Is Forterra’s 23rd & Union Project a Model for the Rainier Valley

by Paul Nelson

Gentrification has become a hot-button topic over the last few months with racist “reality-check” columns in the Seattle Times and very strong denunciations (one of which called it “careless… white panic…” and “colonial entitlement…”)

In the Central District, where the gentrification has almost pushed out the entire historic population of African-Americans, a new approach to retaining what diversity that’s left is being attempted. At the center of that approach is an organization with more experience in land conservancy than mixed-income housing.

Gene Duvernoy is the President of Forterra, formerly the Cascade Land Conservancy. A project Forterra is coordinating at 23rd & Union, at the epicenter of the gentrification debate in the Central District, is giving hope to those who say it’s game over for Seattle in the effort to prevent the city from being a wetter version of San Francisco, with rent prices pushing out long-term residents, most of which are people of color.

In the posh downtown high-rise offices of Forterra, Duvernoy spoke of his organization and the 23rd & Union project.

Gene Duvernoy: Forterra used to be an organization called the Land Conservancy… and the Seattle King County Land Conservancy before that, and the Land Trust of Seattle and King County before that. Well, the name changed to recognize and to reflect how we start changing mission and changing geography, so it really keeps pace with that. We’re not a conservation group. I always love to say that. We’re a group that is totally place based and believe that we can get it right here, and we can be a region that’s successful and sustainable. What we then say to ourselves is, “Look, nature and humans, human society, they both operate on top of land, so let’s set the stage, the landscape in a way they both succeed.” What land needs to be acquired for habitat, for working farms and forest or for inner cities and portable homes, small businesses and third places, so those key stone properties, let’s get them acquired and deployed correctly for this region’s long-term sustainability.

Paul Nelson: People say it’s done already, Seattle is San Francisco 2.0 and you’re gonna have to live in Renton at the very closest to be able to have housing affordability.

GD: I can bring that old analogy about planting a tree right into the city. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is right today… The best time would have been when they really set land aside 20 years ago. Second best time is right now. It’s never too late. It’s just hard.

PN:  You’re quoted in the PI, May 24, saying, “Sustainable cities must be places where everyone can live.” But that’s counter to how we define success in our society right now. All the people moving in for Amazon jobs making over $100,000 a year, that’s what success is and yet that jeopardizes anyone making less than that to be able to live in the town.

GD: It’s a good problem to have, that issue that you just captured. I was in Cleveland a year ago and Cleveland has the property vacancy and delinquency rate of 40%. How does a city like that make itself livable and sustainable with that kind of drag on itself. This is a good problem to have, but we need to fix things in a moment of strength, not weakness and that’s what this is. Yeah, there’s a lot of high net worth folks moving here, but the trick then is to find those properties to acquire and deploy them for affordable housing. Maybe not in South Lake Union, but there are a lot of other neighborhoods. Act now. Oh, and those people who are moving here, we polled those folks and they recognize the gem they have here. They love the outdoors. They want to stay because of the outdoors and because of the neighborhoods, so let’s work hard to keep both.

PN: Which is what you’re doing at 23rd and Union.

GD: Yes.

PN:  Tell us about that project.

GD:  It’s an interesting project. Sustainability is this funny mix of living together, having affordable places, having all income levels and respecting the history of where we came from. That all comes together at 23rd and Union. We’re working with a young group of African American leaders who have organized under the Africatown Community Land Trust and they’re looking to acquire real estate within the central district. That can really be anchors for that community…

Owning property enfranchises people into a community. You own part of the community, you seem much more active in the community, you vote better, you become much more active citizens.

PN: You have a stake.

GD: You have a stake. That’s what they were asking for – a legitimate stake in the community. We’re working with them. We have a purchase sale agreement to buy about 20% of it and over time then Africatown Community Land Trust will own that real estate.

PN: Say that again. Let me make sure I have this right. You are putting a purchase agreement into it and you’re gonna turn it over to Africatown?

GD: They’ll buy it. We’ll work with them over time to secure them the financing. We’ll work with them to make sure they now have the organizational infrastructure and over time we hope that they buy it.

PN: This is on the south west corner of 23rd & Union, where the post office is now, right?

GD: Yes. Look, if you want a sustainable region, we need to learn to live within our cities. It provides the most sustainable footprint for humans. We don’t waste the landscape. The rest of the landscape conserve ecosystem functions. When we live within the city, you can aggregate the capital and take care of your messiness, your waste. You’re efficient, so you’re minimizing your contribution of climate gas because you’re in a very sufficient living arrangement.

Cities are the way we should live. We need to make them so that we want to live there and we need to make them so we can afford to live there. Sprawl is unsustainable. 20 years ago, those of us who could afford to pay for a five-acre estate, the purchase was economically driven sprawl. Today, ironically it’s not so much those of us who can afford to leave our cities, it’s those who can’t afford to stay face the sprawl. The work on 23rd and Union helps to reduce sprawl.

PN: Does the Growth Management Act prevent sprawl? Maybe our’s is not as strong as Portland’s model, but still important enough to work.

