Spotlight on Sustainability: Equitable transit-oriented development in Seattle, WA

Images from the Community Cornerstones Project Brochure

Southeast Seattle is home to the most diverse and immigrant-populated neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington. Now, as a result of the Community Cornerstones project, Southeast Seattle could become the next equitable transit-oriented development (TOD) success story.

Part of the strategy is to attract dense mixed-use development to several of Southeast Seattle’s neighborhoods that are in close proximity to the light-rail system opened in 2009, while also preserving the area’s affordability for existing residents through partnerships with community development and financial institutions. The area is already home to one of the most transit-utilized areas of Seattle, and through the project the area is likely to grow with more people, businesses, and jobs.

This project is to-date the most comprehensive strategy at shaping new development in an area that has, up until recently, had very little growth. The Community Cornerstones project has worked to acquire transit-oriented development sites, provide commercial stabilization for small businesses in the multicultural business district, and strengthen community capacity through a shared multicultural community center. Recently, 850 plus units of market rate housing is being developed right next to where affordable housing is being built. This marks the first time market rate housing has been built in this area in decades, and it is being developed in parallel with the Community Cornerstones project.

“A lasting partnership has materialized between groups coming together to create a collective impact model as part of this project,” remarked Ryan Curren, the project manager.

Even in the midst of a recession, the project moved forward and created new partnerships along the way. The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, which was not initially a partner in the work, stepped into a leading role, helping to coordinate with partners and stakeholders to deliver mixed public and private capital investments to the community. The project’s original goal was to produce 200 affordable housing units; the plan is now to deliver 300 affordable units. There is a new $41 million affordable housing mixed-use project, another $30 million project, and a third project in the works. These development projects were largely catalyzed because of the Community Cornerstones project and the introduction of light rail in the area, and are being funded through a variety of sources including tax credits, community development financial institutions, and City sources. More than half of the units will be 2 and 3-bedrooms, a demand that is currently not being met by the market even though the area has the largest family sizes in the City of Seattle. These units will help the existing community to maintain a large presence in conjunction with new growth.

The Community Cornerstones project goes beyond a typical TOD project with strategies that foster the area’s substantial diversity. Only 25 percent of Southeast Seattle residents identify as white, while 40 percent identify as Asian and 25 percent as black or African American. Seattle residents as a whole identify as 70 percent white. Southeast Seattle is also home to a greater majority of the city’s immigrant and refugee populations, and half the area’s households speak a language other than English at home.

Much of the community is engaged and connected with this project, and in many ways the project has benefited from its local support. There are community engagement liaisons from each of the major immigrant communities that are building relationships and trust with the area’s diverse population. As leaders in the community and because of their efforts, thirteen different cultural communities are currently involved in work on a multicultural community center. Nora Liu, a planner for the cultural centers, calls the collaboration “an inspiring part” of her work. Additionally, the Community Cornerstones project has involved the business community, helping immigrant small businesses receive support in dealing with the transformations occurring in the community. Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons are helping the local businesses establish relationships of trust. Recently, 11 adjacent businesses coordinated together on architectural design and façade improvements.

There is a strong belief that the stabilizing anchors and involvement of residents will attract new housing and commercial development with minimal community displacement from new market growth, even as the capacity provided from HUD’s Community Challenge Planning Grant runs out. The City of Seattle is building off of these efforts, recently applying for a Promise Zones grant to target this very area with a strong focus on attracting living wage jobs and workforce training. Many in the Seattle region are continuing to look to the Community Cornerstones project as an example of working across silos to better the community with strong community participation.

The grant for the Community Cornerstones Project was made possible through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to help communities improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while promoting sustainable practices.