Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Neighbors gathered Wednesday night for an update about the Dakota Homestead fundraising campaign to purchase the former Seattle City Light substation at 50th and Dakota (just north of Genesee Hill Elementary).
The campaign was launched three and a half years ago by the Urban Homestead Foundation, with a goal of buying the Dakota site (most recently appraised in 2017 at a value of $650,000) and preserving it as a neighborhood greenspace, meeting hub, urban garden and environmental education center. The site is one of the six former substations in West Seattle that Seattle City Light had determined were no longer needed, which started a process to sell or otherwise dispose of the properties.
Urban Homestead president Rich Sheibley said that since 2016, the group has successfully secured community donations and grant funding to help support the project, but things really accelerated earlier this year when the project was earmarked for $155,000 in funding in the state capital budget as part of the state’s community projects program (more on that below).
As it stands, the project still needs monetary help ($125,000) and volunteer support to move forward and achieve their goal. (This two-page PDF handout summarizes the group’s objective and status.)
Wednesday’s meeting, held at the West Seattle (Admiral) Library, was a chance for the foundation’s current board members to share details about the project and to explain how the community can get involved.
In attendance on Wednesday were several neighbors including Sibyl Mar and her daughter Remy who live directly behind the lot. Mar described herself a longtime supporter of the project, involved in fundraising with former group leader Kristen Corning Bedford, and looking to get involved again. Also in attendance were representatives from regional organizations with shared interest in the project, including Mary Fleck and Martin Westerman from the Seattle Greenspaces Coalition and Michelle Blume from GROW Northwest.
Sheibley gave a brief presentation with some project details:
- TREES: Because a big part of the project is protecting the trees on the lot, a “tree survey” of the site was completed in 2016. The site has 19 mature trees, including a grove of “exceptional trees” and an iconic ornamental cherry tree. The project involves saving the trees for the community to enjoy, and getting rid of cement on the property to enhance the greenspace.
- PLANS: Preliminary plans for the site involved some kind of structure or outdoor kitchen, Sheibley said, but because of its large size (10,000 square feet) and proximity to a school, the plans have been amended to focus on:
- Demonstration gardens
- Outdoor education for nearby schools
- Host classes for backyard farmers
- Community gathering space
- Seed lending library
- Emergency hub site
Sheibley said that if successful, the space would NOT include development of townhouses, contributing to less street parking, or resulting in the loss of “amazing trees.”
- PURCHASE PRICE: The property is still owned by Seattle City Light. Their originally stated purchase price was $535,000, but this increased to $650,000 when a new appraisal was done in 2017. Sheibley said the lot will likely be getting appraised again, and the price will most likely increase again, so it’s important for the group to continue moving quickly. He pointed out that the purchase price must be based on “fair market value,” because of current rules.
- FUNDRAISING: Sheibley walked through the timeline:
- 2016: When fundraising, the group wasn’t a 5013c and partnered with the Admiral Neighborhood Association as its fundraising sponsor (see WSB coverage here).
- 2017: The group received its 5013c status and conducted several fundraisers including a pig roast and “dine out” event, and received a $281,000 matching-fund grant from King County Conservation Futures to cover half of the purchase cost. Becca Bay noted that the group was the first community non-profit community project to receive such an award (it’s usually received by government projects). However, after the new appraisal of the lot was completed, the KCCF grant no longer fully covered half of the price.
- 2018: A reallocation request was done with KCCF for $91,000 to bridge the gap in the match. The group also did additional fundraisers, including successful participation in West Seattle Community Garage Sale Day (holding a garage sale on the lot itself) and additional dine-out events.
- 2019: Sheibley said that in January he received a call from Seattle city councilmember Lisa Herbold regarding a state budget opportunity that he previously knew nothing about. Before long he was working on an application process with Herbold and state senator Joe Nguyen (who lives across the street from the Dakota lot), along with state representatives Joe Fitzgibbon and Eileen Cody. The forms were complete in February, then a few months later Sheibley found out that they successfully received $155,000 in funds through the WA state community projects program in the capital budget. “That cut the amount of money we needed to raise in half,” Sheibley said, which was a huge step forward. He noted that the only caveat is that they are “reimbursable funds” which means that they have to purchase the property first, then they’ll get the funds, but they are moving ahead with plans with that in mind.
