Opportunity Center and Affordable Housing Near Othello Station in Flux Over Cleanup Concerns

by Ashley Archibald

An affordable housing developer got a reprieve as the minutes ticked down toward its deadline to move forward with plans for a mixed-use building as part of an ambitious four-building complex near the Othello Link light rail station in South Seattle.

HomeSight leaders are expected to send a new proposal for Building A of the Othello Square campus project — which includes the Opportunity Center with more than 200 units of affordable housing above it — for a vote at its board meeting this week. If approved, the developer will receive a 90-day extension to purchase the Building A property for the development from the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). The original deadline to buy the parcel was Jan. 15, but SHA granted an extension, and HomeSight’s board is expected to consider the proposal on Thursday, Feb. 11. 

While HomeSight plays a major role in the Othello Square development at large, their purchase and development plans for the project revolve around Buildings A and D. Although Othello Square as a whole has several key organizational players with their own plans for the other two parcels, the campus is symbiotic in nature. 

Building A is one of four buildings planned for Othello Square, which also includes an affordable home-ownership cooperative, housed in Building D and also developed by HomeSight. A charter elementary school is planned for Building B. And Building C will be the site of a second Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic site, an early-learning center, as well as affordable housing. However, after years of planning, the fate of Building A became uncertain when HomeSight announced in January that it would no longer be the lead developer on that portion of the project. 

That remains true, said Tony To, the project director and director emeritus of HomeSight, in an interview with the Emerald, but the potential new agreement would allow HomeSight to find a development partner to move forward on a reconfigured Opportunity Center and to sort out potential offsite environmental issues, two key aspects of a way forward for Homesight on the Building A project.

“We have [an] extension to come to an agreement on how to address the environmental risk and to find a development partner,” To said. “If we decide to proceed … [SHA] will grant us additional time to do those two things.” 

The new configuration proposed for Building A would shrink the Opportunity Center — meant to offer office space for nonprofits that serve the Rainier Valley, among other amenities — to one floor of the seven-story building instead of two. That would open up more room for affordable housing units, increasing capacity past the 213 units originally proposed. Under the proposed plan, the units would be affordable to rent for households earning between 60% and 80% of the area median income, or $35,000 to $75,000 per year, depending on household size. 

If approved, the new agreement would revive efforts around the Opportunity Center, which was a key component of the Othello Square campus that has been in the works for the better part of a decade. HomeSight told stakeholders that it could no longer act as the lead developer of Building A in a Jan. 21 letter, citing escalating costs and liability concerns off-site stemming from contamination left behind by a former Chevron gas station, which was known by the business name Tidewater.

While the organization and SHA developed a plan to clean the land, HomeSight became concerned about groundwater that could carry the contamination off the property into the adjoining right-of-way at Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The organization worried that the owner of the building could be held liable if contamination impacted nearby properties.

It’s unclear if the contamination has leaked or to what extent. In a statement, a spokesperson for Chevron said that “current data does not indicate significant impacts off of the property, but if there are impacts that are due to the former Tidewater service station, then appropriate action will be taken.”

That potential contamination — and the legal liability that could come with it — further complicated a difficult situation in the face of dwindling funding and rising costs that make housing that is neither subsidized nor luxury harder to build, said Darryl Smith, executive director of HomeSight.

“The type of housing that we’re trying to achieve here, there’s very little funding sources for that,” Smith said. “So, you have to get creative. You have to look for sources. This is harder to do, frankly. So that on top of the cost escalation and the pandemic make it really challenging.”

Construction cost escalation is a normal part of any project, but the coronavirus pandemic has made them even worse. For instance, Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order put restrictions on many industries including construction, which limits the number of workers who can be on site and puts other precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus. 

The possibility of losing that land and the project is concerning, said Yordanos Teferi of the Multicultural Community Coalition (MCC), a cross-cultural partnership among community-based organizations serving immigrant and refugee populations.

The Opportunity Center was meant to include a small-business incubator, STEM education, and financial services as well as generally increase access to opportunity to people in the neighborhood. The center would offer culturally relevant services and provide tools for achieving economic stability. But arguably its biggest benefit was that it was conceived of by community members and, when complete, will belong to the community.

“When you don’t own something as a community, it’s a lot easier to be pushed out,” Teferi said.

MCC was an originating partner on the project, but it is HomeSight that has the purchasing agreement with SHA for the Building A parcel. Should the organization not be able to exercise it, the property stays with the housing authority.

For its part, SHA says it will ensure that the property will serve the local community, with community input, said Kerry Coughlin, the housing authority’s director of communications.

“SHA’s commitment is that we’re committed to that property being something of community benefit. So that’s what we’ll pursue if we go another route than HomeSight,” Coughlin said, prior to a recent discussion with the developer.

What that might look like is difficult to say at this point. Even with SHA selling the land at a discount compared to a commercial sale, it takes the right mix of uses to secure the financing needed to get a project off the ground.

“It will be something that will add value to the community, to the neighborhood,” Coughlin said. “It’s not just: ‘Here, go build market-rate housing on it.’”

While the Opportunity Center remains in flux, the remainder of the Othello Square project is moving forward.

Charter school group Impact Public School will run the Salish Sea Elementary in Building B. Private developer Spectrum is steady at the helm for Building C, home to the second location of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, a Tiny Tots Learning Center, and workforce housing. And HomeSight continues to work on the affordable-home ownership co-op in Building D.

Ashley Archibald is a freelance journalist with previous work in Real Change, the Santa Monica Daily Press, and the Union Democrat. Her work focuses on policy and economic development.

Featured Image: Construction of one of the buildings in the four-building Othello Square project. (Photo: Ashley Archibald)

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