the transit connections nearby, such as the First Hill Streetcar which will connect Yesler Terrace to the International District and Capitol Hill once it is completed in 2013.


Some have hopes that Yesler Terrace can be a standout example of sustainable urban living in Seattle. Yesler Terrace development may be an opportunity for using district energy, for example, and the city is currently looking into the feasibility of such a system there.

However, others doubt the SHA’s commitment to preserving the low-income housing currently in the neighborhood. From Seattle Times:

Tenants, including Audry Breaux, worry that once they’re moved out during construction they won’t come back. They note that some 800 low-rent units were not replaced in the redeveloped Rainier Vista, New Holly and High Point. Instead, some tenants received rent-subsidy vouchers to live in privately owned buildings in other parts of the city. “Every time I think about it I just cry,” says Breaux, who’s lived almost half her 80 years in the project.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement on the project is due to be published in April. Legislation should go to the City Council in June for their approval.

0 thoughts on “Urbanist redevelopment of Yesler Terrace would create new affluent majority

  1. This transformation is long overdue. Seattle deserves a modern residential urban center in its urban center.

  2. I’d be pretty overjoyed about the prospect of getting to live in a brand-new mid-rise/highrise, versus the old houses there. Plus they’re getting a brand new streetcar to whisk them up to Capitol hill or the I.D. What’s there just isn’t a sensible use of space, and I suspect the market-rate units will be in great demand.

    And is Miss O’Donnell suggesting that the new housing will no longer be walking distance to downtown?

  3. I think what some of the tenants and their advocates are worried about is what happened at Greenbridge in White Center. My understanding is that over 1000 subsidized housing units in the Park Lake project were demolished. Tenants were given Section 8 vouchers and most moved elsewhere. Many of the mixed income townhomes are complete now, but many fewer are subsidized and most of the displaced families have not returned. They were pushed further out of Seattle, to Kent, Auburn, Federal Way. There were not nearly as many subsidized units replaced in Greenbridge.

    I was glad to read the same number of subsidized units would be included in the new Yesler development, but I think the fear of being displaced on a short term basis and having it become permenent is real and relavent, based on the way things have been handled in other KC housing projects.

  4. LizWas, I have not heard that this is the case at Greenbridge and would be curious to know more. It was my understanding that all of the public housing has been replaced (there were about 550 people relocated not 1000) and it is the market rate stuff that has lagged there, as the plots that were set for sale never moved once the recession hit. Also, a Section 8 portable voucher can be used anywhere, so technically, no one with a voucher is “pushed” south. In fact, there are many who argue that having a portable voucher gives people more choice in where they live. For sure there is discrimination against folks with vouchers, but in Seattle this is technically illegal (i.e. voucher status is a protected class you cannot legally discriminate against).

    In my opinion the real question is how many people return to these communities after being relocated? I would be curious to know how many Greenbridge and Holly Park residents came back? The websites for SHA and KCHA say a good portion did, but I am doubtful. Maybe some people were happy to move but maybe others feel their community was forever broken. If there is 5 years between being relocated and coming back, that may be too long to expect people to return. The important thing is that people are given the option to return and then they can have the choice to return or not. But maybe SHA loses track of some people in the process? I know Professor Kleit at Evans has done some great research on this involving interviews of residents.

    Also, I believe that Yesler has committed to one for one replacement of all of the public housing units on site, but I have to check this.

  5. I’m glad things seem to be moving forward here. Right now that area has so much wasted space in such a prime location. Seattle has a great opportunity here for a major redesign.

    I would like to see a “green” development utilizing things like environmentally friendly building material, solar power and community composting if possible. This redevelopment could really be an example of next gen urban community building and design if done right.

  6. Beggars can’t be choosers.

    I know that sounds harsh, but it’s not like they’re talking about a neighborhood of home owners. If an owner of an apartment complex decides she wants to tear it down and rebuild, that’s her prerogative. So she kicks the tenants out and builds what she wants. How is this any different?