By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Public money is paying for it, so where’s the public process?
That is the still-unanswered question roiling the waters of concern over the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) plan to build a 75-unit apartment building in the 5400 block of Delridge Way SW for currently homeless people living with challenges such as mental illness and substance abuse.
Put another way: A city-park playground project, for example, costing a few hundred thousand dollars and taking up less land than the average single-family homesite, might involve at least three public meetings about the site, the design, and a litany of community requests/concerns, with a city-assigned project manager and opportunities to comment by e-mail, phone, or postal mail, as well as in person. But here’s a $12 million project, publicly funded – including more than $4 million city dollars – and no clearly outlined public input process on anything beyond Design Review (by the way, the “design packet” for that 12/8 meeting has just been published to the city website – see it here).
For the second time in two weeks, concerned Delridge residents gathered for an invitation-only discussion at a private home to talk about the project and their concerns, not only neighborhood-specific, but relevant to the big picture – perhaps resulting in changes for other areas who find themselves in a similar situation in the future.
There were several differences from the first meeting, which was held at the home of Betsy Hoffmeister 12 days earlier (here’s our report).
This one was at the home of Parie Hines, recently elected co-chair of the North Delridge Neighborhood Council, though the gathering was not an official function of NDNC or any other group. And while 11 of the community members who participated last time were back for this, they were joined by invitees who changed the dynamic somewhat: County Councilmember Joe McDermott and City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, as well as three county and city staffers.
And instead of the city Office of Housing director Rick Hooper – represented this time by staffer Maureen Kostyack – DESC’s executive director Bill Hobson was at centerstage, joined by director of administrative services Nicole Macri.
The conversation to some degree picked up where the last one left off – after Hooper had suggested to Delridge residents that they could and should negotiate with DESC regarding conditions of the project.
Before this one was over, though, DESC was suggesting that the neighborhood might be entitled to something from the city, which is providing the largest direct contribution of public funding to the project (up to $4.45 million, more than a third of its projected cost, compared to about half a million each from the county and state).
Some consensus did seem to emerge around the next step: Forming a neighborhood advisory committee regarding the project.
Now, back to the beginning. As introductions went around, some key questions/declarations:
Tanya wanted to find out “how to make this project positive for the neighborhood.”
Patrick: “How will this facility integrate the goals of the Delridge Neighborhood Plan?”
Michael: “If DESC is going to come into our community, we’re concerned with how the community welcomes DESC, and how it becomes a community partner.”
Pete: “We’d like to have some assurance that the homeless population already in West Seattle would be the first choice as residents of this facility,” and “I would like to see DESC directly address concerns of the folks in the Delridge neighborhood … that’s one thing that’s been lacking.”
Angela and Aaron, who live adjacent to the site, voiced trepidation about its density, as well as with the interaction with DESC to this point. She said, “I feel like our community has not had a great relationship with DESC thus far – the process has been very quick, streamlined, on DESC’s end, difficult for a group of previously mostly disorganized individuals to react and respond, I’m cautiously optimistic that this is an opportunity for us to turn the corner on that.” Aaron’s version of that sentiment: “I feel there needs to be a dialogue … this is literally my backyard. What we’ve heard from both DESC and the city has been dictation, not extending a hand.”
Betsy, host of the previous gathering, picked up on that: “If the city or DESC had come to (the neighborhood) and said, we have a group of homeless, ill, indigent individuals, (from a population that’s) dying on the streets every year, we have the opportunity to house them, we’ve done it in other communities, it’s West Seattle’s turn, can we start the conversation? the Delridge neighborhood would (likely have responded), ‘OK, let’s start the conversation’ … It’s very different to say … ‘these are incapacitated folks, they’re not cooking meth, they can’t cook soup!'” Betsy also noted that a sizable percentage of area residents still likely has no idea this project is in the works. “We need help moving forward, we feel powerless, we feel disenfranchised, we need your help bringing in the community to make this project work for everyone.”
Vonetta was next: “I’m hoping one of the outcomes tonight will be to find a way to give the community the way to make itself heard, the good and the bad, let it all out.”
