Photo of an intersection in the Othello Neighborhood with a street art on power box.

OPINION: Othello Neighborhood Deserves Accountability for Long-Awaited Opportunity Center

by Yordanos Teferi

The Multicultural Community Coalition (MCC) and numerous partners have worked tirelessly to steward community priorities at the Opportunity Center at Othello Square, once slated for completion in 2023. The Opportunity Center aimed to anchor several community-based organizations serving thousands of immigrants and refugees, co-located STEM education, entrepreneurial business resources, affordable retail space, and mixed-income and affordable housing. We garnered support from all levels of government and the philanthropic community and devoted substantial human and social capital to the project for over a decade because our communities face grave displacement and underinvestment from neighborhoods that they helped build and shape. 

Yet, despite over 10 years of community visioning, commitments from multiple City of Seattle departments, and millions of dollars in public and private investment, we are no closer to the Opportunity Center breaking ground. 

While the Opportunity Center was identified as one of the City’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) demonstration projects and its community priorities were codified in the City’s Equitable Development Implementation Plan and the Othello Neighborhood Plan Update, it is hardly closer to becoming a reality than when our state and local elected officials rallied around it in 2015.

Recent developer challenges have plagued this project. Community developer and former partner HomeSight removed MCC, an originating partner, from the project without notice or cause following Microsoft’s $2.5 million grant commitment pledged in January 2020. HomeSight brazenly took advantage of the marginalized communities represented by MCC, ceasing communications, and preventing MCC access to funds we helped raise. Our city, county, and state governments have collectively committed over $12 million of taxpayer funds for the project, yet there has been no fear of consequence for HomeSight’s exploitation of a less empowered originating partner. This is evident, as MCC’s multiple, year-long calls for mediation, with the support of many elected officials, have been flatly declined by HomeSight and its board. 

In early 2021, shortly after HomeSight became the sole partner of the Opportunity Center, it cited environmental reasons for pulling out as the key developer. HomeSight has since changed the vision of the Opportunity Center entirely, removing the majority of the community priorities for which substantial public investment was made. What began as a  2-floor design plan to include a service delivery hub, co-located STEM education, entrepreneurial business resources, and a multicultural community center has been reduced to one floor that will house an office, one community organization, a pharmacy, a credit union, and potentially a ceramic arts studio. 

The current iteration of this project disrespects historically marginalized communities the Othello Square site was intended to serve and disregards the many years of community input and city processes dedicated to envisioning the equitable, transit-oriented development. 

Our government institutions, funders, and elected officials should act in the interests of communities ripe for displacement instead of sitting on the sidelines. In a recent call-to-action memo and two-pager issued to Seattle City Councilmembers, the Mayor’s Office, and City departments, MCC outlined the following demands and opportunities for accountability:

  • Establish a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) with any new developer to ensure that the original anti-displacement community priorities will be actualized.
  • Council Request for Investigation from the city auditor to uncover any missteps taken in this project, including input from past and current MCC partners, community representatives, and residents that took part in engagement opportunities.
  • Open apology from the City and HomeSight to begin to address needs for accountability for promises made by the City and partners with access to resources and greater proximity to power.
  • Commitment to build an Opportunity Center rooted in the long-held vision of the community and a pivotal element of the Othello neighborhood planning. If not at Othello Square, we ask that the City and City Council commit to finding another location to make the Opportunity Center a reality.

MCC will continue to fight for the Opportunity Center and exemplify community-driven development that fights displacement and gentrification. Recently, MCC acquired property in Hillman City through support from EDI. This acquisition was inspired by our disaster gentrification work with Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) and Puget Sound Sage. Our new site provides us the opportunity to anchor 8 East African small businesses that were at grave risk of displacement while we continue to steward community priorities. 

We are committed to urging our governmental institutions to be better stewards of public dollars and to support and invest in the very communities that have enriched, shaped, and built neighborhoods from which they now stand to be displaced. In particular, our City bears responsibility for anti-displacement and anti-gentrification projects as they greatly impact the richness, diversity, and sustainability of Seattle. Throwing taxpayer dollars at developers with no enforcement that they do what they and other stakeholders agreed to, for the benefit of the community as a whole, is not equitable development.

It should be clear that the fruition of community-driven and anti-displacement development projects depend on meaningful involvement of our governmental institutions that hold themselves and project stewards accountable. Our communities are powerful, and our governmental institutions should foster that power and actually commit to our visions. Or else, vulnerable communities incur further hurt, and our city as a whole suffers.

Yordanos Teferi is a member of the Multicultural Community Coalition (MCC).

📸 Featured image is attributed to SDOT Photos (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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