Surprise Bidder Threatens Plans for Rainier Beach Food Innovation District

by Erica C Barnett

UPDATE 5/9/17: Richard Conlin says he has withdrawn his bid for the Rainier Beach property, after conversations with the Rainier Beach Action Coalition about partnering on a development at the site.

Conlin says he and his business partner, Ben Rankin, “have been in discussions with RBAC and had much encouragement from city and other folks who said working with a good developer could have really helped the project. Our last communication from RBAC said that they supported our investment and looked forward to good negotiations on making the project work.” “Although RBAC is not in a position to provide any financial contribution towards a down payment right away, we would like to convey our support for the investment and look forward to developing a mutually acceptable partnership for the project.”

Conlin says the RBAC told him that they were unable to help out with a down payment on the property themselves, but were interested in becoming partners on a development that would include the Food Innovation Hub. “While we felt that an agreement was likely, we ultimately had to respond to them by telling them we had decided not to make the payment, [because] there were too many uncertainties and possible risks around the community relationship, the potential upzone, and some physical attributes of the property,” including its irregular shape and wet soils that would likely require expensive support piles to develop.

The owners of the property are reportedly in discussions with an unknown backup bidder.

Original story follows. 

Years-long efforts to create a food innovation district—a network of food businesses and food-related activities aimed at creating living-wage jobs and preventing displacement in the Rainier Valley—saw a major setback last month when the Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) learned that another buyer outbid them on a property, next to the Rainier Beach light rail station, where they hoped to site the food innovation hub at the center of the district.

The food innovation hub, as the RBAC and its partners envisioned it, would have included a network of food-related uses to promote jobs and entrepreneurship in the food industry—not just jobs “busting suds” in restaurant kitchens, as Thomas puts it, but higher-paying positions like truck driver, food packer, chef, caterer, and accountant. According to the city of Seattle, which has been an intermittent partner on the project, the Rainier Beach station hub could have included classrooms, a co-packing facility for food startups, a food bank grocery store, tests kitchen, and a computer lab.

The winning bidder? Former Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. As a council member from 1997 to 2013, Conlin was an outspoken advocate for improving access to food and food-industry employment through his Food Action Initiative, and is far better known as an environmentalist than as a developer—largely because he hasn’t been one until this project.

Conlin, whose firm is a joint venture with developer and former theater manager Ben Rankin, says he had no idea the Rainier Beach Action Coalition had made its own bid for the property, a 23,000-square-foot plot that currently houses a rent-to-own furniture shop and a Mexican grocery and restaurant. “We weren’t even aware that somebody else was competing for it,” Conlin says. “We just had this property come on the market and were informed about it and weren’t really aware of their intent.” The RBAC made its bid in collaboration with South East Effective Development, a community development nonprofit, and Forterra , an environmental preservation group that has recently begun investing in equitable development projects.

RBAC strategist Patrice Thomas says that if Conlin wanted to find out what the group’s intentions were, he had every opportunity to seek them out. “We shouldn’t have to reach out to him—he knows the process,” Thomas says. “There are multitudes of avenues by which he could have found anyone in the neighborhood to reach out to, to ask, ‘What’s up with the bid that was going on? I’m thinking of doing X Y Z.’ He did none of that. He chose not to speak with anybody.”

David Sauvion, RBAC co-founder and coordinator for the food innovation district, says “it was particularly harsh” to be unexpectedly outbid by Conlin “because we put all this time and effort into this, and now we have about 10 potential tenants who were talking to their boards, saying, ‘Things are progressing, we put in an offer,’ and having to go to their boards and say ‘there’s been another setback—they decided to go with another buyer’. It’s a terrible thing. You never want to be in that position.” The RBAC also received a significant grant to work on the food innovation district from the Kresge Foundation’s Fresh, Local, and Equitable initiative, and the food innovation district (and hub) was identified as a priority in the 2012 Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan. Sauvion says the foundation is still supporting the initiative.

Conlin says he’s open to the idea of a food innovation hub in his development, but the vision he describes—low- to moderate-income apartments, marketed to artists and funded by low-income tax credits and tax-exempt bonds, built over “community-oriented” ground-floor uses—isn’t an obvious fit with the RBAC’s ground-up proposal focused on economic and food security. “I’d say we don’t really have a vision as yet—we’re just starting on this particular piece of property,” Conlin says. But, the Madrona resident adds, “We’re community-oriented developers. We’re not in this to make a ton of money. It is a for-profit [business] so we will make a little bit.”

Few of those in the negotiating and bidding process would talk on the record about what happened. Michelle Connor, executive vice president of Forterra, said only that her organization “made an offer that was not accepted by the sellers” and “received no information beyond that the sellers selected another offer.” The property owners, Jack and Peggy Solowoniuk, declined a request to talk about the deal; Jack Solowoniuk told me only that “the property is for sale and we have a backup offer” before hanging up on me. Another person involved in the process said on background that the owners, who don’t live in the neighborhood, probably didn’t care about what happened on the property once it was sold; their interest was in selling to the highest bidder.

“They don’t have a developer, like us, committed to their vision, who’s willing to leverage their financial capacity, because that’s what it takes,” says Tony To, director of the nonprofit developer Homesight. To says HomeSight would be interested in the Rainier Beach station project if they weren’t already overextended—HomeSight is all-in on another project, the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center at the Othello light rail station, one stop away.