Host Parie again recalled, as she had at the previous gathering, her experience as a project manager for Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association on Croft Place Townhomes, which had seven units to house homeless families and drew neighborhood opposition. As for this, she said, “There are legitimate fears that aren’t about prejudice or fear or worry about property values … this is a big project in a little neighborhood.” Parie offered an idea about making the commercial space in the building available for “small spaces with low rents, sharing infrastructure, connected to a gathering area” – such as the building’s dining area, where members of the greater community might interact with the building’s community. “Could we reimagine projects like this to have a positive impact, instead of setting the standard as ‘not being a negative impact’? What if future (DESC-targeted neighborhoods) got excited that they could get ‘something cool like Delridge’?” She said she worried the building would otherwise be “lifeless … the people in it never leave, the building just takes up space.”
Mat also called for an example to be set, for everyone involved in the project, including the funding governments, to recognize the community’s feistiness: “I love this community. They’re fighters, they fight, they’ve been fighting for good things – parks, sidewalks, crosswalks, restaurants … (taking care of) derelict houses … partnering with the city and police to do all this, and making progress. … The goal for this time, and this location, for the city and county to look at, ‘time to step up the game, see what we can do’ … Make it ‘win’.”
With the presence of elected officials who hadn’t been at the first meeting, Michael revisited a point he had made then, about the developers of the newly renamed Youngstown Flats, not far from his home, reaching out to the community “immediately” when they took over the site, “wanting to learn more about the neighborhood,” and adding a component to their project, improvements on city-owned right-of-way across the street, for Longfellow Creek access potentially benefiting the wider neighborhood as well as their building’s future residents.
The concept of being reached out to – rather than stepped on – resurfaced frequently. “People in the neighborhood thought the siting was a cynical choice,” Vonetta pointed out, “whether that was true or not … people question it, when they think they are underdogs already. How about a public process? … I think people need for that to happen.”
Finally, DESC’s Bill Hobson spoke – addressing Delridge residents for the first time since about 150 gathered at the Delridge Community Forum-organized gathering at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in October (WSB coverage here).
“I think we want the same things, in a big-picture sense,” Hobson began. “We want a dialogue with you folks, one that’s productive and going to generate a project in which fragile people are safe and welcomed into the neighborhood and not stigmatized – we’re very into that.”
Parie’s concept of “bringing the neighborhood into the building” intrigued him, he said, recapping what a smaller group of Delridge residents had learned during their September tour of DESC facilities in other neighborhoods (WSB coverage here), that Rainier House between Columbia City and Hillman City included commercial space funded by DESC “with our own money because we wanted to.” The space now houses the Rainier Valley Chamber of Commerce, and the building also includes a meeting room that holds 40, hosting gatherings for community groups of all types: “The reason we put that there was to bring more folks into the building … I’m very interested in destigmatizing mental disorder; I’d like folks to come in and see, they are not dangerous people.”
However, he said DESC “would not want to create so much activity in the building that it grinds against clinical activity … what you’re hearing from me is a commitment on DESC’s part to listen objectively to all these suggestions (for) improvements to benefit the neighborhood as well as meet DESC’s objective.” There’s a cost issue for his agency, too, Hobson said: “It will cost $210,000-$350,000 for us to develop 2800 feet of core and shell.” But he said they don’t need to charge high rent, and mentioned later that they are still talking with Delridge Produce Cooperative as a potential tenant.
Regarding Pete’s hopes that West Seattle’s homeless community would have priority for a homeless-housing building in West Seattle, Hobson put a damper on that: “Funders want the building to be populated (in a more centralized way) – the sickest, most neediest person gets the next available unit – but we do have a clinical outreach and engagement program … If you point out where the homeless people are in West Seattle, we can assess those folks and see if they meet the criteria.” As for other concerns, “I’m very eager to get dialogue (going) … We can’t respond to every citizen in Delridge with a concern, but would like to create a structure where every citizen’s concern can be addressed.” Could the project be an asset? That would be good, Hobson said, “but we’re inexperienced” in handling more than their basic mission, he warned, with the office space and meeting room in Rainier House their only such venture to date, “and we didn’t know what we were doing, frankly.”
At that point, DESC’s Nicole Macri distributed a sheet of paper with the project’s anticipated timeline, which seemed to shift the mood in an even-more-somber direction, as the sheet of paper made the tremulousness-causing project more of a reality, with a projected opening date in late 2013 – two years away.
While most around the room appeared to be squinting at the small print on the sheet, Macri recapped, “I think you know we got state, city, county funding,” and explained they will apply next month for the tax credits that will constitute the most “significant” share of the $12 million project’s costs. The next public-involvement point for the project is the first Design Review Board meeting, set for December 8th; perhaps, she suggested, the “project advisory committee” could be set up by January.