GD: We couldn’t have this conversation without the Growth Management Act. Just couldn’t have it. It set-up a lot of the bones and structure for an environmentally rational sustainable place, but it wasn’t sufficient. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. You got to bring capital into building your cities and into providing for community based businesses. That’s what we’re doing. We’re providing the capital.

PN: In a 1950 essay, poet Charles Olson said, “The use of a man by himself and thus by others lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawled, he shall find little to sing but himself.”

GD: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

PN:   The man who sings himself best is probably now the guy running this country, right?

GD: Oh, Lord.

Paul:  We think of sprawl, you say that the potential is there to have people commuting from Cle Elum. That’s what we have right now if we don’t do something.

GD: There is not a potential. There are people commuting from Cle Elum.

PN:  That’s crazy.

GD:  It is crazy.

PN: That’s nuts. I want to go back to 23rd and Union because this is an intersection that is the epicenter of the gentrification debate. It’s funny. That neighborhood was red lined 50 years ago.

GD: That’s why it became African American.

PN:  That and the Rainier Valley were the only places that Black people were essentially legally allowed to live and now there’s a fight to keep it African American predominantly. That fight has pretty much been lost.

GD:  Yeah. It’s lo- Paul, I am not gonna get the statistics right, but like 15 years ago it might have been 80% African American and now it’s 18%… I want to go back to a sustainable city that respects its history and respects where it’s from. A lot of what you’re seeing with the Africatown Community Land Trust is saying we want to respect the history here.

GD: We should be building communities for us, for people. We should have enough self-respect and compassion that our communities serve us… You build the bones for social cohesion by making sure you have those kind of attractive places that draw everyone in.  One of my standard examples is the international fountain in the Seattle Center… You go there on a nice day and it’s a very democratic place. There are people there that clearly don’t have homes in the San Juan’s and all the kids are playing around the fountain, and clearly of all income levels, and the parents around the fountain are from all income levels, and it’s a place where people mix. We need more of that.

PN:  What about the role of arts in such communities?

GD: Oh, yeah. Art can frequently … I had this conversation an hour ago. Art can frequently be tagged as a elitist. I think it’s anything but. We ran a speaker series for a number of years about art in a sustainable city. It is a very powerful forest for social cohesion and also for us to ask questions about ourselves, and what we’re about, so it’s a very powerful dynamic… We are the wealthiest society in history of humanity, right? Why aren’t we investing more in art and infrastructure, and making ourselves as livable as we can be, and as a community, as a community?

PN:  How could someone interested in this work in the Rainier Valley begin to say, “Hey, we need several of these kinds of projects in Rainier Beach and Brighton and southeast Seattle.” Do you have any plans to do any work there or how can such an organization maybe similar to the folks active at 23rd and Union, how can they begin to say I want to do something to create sustainable housing and arts centric, and transportation-centered development in the Rainier Valley before it’s too late there.

GD: I don’t have a 10-word answer for you, but we partner with community based organizations and we’re looking for those kind of keystone properties. We’re only as good as our partnerships. We’re only as good as the community based organizations who are out there willing to work with us because we don’t know their neighborhoods. We know real estate, so we are very happy to work with organizations. But then, okay, if that’s what an organization wants, get yourself credible. Learn how to organize, learn how to become an organization and commit yourself to the hard kind of unglamorous work of providing that kind of organizational infrastructure to succeed.

Paul: Which you’re doing with the group at 23rd and Union.

GD: They’re very talented folks and we’re learning more than we’re teaching. They are very patient with us and helping us understand how to partner well, a bunch of very insightful community based folks… You come to understand that well-motivated residents in a civic community know best. You go there and you learn how to listen quite well. Don’t put your own judgment whether it’s in what a piece of real estate should be or how a person should be dressed. Just learn how to listen well and partner well, and have your eyes very open and know that you’re bringing your real estate skills, but they’re the boss.

Featured image by Naomi Ishisaka

2 thoughts on “Is Forterra’s 23rd & Union Project a Model for the Rainier Valley”

  1. I can’t understand this article. I’d like to know, is the property going to be a land trust?? How ? It’s in trust, cannot be bought or sold, in perpetuity correct?

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  2. Here in Rainier Valley, the Forterra kind of financing has been done by the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund for a number of local projects. Wayne Lau, the executive director of the RVCDF and a Rainier Valley native, gave us a run down these projects at our OSCAT meeting last night. This meeting was held at the Mercy Housing community room, and this brand new building of affordable housing was partly financed by the RVCDF, specifically, the land purchase (from Sound Transit). Grand opening tomorrow at 11:30 am.

    Lots of new housing is going up at Othello, and it is quite affordable compared to most of Seattle. Even the market rate units are mostly workforce type housing in practice.

    What we really need is “residential small lot” zoning citywide, which would double density in many single family neighborhoods without changing their character. In Rainier Valley these new units, from remodelling houses to include a few rooms or an apartment for rent, would be mostly affordable. If we were to do this, the sheer number of new units would keep San Francisco at bay.

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