Sauvion thinks the pending approval of Mayor Ed Murray’s mandatory housing affordability upzones around the Rainier Beach station, which will increase the height of any potential development from four to seven stories, may already be driving up land values in the area. That, in turn, enables complex agreements led by nonprofit coalitions without a lot of cash up front, to win in bidding wars. If the developments that result follow the typical pattern—mixed-income housing built above retail—they will fail to provide the kind of living-wage jobs and business opportunities the RBAC envisions.

“I really want to be clear: retail doesn’t work,” Sauvion says. “Retail doesn’t create good jobs.”

Rankin, Conlin’s partner, says that assuming he and Conlin do move forward with their project (their bid is not a final sale; it simply forecloses other bids on the property), “we do indeed hope and plan to incorporate the good work already done on a Rainier Beach food innovation district.”

Connor, the Forterra VP, says her group isn’t giving up on the food innovation hub, or pulling out as a partner on the project. “We stand ready to re-engage on behalf of RBAC should the property come back onto the market in the future.” And if it doesn’t? The RBAC and its partners say they’ve seen setbacks before, and are ready to roll up their sleeves and get back to work.

Erica C. Barnett is a longtime Seattle journalist who covers city politics and policy as a freelance journalist for various print and online publications and at her blog, The C Is for Crank. Previously, she was a co-founder of PubliCola, the local politics blog, a staff writer and news editor at the Stranger, a reporter for Seattle Weekly, and news editor at the Austin Chronicle in Austin, Texas.

9 thoughts on “Surprise Bidder Threatens Plans for Rainier Beach Food Innovation District”

  1. Good! RBAC has been pushing something they supported that most of us think is ill advised for such a property better suited for housing, retail and restaurants.

    Citing the “2012 Rainier Beach Neighborhood Plan” as justification for their “food innovation district”, RBAC leaders fail to disclose the closed nature of the plan’s development. Disagree with the concept? Suddenly, you are no longer included in meeting notices, your written or voiced opinions are not noted in any documents. It’s very similar to the RB’s ludicrous “Town Halls”, also run exclusively by and for the self-promotional benefit of RBAC.

    RBAC leaders further attack retail as a failure; if David Sauvion were to venture just 4 miles north to Columbia City, he could eat his words. Locally owned restaurants, retail, arts and housing created a vibrant and desirable neighborhood. RBAC’s concept would best fit into a less vitally placed property.

    RBAC recently promoted a “survey” to gather “public input” on the food innovation district. It’s important to note the extraordinary bias put forth in this survey, with statements made and options presented for “voting” that only provided solutions/answers favorable to a predetermined outcome.

    Rainier Beach needs housing and economic development. Richard Conlin’s project will help spur that.

    1. You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. If you were actually present in Rainier Beach you would know that RBAC is humble, active, and engaged at all levels in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. RBAC is made up of Rainier Beach residents, community members, students, and business owners who advocate and represent the community’s interest. Could you name any of the projects or programs in Rainier Beach that RBAC sponsors? If not, then again, you are unqualified to make any criticism and your perspective is extremely limited.
      Columbia City is the epitome of regentrification and is nothing to be replicated. NONE of the development in Columbia City was derived from community based forums or community input. By advocating for a similar process to occur in Rainier Beach, you are advocating for the displacement of hundreds of families and the invasion of transplants into a neighborhood that is already vibrant and desirable.
      Your opinion is moot and uninformed. You shouldn’t speak on topics which you are ignorant to.
      Your call for retail and housing is absolutely foolish, ignorant, and does nothing but perpetuate the status quo of displacement that has been plaguing Seattle, especially South Seattle.

  2. Love the insight Feisty Brain, but you are wrong, wrong, wrong. Who is “most of us” anyway that believes a Food Innovation Center District with a focus on jobs, housing and health is ill advised? Name names so we can have a peace circle, do some reconciliation, because obviously you’ve been offended. Let’s reconcile and work through this. The deck is stacked against folk interested in community benefit as it is. RBAC is willing to partner with who is available. RBAC is interested in affordable housing. You appear to be a smart enough person to know nothing is black and white, that there are shades of gray in most of these complex societal dynamics. So when someone says “retail doesn’t work” especially when communicated second hand through a reporter, it doesn’t mean do away with all retail. Rainier Beach needs creative solutions not the same old approaches. By the way using Columbia City as an example is bad form, you should know better. Let me state the obvious, Rainier Beach is not Columbia City. RBAC stands ready to engage. The third Thursday of each month we are at Neighborcare Rainier Beach Medical Dental Clinic, 6:30 pm. Show up, teach us your ways so that we can together address the critical issues impacting our neighborhood, especially if you live in Rainier Beach….if by chance you don’t live in Rainier Beach…..come anyway.

  3. “Former Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin… is far better known as an environmentalist than as a developer—largely because he hasn’t been one until this project.”

    That’s funny: Conlin wasn’t known as a developer but he certainly knew them well enough. Check out his contributor list for his last campaign, 2013, when he lost to Kshama Sawant:

Leave a Reply