Parie said her North Delridge Neighborhood Council colleagues believe “people still feel like we need more process, at least one more sort of big meeting where everyone gets to be heard, structure it differently so people get to talk more … people feel they haven’t gotten to talk (enough) in public comment meetings.” Who would organize it wasn’t clear.
“What kind of help are you getting from the city?” asked Councilmember Rasmussen.
Nothing, really, was the reply.
Michael interjected: “The public-engagement process on this, even for folks who support it, has (not been working).” That’s not necessarily DESC’s problem, he suggested, as they don’t have “outreach staff,” but on the other hand, “the Office of Housing says they expect the developer to be doing this.” Delridge is full of “engaged neighbors,” he suggested, but the process for involvement, if any, is a mystery, unlike other situations with which they’ve dealt: “We have no idea what we’re doing; we’re just trying to drag everybody in to tell us what to do. One thing we hope comes from this – if the city and county think that something funded with public money should have a robust public-outreach process, they” need to define how it works.
This was a popular statement. Patrick went on to suggest it seemed to be the city Office of Housing’s responsibility, in particular – “I think they have a responsibility (like other city departments) to our community.”
Councilmember Rasmussen said he agreed and would be “happy to organize” a community meeting and invite key people to the table, particularly to clarify “timelines and intricacies of various reviews.”
“To hear you say this,” Betsy said, “my heart leaps … A ‘grownup’ is going to help us!”
“We want neighborhoods to thrive,” Rasmussen went on. “I want the city to honor neighborhood plans and goals.”
At that point, DESC’s Hobson offered some explanation of the first phase of the Design Review process, with the “early design guidance” meeting coming up on December 8th, “that’s where we will offer our options for lot coverage and massing … you’ll be able to see all that and offer comments.”
Pete spoke from experience with a project at Delridge and Andover, warning, “Don’t just come and say ‘I don’t like that,’ come and say ‘here’s what I want’.”
Participants asked if the renderings planned for the Design Review meeting could be shown to the neighborhood as soon as possible. Hobson said he had chosen to have them embargoed because of a problem with a previous project at a previous meeting having been seen by the public before the reviewers; told that it seemed to be SOP for design packets to be available at least a few days before the meeting, he said he would investigate that.
Before that, Tanya wondered, how would more community meetings fit into the timeline, which indicated that the “community engagement” period was already over – even before, for some, it had really even begun. Aaron, the project neighbor, added his frustration at not knowing about the proposal months earlier, as he had reinvested in his home after a fire but, “we likely would not have done this if we had been notified when this whole process started a year ago.”
Hobson revealed DESC first took an interest in the site even further back – a year and a half ago – but “the asking price was too high,” so they turned their attention to a North Seattle site (where they just broke ground), before prices came down and other factors rekindled their interest in the Delridge property.
The question of whether projects like this were clustered in lower-income neighborhoods came up. Councilmember Rasmussen pointed to the Fort Lawton site in Magnolia, where a city-led plan for 200 housing units, almost half for the homeless, is still in the works (though delayed by a court fight).
Kostyack from the city Housing Office noted that “the greatest concentration of subsidized housing is downtown, which is very expensive, and there are quite a few (units) in Capitol Hill.” Regarding the plea for her department to be involved more deeply and quickly, she cited a conundrum, that “we hadn’t funded this project until a few weeks ago, and we funded only half the applications we got. Until we’re through reviewing and selecting, we can’t really be the face of a proposal in the neighborhood.”
“You need to involve the neighborhoods before you make decisions,” admonished Jerry. “It’s disingenuous to not involve us.”
The Delridge Community Forum volunteers did a lot of research, making public a variety of documents including the detailed funding application. From that standpoint, Michael said, directing his remarks to Kostyack, “The application makes an expectation that a public-engagement process is already under way, yet it’s clear that you’re making your decisions without verifying what public-engagement process is occurring. That’s a disconnect. It didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen in Rainier. I don’t understand how putting (the onus on) the developer is going to bring a good outcome in this process.”
“So how do we fix this process?” Parie asked, suggesting that the timeline clearly shows the project moving ahead without the neighborhood really having had a chance to have a say. “What kind of flexibility is there? If the neighborhood is angry, they’re going to start an appeal process and that’s going to slow down the project anyway.”
Not really any flexibility, according to Hobson: “It would be very difficult because of what we promised the funders.” And then he said bluntly: “I think we have a bottomless appetite for process. I’m sorry, I’m not interested in extending it.” Within the timeline his agency has laid out, he said, “we will come to, or stay away from, any meeting you want.”
