Op-Ed: Rainier Beach, Here Comes the Neighborhood Plan

by David Sauvion

On Monday, September 26, it finally happened! The full Council unanimously voted on Resolution 31710 and passed the Rainier Beach Plan Update.

Following a controversial Mayoral budget presentation, amidst protestations from members of the public kept out of the Council Chamber for several hours, Council President and District 2 Councilmember Bruce Harrell, thanked “community members who are deeply involved in bringing this vision to fruition and their deep commitment to Rainier Beach”.

The following Thursday, Mayor Ed Murray came to the Rainier Beach Community Center to sign the legislation and formally recognize the work of the community.

It indeed feels like a victory, like mountains have been moved and a burden lifted. Why? Because it took 4 years, 6 months and 11 days to get there, since the last community open house that revealed the outcomes of the plan.      

Is this what it takes to plan for the future of a neighborhood in Seattle? No, this privilege has been exclusive to Rainier Beach. For some reason, Rainier Beach hasn’t attracted the same level of interest as other parts of the City.

For instance, Haller/Bitter Lake had its Plan Update process at the same time as Rainier Beach. It started in September 2010 and was completed by March 2012. The Urban Design Framework (UDF) was established in 2015, and last August the re-zone was voted.

In comparison, the Urban Design Framework started in 2013 for the Rainier Beach light rail station area was completed by City staff in 2015, but has been shelved since.

More recently, the U District has become the center of attention and should benefit from brand new zoning very shortly. Their community planning too took place in 2011. The U District partnership formed in 2012, which is when Rainier Beach Action Coalition (formerly Rainier Beach Moving Forward) was founded. Since then, an Environmental Impact Statement, Parks Plan update, Green Streets Concept Plan and Comp Plan amendments have been completed, leading to the Zoning recommendations.

So again, why does this matter?

Opportunity gaps

An assessment of the previous comprehensive plan shows that while its housing targets had been met (100 percent) – though one could question the type of housing built or the significance of the target since we’re now in a worse housing crisis – the growth strategy found in the plan failed on the job creation front, delivering only 40 percent of its goal.

38 percent of Seattle residents work outside the city limits, while 62 percent of jobs in the city are worked by people commuting from outside Seattle (2011 U.S. Census). Put simply, this means most people do not live near their job. Furthermore, a great report by Got Green! and Puget Sound Sage’s highlights the impact these long commutes have on the environment, and also how they primarily affect the poor and communities of color.

Housing Disparities persist

The Equity analysis that accompanies the 2035 Comprehensive Plan shows great disparities throughout Seattle, but the future land use map shows that it is unlikely things will change.

While neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Ballard have seen their housing growth target increase marginally from the previous plan, Rainier Beach is at  15 percent from its previous one.

While the future land use maps show 6 Urban centers and 4 Hub Urban Villages in central and North Seattle, only 2 are located South of I-90, in Mount Baker/North Rainier and West Seattle Junction.

Bitter Lake/Haller Lake for example is now defined as a new Hub Urban Village, a community that provides a balance of Housing and Employment.

Employment Gaps and Student Debt

We live in a context where no pipelines to careers are created for youth in our community. Instead, the City focusses on attracting wealthy Internet Technology corporations catering to graduates outside the City, the State or even the country, aggravating disparities and endlessly fueling displacement.

High school students from Rainier Beach have repeatedly urged the Mayor to work more closely with the School District.

A recent article in Time Magazine also reported on the student debt crisis highlighted by the collapsing of ITT Technical Institute. State ran universities and community colleges are unsustainable, falling further into debt in a desperate attempt to maintain services to their students.

All the while, for-profit colleges “took more than a quarter of federal aid subsidies and represented nearly half of all defaults. They are also the most troubling part of rising student debt, falling state subsidies for public universities and poor educational outcomes”.

So where are the strategies and investments to create employment opportunities where they are most needed? Where is the increased opportunity for marginalized communities?

As we face a severe housing crisis and increasing homelessness, providing shelter and temporary accommodation is a first response emergency, but it can’t be sustained without a revenue source.

A Homegrown Plan to Spur Equitable Development

Rainier Beach doesn’t have institutions or large corporations to spur development and support good paying jobs. We have to build this from the ground up. And in order to do so, a number of South Seattle community leaders have come together to work on a plan that puts Race and Social Equity at the center of Seattle Comprehensive Plan.

Positioning their respective community-led projects as anti-displacement strategies, what has come to be known as the Equitable Development Implementation Plan (EDIP), offers alternative opportunities: Africatown Fire Station 6, Little Saigon Landmark, SouthEast Economic Opportunity Center, Multi-Cultural Center and Rainer Beach Food Innovation District.

Looking at Rainier Beach in particular, the Urban Farm is completing construction and preparing to reopen, while at the light rail station, local non-profits and food businesses should soon find a new home to welcome the community and become a catalyst to economic development.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food preparation is one of the top industries for predicted job growth between 2014-2024.

