CID Coalition Says Approval of Development Lacked Transparency and Accessibility

by Ronnie Estoque

On Oct. 27, an International Special Review District Board (ISRD) meeting resulted in a certificate of approval granted for the “Origin 206” at  206 Fifth Avenue South, a mixed-use residential and commercial development owned by 206 Partners LLC, with Edge Developers LLC as its investor.  Nina Wallace, a member of the Chinatown-International District (CID) Coalition, was in attendance for the meeting and believes the certificate of approval was a greenlight for another gentrification development to begin in the CID.

“For those of us [CID Coalition] that were there and attended the meeting, we all felt like, wow, that was an incredibly inequitable meeting,” said Wallace, who is a fourth-generation Japanese American.

The CID Coalition, also known as “Humbows Not Hotels”, has been an integral organizing body against the displacement of API communities living in the neighborhood. In 2017, the CID Coalition alongside other community partners raised concerns that the Mandatory Housing Affordability fund and accompanying upzone legislation did not do enough to protect the community from gentrification. 

“Now we’re seeing the effects of the city not listening to the community,” Wallace said. 

In response to this meeting, the CID Coalition sent a letter to ISRD Board Members, outlining concerns they had around the lack of transparency and accessibility that community members experienced during the certificate of approval process. The letter noted that “the developer’s presentation nor the questions and comments of ISRD Board Members were interpreted in any of the languages commonly spoken in the Chinatown-International District.”

The Oct. 27 virtual meeting was conducted via the Cisco Webex platform, which raised several concerns from the CID Coalition around its usability. Wallace spoke to how participants on the Webex platform were unable to see one another and gauge responses, only the developers and the ISRd Board were visible on screen. The CID Coalition also raised concerns around public comment not being allowed unless submitted ahead of time, and the ways in which “elders and low-income residents, who lack broadband internet access and digital skills, were automatically excluded because of the meeting’s virtual setting.”

Initially, EDGE had intended for the units of the development to be affordably priced condominiums, but later changed them to be market-based apartment units. According to Andrés J. Mantilla, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Director, this change was noted to the ISRD Board by developers at a December 2019 meeting.

“At the most recent of those briefings, held in December 2019, the Board was informed of the developer’s decision to operate the completed project as an apartment building rather than a condominium,” Mantilla said in a Nov. 11 email to the CID Coalition. “…the Board does not have the authority to approve, deny or revise property use decisions of that sort. Nor does the board have the authority to determine levels of affordability within buildings.”

Rebecca Frestedt serves as the City of Seattle’s Columbia City Landmark District & International Special Review District Coordinator, and gave the Emerald comments about the CID Coalition letter’s concerns. She stated that she had forwarded the information to the ISRD Board, but has not received a response from any of its members.

“The ISRD Board encourages developers to conduct community outreach and often ask how outreach has informed a project,” Frestedt said. “To clarify, Early Design Guidance Outreach that is required for projects going through Design Review is not required within the historic districts, since the Historic Preservation Program is not subject to SDCI’s Design Review process.”

Frestedt was also in attendance for the December 2019 ISRD Board Member, and had asked (page 15) project proposal representative, Eli Hardi, about outreach that had been done to the community about the change from condominiums to apartment units, since members had spoken about “affordable home ownership at the last meeting.” Hardi responded that they would after the new year, and 2019  ISRD board chair Stephanie Hsie requested that community response be shared with the board, “regardless of what it is.”

Wallace, alongside many others at the CID Coalition, believe that the developers did not do an adequate job of engaging with the community about changes made to the development’s plans, especially in regard to its pricing and affordability.

According to their website, the ISRD  Board “reviews applications for Certificates of Approval for any change to the use, exterior appearance of buildings or structures, streets, sidewalks, and other public spaces in the District.” Frestedt also elaborated that the type of residential units proposed, and their commercial/residential affordability levels fall outside of the ISRD Board’s decision-making criteria.

Wallace, who has been organizing with the CID Coalition for over two years, believes that anti-gentrification and displacement measures are not a priority for the ISRD Board, and that structural change needs to occur within the ISRD Board to ensure that those are added to its mission. She also has concerns that EDGE’s decision to have a single 6,500 SF Commercial Space will not attract locally owned businesses, but bigger chains or companies that can afford to rent a large space.

“We’re also seeing a really sharp rise in the number of white folks living in the CID neighborhood at the same time that the number of PoC folks is going down pretty significantly,” Wallace said.

According to Wendy Shark, Senior Public Relations Specialist for Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, 206 Partners LLC has opted into paying into the MHA fund instead of providing affordable apartment units for the new development.

“MHA fees go into a general city-wide fund, so there’s no guarantee those funds will stay in the CID and be invested in the community that’s directly impacted.” Wallace said. 

She believes that the minimum percent of affordable units provided by developers should be increased, and that “affordable housing” must be redefined and adjusted for neighborhoods such as the CID, where the city-wide area media income is about three times that of those living in the CID. 

206 Partners LLC was established on Dec. 22, 2017, and Donald Mar serves as its executor and governor. Mar also serves as the Managing Principal at Edge Developers LLC, where he has spent over 40 years in real estate development, construction, and property management. Mar declined to make a public comment to the Emerald on their certificate of approval granting.  

Ronnie Estoque is a Seattle-based reporter. He is driven to uplift marginalized voices in the South Seattle community through his writing, photography, and videography. You can keep up with his work by following his Twitter account @RonnieEstoque.