(Photo courtesy Holli Margell)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Three and a half months after first word of a proposed apartment project meant to house 75 homeless people living with mental illness and possibly substance abuse, questions and concerns still abound in Delridge.
That was the bottom line of last night’s first Delridge Community Forum, launching a new volunteer-organized series of mediated conversations on major topics of local interest. The DCF organizing group spun off from the North Delridge Neighborhood Council, after a June community meeting about the Downtown Emergency Service Center‘s proposal left a lot of dissatisfaction, particularly the fact it was in a tiny venue that led to a lot of turnaway.
For last night’s forum, which brought an estimated 150 people to the theater at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, organizers went to extensive lengths to try to ensure the event would not lean too heavily toward either the pro or con direction, and that it would not dissolve into an angry brouhaha. The only real flash of the latter potential happened when the meeting was already running overtime – and resulted in a quick adjournment.
Ahead – the key points of information and concern, including video of the presentations that preceded the Q/A:
For the June meeting (WSB coverage here) explaining the proposal, DESC executive director Bill Hobson provided a briefing. This time, while Hobson was in attendance along with other DESC leaders, its director of housing Daniel Malone took the microphone to explain the agency and its plan – but without going into site-specific points involving the site, building design, etc.
So we’ll recap that first: DESC has purchased lots on the east side of the 5400 block of Delridge Way SW (map), currently holding small residential buildings (hard to see from the street because of evergreens):
Their building would include 75 studio apartments, and some ground-floor commercial space, as discussed when Delridge community advocates toured DESC facilities in other parts of the city last month (WSB coverage here). The “massing” above is the only sketch that’s been made public. The project will have to go through Design Review, which is one place for public involvement in the process.
Now, here’s our unedited video of the presentations – starting with Malone, and then with two city reps to talk about specifics, Rick Hooper from the Office of Housing, which among other things approves financing for projects like this, and Diane Sugimura, director of the Department of Planning and Development, which reviews and approves development:
One key point if you missed it in the video: Hooper said there would be a decision about DESC’s funding request in about a month. Per our previous conversations with DESC, that’s not the only funding source they’re dealing with, however.
After the speakers, attendees were asked to talk about the project at their respective tables, and then bring up any major questions/concerns.
The first person to do so stressed that while “we support the mission” of housing homeless people, they were concerned about existing neighborhood challenges – no grocery store in walking distance, few amenities for the new residents, “drug activity,” and summarized, “We’re really worried that these people may not be supported to be really successful in this spot,” asking, “how do we support the neighborhood that’s already here?” as well as new residents living with challenges including mental illness and substance abuse.
DESC’s Malone answered first, saying that none of the agency’s existing buildings have “walkable grocery stores” – at previous discussions of the project, it’s been mentioned that residents are offered bus trips to stores, and that some meals are prepared on site – and said DESC takes steps to ensure residents’ “wellbeing.”
The drug-activity issue was then addressed by Seattle Police Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Steve Paulsen, who called the 5400 block of Delridge “a very fragile area” that has “seen a transition to positive in the past few years … (with) a lot of people getting involved in their neighborhood.” However, he said, police don’t get enough 911 calls when there’s trouble in the area, particularly involving “open-market drug dealing.”
That was countered later by an attendee who stood up and said that they’ve gotten such lackluster response from 911 calls in the past, “after the 20th call, why would we bother?” (Capt. Paulsen says they are continuing to work with 911 operators when police receive those types of complaints.)
The most vocal opponent of the project to speak at the forum asked flatly, “How do we stop this from actually being built here?” Applause followed. “We are a fragile area … let’s not make it worse.”
Hooper from the city’s housing office fielded the question. He suggested the question from his standpoint could have been rephrased as “How do we send a message not to fund the project because the neighborhood doesn’t want it?” and said his answer to that was basically, you can’t: “That would violate several laws. … Our consideration is not whether neighbors would vote against it … essentially, we have fair-housing laws we have to operate within.”
That reply was in turn characterized by the attendee as sounding like “nothing (opponents) can do …. Tell me something we CAN do, and we’ll start from there.” If it is the proverbial “done deal,” it was suggested, improvements would be needed such as a stoplight or crosswalk at SW Findlay, where residents might “make a mad dash for (a nearby convenience store).”
Another audience question: “Why did you choose a site on Delridge, served by one bus line, no grocery store, no health services, we don’t even have a bank … Why was this site selected?”
DESC’s Malone noted that they are about to break ground on a site at 105th and Aurora and that DESC is “in a constant search for sites to build more housing for the people we served.” They look for lots that are “flat and developable .. we want them to be in places that are decent places to live.”
Another question: How will the city support the neighborhood’s economic-development efforts, if this project is built?
Steve Johnson of the city’s Office of Economic Development said he didn’t envision much economic impact, as there is a “dramatic difference” between a full-fledged apartment building and a shelter where people are sent back out onto the street each morning.
He also addressed the frequently voiced question/complaint about Delridge being devoid of a grocery store. According to Johnson, the area just doesn’t make business sense for supermarket companies because “Delridge is the least-dense strip of land on the whole West Seattle peninsula.” He implied the only way it could ever happen was with some kind of unrealistic subsidy: “I would give Councilmember (Nick) Licata a heart attack if I told him how much money I would need to convince a grocery store to come in with these (existing conditions) … (You can’t) push the market where it’s not going to go. I understand that’s not what you want to hear, but there’s not a lot we can do to convince businesses to come here.” That said, he added, “We will do anything we can to help any individual business owner grow and take root and survive.”
DESC was then asked about crime rates in the neighborhoods surrounding their buildings. Hobson said the Rainier Valley location is the only one that’s been studied for that, and “after 18 months, there’s no appreciable difference, up or down.” Regarding the “recovery” of those it houses, he repeated DESC’s contention that “housing stability” is vital for improving the lives and circumstances of those who live in its buildings, and that after the first year, 95 percent of their clients “are connected with case managers,” though that doesn’t necessarily mean they abstain from drugs and alcohol.
A high level of concern was voiced by the next questioner, who prefaced her words with, “We support your mission, but our community is going to be immediately impacted by this change.” She listed who’s already in the area – “two day cares, parks, bus stops,” Boren school, which is likely to reopen as a temporary elementary next fall, and Delridge Library. “You all are talking like this is going to happen. We want to know, why should it happen, and how could it stop?”
Another attendee interjected, “I live here, and I want to say, I don’t think it’s bad for our neighborhood. Give us reasons” why it would be bad.
Responding to that, the woman said, “What are these people doing during the day? … What are your residents doing to work, to earn, to have the privilege of a roof over their head?”
From there, the discussion briefly veered into a back and forth between the opponent and the supporter, who retorted, “We don’t live in a police state. … Do you want to talk about what is going on inside YOUR home?”
And right about then, the moderator and organizers stepped in to point out the meeting was already about 20 minutes behind schedule, and that they needed to adjourn into any smaller discussions people might want to have. They also invited anyone left with unanswered questions to contact forum organizers, via delridgeforum.blogspot.com, where they also promised to publish answers in the days ahead. (You also can find them on Facebook at facebook.com/delridgeforum.) Whether their next forum will be on this topic or another one, has yet to be decided.
Meanwhile, DESC has an information page about the project on its website (find it here) – and we noticed that a new “information sheet” has been posted as well, a one-sheet about the Delridge proposal (find it here). Even under an “optimistic timeline,” that one-sheet projects, the building would not be open before fall 2013.