The specialty food industry grew 21% between 2012 and 2014 into over a $100 billion industry.

The “food industry” is accessible to people with limited education and has a range of pay scales. Jobs in sub-sectors like packaging, warehousing, distribution, manufacturing and processing can have salary ranges that are well above living wage.

These are exceptional times. And we’re ready to turn the page. We want to look to the future and start a new relationship with our leadership based on Equity, Social, Racial and Environmental justice, and build on the success of initiatives like A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth.

We need to pick up the Rainier Beach Urban Design & Development Framework off the shelf and start planning boldly for what Rainier Beach can bring to the rest of the City and the region.

We Need Political Will to Preserve Land

While we wait, cornerstone parcels of land on which to build a new model of transit oriented development are being split up into minuscule pieces of real estate with very low density ratio and no benefits to the community. Where we should be seeing construction that allows a mix of production facility, educational and research institutions, and market rate units in tall transit dedicated structures supporting affordable housing on site, we are left with underused light manufacturing and soulless townhouses. This is gentrification at work. It goes unnoticed, unattended and slowly eats up the fabric of our neighborhoods. It doesn’t allow the vibrant, pedestrian friendly streets that we all aspire too, and doesn’t provide businesses with patrons in numbers sufficient to sustain them.

We look forward to working with OPCD Director Sam Assefa on developing the key projects highlighted in the EDIP and securing more partnership with local community colleges to develop the pipelines to some of those good jobs.

From one plan to the next, we can only hope that this “unfortunate” experience will lead to a more equitable partnership and an elected team that puts their money where their mouth is, that is to provide necessary funding to leverage this on-going effort.

David Sauvion is a co-founder of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition. He lives and works in Rainier Beach, sits on the Southeast Design Review Board and is a Steering Committee member of South Communities Organizing Regional/Racial Equity (S-CORE). He was also a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee that worked with City Staff on the Rainier Beach Plan Update between Sept. 2010 and March 2012.

Feature photo: CC licensed image attribution to Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

6 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Rainier Beach, Here Comes the Neighborhood Plan”

  1. A new proposal to build an extended stay hotel, including 2 floors of first class office space, at MLK and Othello would certainly create local jobs and perhaps be a game changer for the south end of Rainier Valley.

  2. More shameful neglect of Southeast Seattle by the City of Seattle. The city looks at Southeast Seattle like Trump looks at women, as in “What’s in it for me?” Back in the old days (late 80’s and 90’s) we had to meet with the city to get them to change burnt out street lights. We may have gotten past having to monitor the city on the small stuff . . . but the city has no original thoughts for and is planning no great investments in Southeast Seattle. We fought hard to get light rail to run through the valley – that was not the city’s work. Since then, the city has mostly put the brake on development in the 98118. Am I wrong? I would love to hear that.

    1. The city and the county have always fully supported light rail through Rainier Valley. It was a vocal group called “Save Our Valley” that opposed it, demanding “Tunnel or Nothing” (put it in a tunnel – which was both a budget breaker and more helpful to outsiders wanting to race through than to residents – or put it over by the airport instead). And, in fact, we came very close to losing it (I was at a key meeting with the mayor), with the city and county joining to financially support the $50 million community development fund as a way to buy more support for the light rail.

      In addition the city has always supported better development for southeast Seattle, putting huge sums into renovating New Holly and Rainier Vista, several projects in Rainier Beach, and more. The big problem has been to get quality private development due to the non-affluent demographics of much of Rainier Valley.

      1. Save the Valley came after we secured the light rail alignment. We insisted on the $50 million community development fund, it wasn’t a gift, it was a demand. As the article states, the city has not put its heart into development of Rainier Valley. The valley has made progress but we are far behind the rest of the city in momentum. We would have had tons of higher quality development around the light rail stations, even before they opened, if the city had properly increased zoning. It’s criminal to have single family homes still being built within a stone’s throw of light rail stations that represent hundreds of millions of dollars of public investment.

      2. The city did increase the zoning around the light rail stations, as a consequence of the Sound Transit station area planning and the city Neighborhood Plans (I participated in the Rainier Beach Plan, my wife in the Othello Plan), many years before light rail opened. Only now is the city considering expanding those very tight urban village boundaries to a 10 minute walkshed of the light rail stations. In any case, a lot more than just zoning has to pencil out for desirable development to happen, as history has shown.

        As to the light rail alignment, there was one meeting when Mayor Paul Schell met with several of us on the Rainier Valley Transit Advisory Council and asked if we were ready to throw in the towel – to move the light rail over to Airport Way, and we’d a get street car instead (much like First Hill later got a streetcar instead of a light rail station). We said, “No”. This was after George Curtis and his SOV crew had turned out big crowds to demand a tunnel and it took the formation of the CDF and quite some time for things to settle down. Incidentally George was financially supported by Collucio, who wanted some of the tunneling business for himself. Also, George had come from New York City, where they took good transit for granted but had huge problems with big, bad, ugly urban renewal projects, and he saw light rail in that light.