Affordable homeownership or mixed use? Options for ex-substation site emerge @ HPAC ‘to get moving on a path forward’

Eight years have passed since Seattle City Light declared its ex-substation at 16th/Holden to be surplus, along with several others in West Seattle, and proposed putting it up for sale. The site’s underlying zoning was for single-family housing, but community members counterproposed that commercial development might be better. It was rezoned for mixed use a few years later – as described during a Highland Park tour with then-Mayor Ed Murray in 2017 – but has continued to sit idle.

Now there are some possibilities in play, and HPAC heard about them at tonight’s meeting. City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who shepherded the rezoning years ago, first explained that City Light still owns the site and remains amenable to a no-cost transfer of the site to the city Office of Housing. So OH and Enterprise Community Partners have been evaluating the feasibility “to explore further what’s possible at the site.” She said they’re opening a dialogue to “get moving on a path forward.”

Enterprise Community Partners’ Jess Blanch explained her organization is national and works on affordable housing from policy to finance to development. “We cover it from end to end.” She directs the program Home and Hope – housing on publicly owned tax-exempt land, like this site. She says “a few issues are in play” – it’s zoned NC-40.”Given the site size [10,000 sf], it is really too small of a site for affordable rental housing, the way (that) is financed.” But affordable homeownership might be a possibility. It would have to be 100 percent “public benefit” for the land to be given for this purpose – that means low-income community members – making no more than 80 percent of the area mean income – would have to be served in its commercial space, such as a food bank or preschool. It could also be live-work space.

Erika Malone from the Office of Housing explained her department doesn’t develop, own, or manage projects so if the property is transferred to them, they would then put out a Request for Proposals. The site would have to be developed as “permanently affordable housing.”

Herbold said that “if there’s interest in a ground-level use that provides a public benefit, it makes it more possible to develop the property for affordable housing.” They wouldn’t be able to do a low- or no-cost transfer if it was going to be ground-floor retail and housing above it – they’d probably have to sell it to a for-profit developer.

HPAC co-chair Kay Kirkpatrick said having commercial space there would be a public benefit in its own way because Highland Park needs more walkable businesses; the guests said that wouldn’t meet the technical definition of public benefit. Kirkpatrick and attendees pointed out that an adjacent property is currently up for sale. But that site (about 5,000 sf) wouldn’t add enough land to make affordable rental housing “pencil out,” said Blanch.

Some brainstorming ensued; community ideas about ways to have a business that served low-income residents included a FareStart-type café, serving the public and training people emerging from homelessness.

So what’s the next step? Herbold said they want to know if HPAC would be OK with a potentially non-commercial ground-floor use. Then the Office of Housing would explore seeking a nonprofit homeownership organization – Community Land Trust, Habitat for Humanity, for example. “There are still a lot of iunknowns regarding what’s possible,” Malone said. Then discussions between oH and SCL would ensue; if they worked out how it could be transferred, Permanently affordable homeownership vs. development that would include bjusinesses – which would mean a for-profit developer.

Enterprise has worked up some concepts, Herbold said. Blanch said she didn’t want to share those publicly but said the site could hold 8 to 10 townhouses, for example. Since the site is adjacent to single-family homes, that puts “some constraints’ on the “developable envelope.” Or, “condo apartments” would be an option.

What kind of a timeline are they working on? Kirkpatrick asked. Enterprise has a contract with the city that’s being renewed at least through next year, Blanch said. So a decision on a direction can apparently wait until early next year (this was HPAC’s last scheduled meeting until January).

(We’ll report on the rest of tonight’s HPAC meeting – two discussions with SDOT – in a separate story Thursday.)

12 Replies to "Affordable homeownership or mixed use? Options for ex-substation site emerge @ HPAC 'to get moving on a path forward'"

  • Kyle October 28, 2021 (7:51 am)

    Good article. The neighborhood could definitely use more walkable businesses and that corner is prime for that type of redevelopment. Therefore I’m not opposed to a for profit developer. Seattle, in general, also needs more affordable housing options, so if they get a nonprofit on board that would be a good use too.

    • Kyle October 28, 2021 (12:45 pm)

      I forgot to say the most important thing is to do something. Affordable housing, mixed use development with new businesses, both of those uses are much better than the current empty lot on a prime corner.

  • KayK October 28, 2021 (8:15 am)

    Thanks WSB for getting this out to readers so promptly! Initial response at the meeting seemed positive, but HPAC is anxious to get conversation on this out more widely so a project could move forward in a timely manner.

  • bdrlg October 28, 2021 (9:17 am)

    @WSB, in your experience with our municipal government, is it normal for a lot deemed “surplus” and proposed for sale to linger vacant for nearly a decade? No wonder we have a housing crisis in Seattle with no end in sight. 

    • WSB October 28, 2021 (9:49 am)

      I’m mulling a separate followup on this round of surpluses because this isn’t the only one in this round that has gone undeveloped to date (including a couple that did get sold). Each has its own backstory. But in the Murray tour story that is linked above, the city rep who talked about this site at that time said it already had been evaluated for possible affordable housing and found unsuitable. The sites were generally long vacant before the surplus declaration – TR

  • Blbk October 28, 2021 (9:28 am)

    Permanently affordable housing. Free property transfer and affordable housing with public services? It’s a no-brainer. Just build it. 

  • Del October 28, 2021 (1:43 pm)

    What would be ideal is use the first level to offer free commercial space for restaurant businesses directed to low income applicants. Build permanent housing using micro apartments for the other floors and use this model to disperse the free housing sporadically throughout the city.

  • nonni October 28, 2021 (2:18 pm)

    Attempting to construct anything on this site while Holden serves as the bridge detour would be insanity, so expect plenty of time for planning discussion.

  • Chuck Jacobs October 28, 2021 (5:15 pm)

    Here’s an idea. Sell the property at market rates. Use the profits to fund whatever low income housing project you want. Allow the new owner to develop it however they want according to existing zoning.Now the new owner is paying property taxes, maybe business taxes, spending money in the community,  and maintaining,  improving,  and increasing the value of the property and the neighborhood. All the city needs to do is collect money. 

  • Mary Spielmann October 29, 2021 (12:02 pm)

    It would also be a good location for a light rail/subway stop, and if done correctly it could conceivably contain housing above ground floor, social services and small businesses plus entrance to the rail/subway  on the ground floor. This would be able to service Delridge and Highland Park and South Seattle College without requiring use of Eminent Domain on any existing properties on Delridge. Just an idea.

  • On 16th October 30, 2021 (7:48 am)

    A library would be of the most benefit for the existing low income residents in the neighborhood and the neighborhood in general. The library could have a computer lab for students and would provide a walkable destination for families. Many people on this block have lived her for 20 plus years  and are home owners

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