Photo depicting the under-construction Ethiopian Village with a construction crane looming over the building.

Development in Rainier Beach Heralds Big Changes to Community

by Phil Manzano

Cindy Jones framed the conversation with one statistic at the Develop-Meant For Community town hall held Thursday, June 30, by the Rainier Beach Action Coalition: By 2025, Rainier Beach will see a minimum of 1,030 living units come online.

“What are we seeing with development?” she asked. “We are seeing heights that are five or six stories … impact from development as they come online, 18 to 24 months, sometimes longer, that are impacting our traffic, our walkways, our parking, and, in some cases, views.”

About 20 major development projects are in the planning, permitting, or construction phase in Rainier Beach. Those projects most notably underway include the Ethiopian Village — 100 affordable senior housing units — at 8323 Rainier Ave. S., and Polaris at Rainier Beach — 306 mixed-use affordable workforce housing units — at 9400 Rainier Ave. S. 

Add to that the renovation and replacement of Rainier Beach High School and the renovation of Be’er Sheva Park, and in a few years, Rainier Beach will look and feel like an entirely different place.

Photo depicting Cindy Jones wearing a black button-down shirt and a black baseball cap and holding the Unsung Hero award.
Cindy Jones, WaFd Bank branch manager and member of the Rainier Beach Merchants Association, received the Unsung Hero award Thursday for her community work. (Photo: Phil Manzano)

It’s important, says Jones, a WaFd Bank branch manager in Rainier Beach, to ask why.

“Why is development coming to the area? What are the incentives that developers are being offered to come to the area? Is there an opportunity for these new developments to be able to provide affordable housing? And do they see the communities that are being impacted?”

For many community members, development has not always been seen as good, as home prices and rents have forced many to move or have displaced long-standing Black-owned small businesses or failed to provide jobs to the local economy.

“This could be a heavy meeting, because development can have a negative impact on the current residents,” said Cathie Wilmore, of Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen this happen way too many times. … We have a chance today to not let it happen to us.”

Photo depicting the interior gymnasium of the Rainier Beach Community Center with various individuals gathered around tables and looking at posted signs.
Rainier Beach residents gathered at the Rainier Beach Community Center last Thursday, June 30, to hear presentations from developers leading projects in the area. (Photo: Phil Manzano)

Curtis Brown, of Brighton Development Group, says the group has closed on its purchase of The Arches apartment complex at Holly Street South and Rainier Avenue South, where 25 families faced the possibility of increased rents that may have forced them to move.

“A bunch of outside developers tried to come in and buy The Arches,” Brown said. “We stopped it and we bought it. And I want to let you know that this community raised $400,000 in less than a month.”

Brown says the group is also envisioning building rent-to-own condos, most likely for young, single, first-time buyers, on a nearby property and has secured $750,000 in federal funding to begin planning a 100-unit affordable housing complex on another property nearby.

These community-owned projects, he says, will have Black developers, Black residents, and Black investment.

“There’s no other way to do it,” Brown said, asking for people to get involved and help with the planning process. “Tell your neighbors. We want to make sure the people who live in this community are owning in this community, and this project will make sure that happens.”

Wilmore and Jones emphasize that the community hopes to engage developers as they begin planning projects.

“I want to say to the developers on behalf of the Rainier Beach Merchants Association, we welcome you,” Jones said. “Please know we are here to get to know you. What that means is any development that is building housing and affordable commercial space will need us in order to be successful.”

Jevon Washington, director of community engagement and partnerships for Mt. Baker Housing, understands the tension. 

Mt. Baker Housing, among other projects, is planning to break ground this year on Via 7, a six-story, 221-unit affordable workforce housing project at the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South Cloverdale Street. It will feature underground parking and ground floor commercial space, one of those tenants being the Northwest Tap Connection

The community has to be aware of development in the area, Washington says, and developers need to be aware of the community they are working in, acknowledging the diversity, strength, and richness already there.

Photo depicting a group of individuals inside a classroom-like setting discussing development in Rainier Beach.
One of Thursday’s breakout sessions with developers and community residents. (Photo: Phil Manzano)

“Developers need to understand this, you can’t just roll up into someone’s neighborhood, and you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t,” Washington said. “People have a right to be hesitant of developers, and I think that’s OK, and I think you can work on that and say, ‘Here’s who we are,’ and gain trust. But you can’t learn to trust somebody if you’re never there for any active part of a relationship.”

Residents, through meetings like RBAC’s town halls, Washington says, need to be involved and understand that development is a long game, years in the making, with key decisions often made early in the process.

Washington says people will see building projects start to take shape and seek to get involved, but the train’s left the station. “It left three years ago.”

“You’ve got to show up,” he said. “You can’t blame anybody for what happens when you didn’t put up a fight.”

Editors’ Note: This story was changed to correct the figure that about 1,030 units are expected in Rainier Beach by 2025.

Phil Manzano is a South Seattle writer, editor with more than 30 years of experience in daily journalism, and formerly was the news editor for the Emerald.

📸 Featured Image: Cranes are no longer an uncommon sight along Rainier Avenue South, such as this one towering over the future Ethiopian Village, a 100-unit affordable senior housing project. A few blocks north, two cranes are positioned over Flourish on Rainier, a 182-unit affordable workforce housing project, as an estimated 11,030 units are expected to come online by 2025. (Photo: Phil Manzano)

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