High Point showdown: Housing Authority boss apologizes

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

High Point homeowners got a high-level apology last night.

Tom Tierney, executive director of the Seattle Housing Authority, faced a meeting of the HP Homeowners’ Association “with some apology and a little embarrassment that I let stress grow in this community to a point where you all feel like you need to come out on a Thursday night.”

That stress had spawned a list of concerns that frustrated homeowners wanted to see addressed. It also clearly had sparked some changes already, with new faces in on-site management, such as property manager Terry Hirata, who took over a few months ago.

Top of last night’s list was a change in plan for a prominently vacant High Point corner, a change first made public in a story here on WSB exactly one month ago: The new plan for about 90 townhouse units at 35th and Graham instead of the mixed-use apartment/retail building that had been under review in 2008.

(From SHA, standing, Stephanie Van Dyke; seated, Tom Tierney)
Tierney and other Housing Authority executives who accompanied him told the story of what they say happened to change the plan for that corner, insisting, “It’s not a sleight of hand.”

SHA says they’ve been trying to get the corner developed for six years, starting with the intent of mixed-use apartment and commercial with a grocery store downstairs. Security Properties had a letter of intent and “for three years, ’04 to ’07, tried to gather the capital for apartment and mixed use down below. As they started to falter, we went out and secured federal assistance – New Markets Tax Credits – as much as $20 million available to buy down the rent for a grocery store that would come in. Even with that, no grocery store was willing to come into this site.”

That was a matter of population density, Tierney contended: “You can see where Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are paying attention to [The Triangle/Junction area] where traffic is higher and population is higher.” Later, he acknowledged he just “can’t understand” why stores are willing to “cluster,” but not to come to a site like this.

Then came the next developers who “agreed to develop mixed use with less retail, not promising a grocery store … they put down earnest money and as I understand lost that in the crash of the market … When they failed, we sat on that property for a year or more in hopes that we could regenerate interest in a mixed-use apartment building. We have not gotten that interest. We ourselves believe and did believe, this community is better off without large acreages of undeveloped land sitting in your midst. (So) we got a proposal from Intercorp, a reliable, well-capitalized firm … they have signed a letter of intent, not a purchase agreement (yet), 90 townhomes.” According to Tierney, the development will have to go through the city’s Design Review process.

Bottom line, he reiterated, “When the market can’t sustain the hopes of my neighborhood or yours or even a developer – there’s not much else to do except say, what else can be developed there so we don’t have a big vacant lot at our doorstep?” He promised there would be some retail – 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, less than half what was in the previous “mixed-use” proposal. (While SHA mentioned 10,000 sf in the past proposal, our archives mention 16,000 sf at one point.)

They were asked why more townhouses were coming on this site when there are other undeveloped residential parcels within High Point boundaries. SHA director of development Stephanie Van Dyke said it’s because that’s where they got an offer: “We have to move with the offers we get,” and, “This is the area Intercorp wanted … they really were not interested in other sites.” They also made a point of noting that Polygon Homes is getting ready to build on another site, despite the fact that housing starts are relatively few nationwide.

The issue of renter/homeowner ratio in High Point was obviously another point of major interest. Tierney acknowledged a perception that the Housing Authority is seen by some as “the office for renters here” but asked homeowners to “think of us instead as the people who helped design and develop the housing you are enjoying here, the community you chose to buy into, and that we have a sense of the community, that we don’t work with residents, tenants, or with homeowners alone, but that our interest fully is to make sure this works as a community.”

A development lag for Phase 2 has been an issue, so Tierney talked about the stall, and the money SHA has put into it: “We invested 39 million dollars in a line of credit from Bank of America into infrastructure and laying out rental properties and homeowner sites to make sure that no matter what happened, we would be prepared in the future to have Phase 2 homeowners join you on the site … We went until the last couple weeks of December 2009 carrying a loan that was due (at the end of that month) for $39 million – we weren’t sure how to pay it back because we didn’t have homebuyers for Phase 2.”

But soon, he said, they will – though that apparently has given rise to another fear: “You have the right to be concerned, is SHA going to sell at a fire-sale price? I think I can tell you, we have not. We have instead held onto property way longer than many developers would have or could have. We have every intention of holding onto the design dreams that you have bought into. Instead of selling it off, we have taken on huge debt to hold this together, marketing the projects assiduously to get this done. … In the coming months, you will be starting to be joined by other homeowners.”

That will address yet another concern: The Homeowners Association board is currently dominated by SHA staff, who insist they want to “pass it on to homeowners,” though there’s a certain tipping point involved with the number of properties sold.

Other concerns on the list came down to a matter of day-to-day living. There were complaints about a “300-page” design manual that reportedly was making it difficult for homeowners to win approval for anything they wanted to put by their home, whether a fence or a vegetable garden, or to get consistent rulings on what was allowed. One man complained, “We had raised vegetable gardens that we had to remove after they were approved … we need a guide without 300 pages of legalese i have to go through to figure out whether i can plant a tomato!” Another of the more than 70 attendees alleged “a complete lack of respect” for homeowners. Tierney, for his part, said he was “trying hard not to be defensive.”

Director of operations Rod Brandon answered landscaping concerns by saying this year’s budget has more money for that work.

By meeting’s end – almost half an hour over the planned 1 1/2-hour length – the tension had lessened, and the Housing Authority reps were applauded. Tierney had made a promise a bit earlier: “We are tremendously proud of High Point … we are going to work like crazy to win back the reputation that, you will feel like, when you raise a concern, it’s met.”

6 Replies to "High Point showdown: Housing Authority boss apologizes"

  • sean January 29, 2011 (8:38 am)

    It was a productive meeting. Let’s hope this new team can live up to the expectations being placed on them. Good Luck.

  • Michelle January 29, 2011 (12:34 pm)

    High Point is a wonderful place to live! I hope that everyone can acknowledge that no neighborhood is perfect…and we have an awesome community here!!

  • Wendy Hughes-Jelen January 30, 2011 (6:53 am)

    Yes, I agree.

  • skeeter January 30, 2011 (8:49 pm)

    Excellent coverage. Thank you WSB.

  • JW January 31, 2011 (7:40 am)

    High Point is a very unique community integrating all levels of income and cultures. I feel very fortunate to live in such a diverse community. We are all in the early stages of this “experiment” and I feel that despite some “bumps in the road” this plan will eventually become what everyone desires. SHA is committed to making this work and if we all have patience and are willing to work together, it will happen.

  • Former Board Member February 1, 2011 (7:21 am)

    WSB great coverage, yet the gaping hole in all this is the lack of accountability by SHA. There was one brief moment when a standards agreement was mentioned but quickly faded. As a Home owner I am compelled to get this agreement done and Hold SHA accountable for their end of the bargain. What Tom failed to mention was that SHA has received over $500 Million for this project alone. Where has all the money gone?

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