- CURRENT STATUS: The numbers look like this:
- Purchase price $650,000
- KCCF funding: $325,000
- State funds: $155,000
- Donations: $45,000
- BALANCE: $125,000 (this is how much the group needs to raise, to purchase the property)
- DEADLINE: Sheibley said the deadline is basically open-ended, but because a new appraisal is expected, they want to move quickly. However, the $155,000 in new funds need to be used by June 2021, so that is effectively their deadline but “the sooner the better!”
- NEXT STEPS:
- For fundraising, the group is doing a pledge drive (with options including personalized tiles and pavers), Amazon Smile campaign (coming soon), and planning new outreach events and small community events.
- The group is eligible for at least 2 grants, with rolling submissions, and they are working on grant writing.
- Help wanted! The group had 5-6 board members in the past, but currently have only 3, and they’re actively recruiting for a vice president, secretary and 2 members-at-large (commitment is 1 meeting per month, and email communication). They also need volunteers for event planning, grant writing, web design, marketing/communications, outreach and volunteer coordination.
- SUMMARY: Sheibley said the group is getting close to their fundraising goals but needs to consider their matched/reimbursable funds and get their grant applications submitted. They’re also looking for help and “we’re open to new ideas and new energy,” Sheibley said.
Q&A with meeting attendees:
- Q: Did you get a copy of the latest appraisal, and were there comparable lots? A: Yes, we have a copy, but there aren’t a lot of vacant comps. What about the 47th and Charleston park site? (not sure) Others noted that the price seems high, but because it’s a large 10k sf lot, it could be developed as a “double lot” so the price may be justified. However, the “exceptional tree” grove is not buildable, which theoretically should remove a large portion of the lot (maybe one-sixth) from the appraisable value, perhaps reducing value by one-sixth as well? Sibyl Mar (who lives next to the lot, and “comes from a family of appraisers”) recommended that the group get their own appraisal so they have something to refer to — several attendees agreed with that.
- Q: Has a soil test been done? A: Yes, the site used to be a substation, so there have been some soil quality remediations. Most of the old substation equipment is gone, there is just some concrete and plumbing fittings left behind.
- Q: What about the cherry tree, it’s not one of the exceptional trees? A: The tree is not saved yet, but project leads have heard anecdotally that they potentially could save it as part of a “sister city” cherry tree partnership between Japan and Seattle. An attendee recommended that an arborist should look at the tree and get the age to know the time range when planted. UW might have the info, or Kubota Gardens? Several attendees agreed that the tree is “the center of neighborhood,” kids climb it all the time and it’s basically “the” tree.
- Q: What about the Delridge Wetland, is that a comparable project? A: From an appraisal perspective, Becca Bay noted that the Delridge property is different because it’s smaller and it’s a marsh (not buildable), and isn’t considered prime real estate while the Dakota site is. However, from an educational perspective, Mary Fleck from Seattle Greenspaces said that because both sites are near schools, they have similarly unique environmental education value.
- Q: What about “fair market value?” Could the group get the property for less? A: There are laws on the books that make it clear that the group must pay fair market value for the property. However, Sheibley said that Seattle City Light has been an excellent partner and “they want us to have the property; they are supportive of the project and want to work with us.”
- Comment from Sheilbey: Even if we bought the property tomorrow, there would be a lot to do. I have a few friends who would do “pro bono design” to help us move quickly, but for now the priority is getting over the fundraising hump. He added that he’s making it a priority to connect with Michelle Connor at Forterra who has worked with the group in the past. Others suggested contacting the Trust for Public Land, and others reiterated that it’s a great thing that the group is working with Joe Nguyen on the project. There could be other partnership possibilities such as GROW or other land trusts. Others asked about potentially being able to reach out to people who are on p-patch waiting lists, but Michelle Blume from GROW noted that most of those lists aren’t shared. Sheilbey noted that he has also been in contact with Alleycat Acres about food bank partnerships.