He proceeded to try to explain his communication style, which had drawn criticism in the previous meeting (at which DESC was not represented). “I really feel an obligation to be transparent, and it dictates the way we interact with the public. (Back at the June community meeting), I could have told you the project was going to get funded … I felt like I had an obligation to say something about the likelihood of this project … What was I supposed to do? Lie to you? I don’t know how to help your neighborhood through this.”
Even more intensely, he tried to explain: “I get a message every time a client passes away. I get one every week. Yeah, there’s an urgency for me. (Building this) means that in two years, there’s going to be fewer homeless folks subjected to mortality risks, rapes, and muggings. Our population might as well have bullseyes painted on their backs. They’re easy targets. We’re not going to be terribly interested in pushing the timeline back.”
The “advisory committee” concept resurfaced at that point. DESC’s Macri offered conciliatory comments about this being “thoughtful engagement” with the community, then another insight: “We know there’s a huge buzz (in the Delridge neighborhood) but our phones aren’t ringing off the hook. In other neighborhoods, we have had more direct communications with neighbors.”‘
“I would say a whole lot of the neighborhood does not understand what this is going to look like, what’s happening,” explained Michael, adding that the neighborhood also happens to have a sizable percentage of people whose first language is not English.
If there’s an advisory committee, Hobson suggested, it should be “the most representative it can be” – with membership including “major stakeholder institutions in your community” such as the North Delridge Neighborhood Council and Delridge Neighborhoods District Council, as well as at-large members and reps from “important businesses.” He suggested a neighborhood representative also might be involved as DESC works on a “management service plan” for the building.
As for what an advisory committee would do – in DESC’s view, it could have the objective of “how to bring the neighborhood into the project,” and/or perhaps working on a “Good Neighbor policy.” The agenda, ultimately, would be set by the committee, Hobson suggested.
Close to the three-hour mark, the meeting got a bit raw. Aaron reiterated his concerns about the size/bulk of the building – “the fourth floor is (what will block) the sun on my house.” DESC’s response was that the zoning, NC2-40, meant anyone could build a four-story building on the site, nonprofit or not.
Then Patrick returned to the subject of the timeline that DESC had passed around. “Everything here is set in stone. I don’t see how our community is going to have any role in the process. How can your needs and ours converge? It sounds like you are working in a vacuum, unaware that our community has problems.” Every time a concern was voiced, Patrick said, “I heard pushback, ‘that might not work for (DESC)’. What about us? The city rezoned the area to encourage business. The library building is nice, but we have no business. The process is so infuriating on so many levels. I think what you guys do is great but … You say there’s no negative effect. What if there is? Do you close up shop? I’m sorry if I’m furious but I feel like there’s (no point). No one is looking at common sense and saying, ‘this does not make sense’. … No one has done due diligence. ‘This is an empty piece of land, let’s build on it’.”
After he spoke, there was a moment of silence, until Parie observed, “A lot of the community feels that way.”
Michael challenged the claim that DESC projects hadn’t harmed neighborhoods. “What we are hearing is that thriving neighborhood groups (in other areas) we torn apart, that existing low-income residents were forced out. We don’t want to stop growth, but there is something broken in the process.”
Mat suggested “the tone of the conversation” could change,” interpreting that “what you are hearing is a community already fighting (for its future) … What we want to hear (from DESC) is, ‘We’re joining your community and going to fight for it too’.”
Shortly thereafter, DESC’s Hobson suggested that neighborhood residents might change their stance too, proposing “something concrete instead of lamenting how dispossessed you are. You may be entitled (to do that), but it’s not very constructive.”
Councilmember McDermott agreed, saying that anyone’s free to “vent at” him but “I can be more proactive and helpful if you tell me what you want, what I can do.”
“We’re not sure what we can be asking for,” countered Mat.
Pete urged that no one succumb to negativity or hopelessness. “The library, community center, Longfellow Creek Trail, Camp Long (improvements), all got done because people like us sat in meetings like this to get things done. … A lot of it is showing up at meetings and making yourself heard.”
And the next step in this process in fact does involve a meeting – the first of at least two Design Review Board sessions, 6:30 pm Thursday, December 8th, at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center (4408 Delridge Way SW). As mentioned at the top of this story, the informational “packet” for this meeting is now available online – see it here.