by Alexa Peters
For decades, the close-knit and diverse community in Skyway has been striving to flourish on their own terms.
As an unincorporated part of King County, Skyway does not have a local government entity, like a city council or mayor, working on behalf of the majority BIPOC community, making it harder for residents to preserve the parts of Skyway they love and execute much-needed additions, like a long-awaited community center. At the same time, residents like Jeannie Williams, who’s lived in Skyway for 36 years, say incorporation wouldn’t be worth the cost to the heart and soul of the neighborhood.
“Skyway has its own quirky personality all its own. It’s kind of like being out in the country but in the middle of the city. There’s cool little family-owned restaurants and it’s a good place to raise your kids. It’s very diverse,” said Williams. “All of those things make Skyway its own community.”
Hence, Skyway residents stay active to preserve the community’s ability to self-determine, and their efforts have intensified over the last three years as they’ve watched the Central District and Rainier Beach be irreversibly transformed by gentrification. According to King County Public Relations officer Brent Champaco, there hasn’t necessarily been a spike in development activity in Skyway over the last 10 years, but there has been a lot of discussion of redevelopment on Renton Avenue South.
“We saw developers coming and looking at property, but we were a step ahead of them,” said Williams. “We were going, ‘Wait a minute, everyone; before you sell your property to a developer, let’s all get together and figure out how to own our community, how to support our businesses.’”
In 2019, the community worked to form the Skyway Coalition, a fiscally sponsored community action group dedicated to advocating for policies and funding to support anti-displacement strategies, affordable housing, and economic development. Most recently, the West Hill Community Association (WHCA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit started in 1991 as a community advocate and conduit to elected officials, has elected to take on more community responsibility as Skyway’s Community Development Association (CDA).
In general, CDAs, also known as Community Development Corporations, are place-based, not-for-profit, and tax-exempt organizations that facilitate community development work in a specific neighborhood. A CDA is accountable to its stakeholders — typically a board made up of local residents — and is invested in advocating for and addressing the needs and wants of a specific community, as the CDA in White Center has done since 2001.
As for Skyway’s CDA, the organization will represent projects on behalf of the community. They hope to use that power to stave off gentrification and displacement of People of Color from what is now Seattle’s largest Black zip code. From that angle, Rebecca Berry, a longtime Skyway resident and director of the Skyway Coalition, says this CDA has come to Skyway just in time.
“Housing costs are already out of reach for so many, especially our Black and Brown communities, and it only continues to get worse,” said Berry.
The formation of this CDA comes after years of talks between the community and King County about the lack of investment in Skyway-West Hill, a community that struggles with limited access to affordable healthy food, poor infrastructure, few community spaces, and an ever-dwindling supply of affordable housing, on top of the looming threat of gentrification.
In September 2019, these talks led to a County plan to change zoning laws in Skyway, which the community determined would make them more vulnerable to development. So in July 2020, King County pivoted and proposed collaborating with the community to create the Skyway-West Hill Subarea Plan, a 20-year vision for Skyway-West Hill that addresses land use, policy changes, and other community needs.
“Phase 1 of the Subarea Plan was designed to be strictly land-use focused. For Skyway, Phase 2 involves issuing a plan with a broader scope,” said Champaco. “The Public Review Draft is scheduled to be issued soon, so Phase 2 is inclusive of land use, but it will also include a broader scope based on the County Council’s direction that it should cover additional topics that are important to the community.”
As organizations like WHCA have held community meetings and collected input for the Subarea Plan, Williams notes that the need for more community-owned land has repeatedly come up.
“[People are] getting pushed out and people are having to move,” said Williams. “With that came our recognition that we need affordable spaces owned by the community. But in order for something to be community-owned, we had to have a conduit that represents the community, like a CDA.”
For an organization to become a community’s CDA presence, they must be not-for-profit and tax-exempt. A positive pre-existing relationship with the community is also preferred. With that in mind, WCHA, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization that has a long-focused on equity and anti-displacement issues in Skyway, was the perfect CDA candidate.
“West Hill Community Association, they are a member of the Skyway Coalition — they’re actually one of the founding members, so the collaboration is already there,” said Berry. “As they were considering becoming a CDA, they came to present to the Coalition to ask if this was something that we would be able to partner on because obviously, the reason they’re becoming a CDA is so they can hold and manage land where we cannot as a fiscally sponsored organization.”
In WHCA’s board meeting in July, the board unanimously voted to become the CDA, which augments the organization’s community responsibilities considerably.
“Right now WHCA is a community-driven organization that offers community events and community communication,” said Williams. “But [becoming] a CDA puts us in a position where we would actually be representative of the community for land ownership so that when we build or get into the throes of the community center, or the resource center, or affordable housing, WHCA will legally own that land on behalf of the community.”
As Williams notes, the organization’s first priorities as a CDA are to tackle three projects on community land that they think are key to revitalizing their community. First and foremost, that means building a community center that will offer local youth a safe and enriching place to gather, which is easier now that King County has provided them with $10 million in seed money. Next, WHCA wants to create a resource center to bring much-needed resources like food, medical, educational, and financial services to the community. Thirdly, they want to create more affordable housing.
According to Champaco, King County is hopeful that the new CDA may also assist in implementing the Skyway-West Hill Subarea Plan, which has been in development for nearly two years and will enter Public Review Draft stage sometime soon. Once the Public Review Draft comment period ends in September, the County will examine all comments and package a set of policies and land use, zoning, and code amendments that will be transmitted to the Council near the end of the year. From there, the Council says they will take action with additional opportunity for public comment in advance.
“There’re so many people that say, ‘I grew up in Skyway, I love that area!’ You know? And we still want that to be the case.’” said Williams. “We just want to continue that same Skyway feeling without gentrification … making it into a whole different place, eliminating the diversity and putting in big businesses. That’s not what Skyway is about. That’s not what we want it to be. A lot of us, we all purposefully live here because of Skyway’s dynamic. And we want to keep it.”
Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Alex Garland.
Before you move on to the next story … The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 900 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us get to 1,100 Rainmakers by the end of the year and keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!