Seattle Council Elections, District 2: Empty Lots And Development Dreams in Southeast Seattle
The promise of light rail goes far beyond people’s hopes for swift passage between Seattle neighborhoods and the airport; It’s also supposed to deliver money in the form of commerce to business owners it rolls past.
But that’s not really panning out yet for many residents of Seattle’s District 2.
Case in point: Othello Station. Located at the intersection of Othello Street and Martin Luther King Jr Ave. South, it’s three stops and about nine miles north of the airport, in the heart of Southeast Seattle.
Othello is also the name of a neighborhood that’s supposed to be growing here. Cheery red and white marketing signs stand out on a huge empty lot visible from the train station.
Nearby, there's a swank new apartment building, The Station at Othello Park. Fancy finishes, water features and colorful sculptures don't obscure the obvious: nearly all the retail storefronts at ground level in this building are vacant.
“The future is coming, but it’s not here yet,” says Ana Martinez, the owner of HuarachitosCosinaMexicana, one of two eateries in the new building.
The new building is six stories high, full of market-rate apartments upstairs. But Martinez doesn’t have enough customers to cover her costs or fill more than maybe a dozen tables a night. She says she’d need to at least triple that number to make it. Right now, she loses money every day.
“What can I say? It is a beautiful restaurant, (the) food is excellent,” she said. But the “location has been quite the struggle -- because of the area.”
Martinez has been hanging on for two years, with help from some community groups. She’s still here because a developer just broke ground on the empty lot across the street from her. She’s hopeful that its hungry construction crews will keep her going once they start building, which should happen any day now.
But she’s concerned that even if that works out for her business, her community is falling apart. She says the promise of development was supposed to mean everything coming up roses. Instead, they’ve been dying on the vine all around her.
“I want to see a yoga place over there, I want to see the pizza place down the road, the coffee shop,” she says in a weary voice.
“The coffee shop closed, the one that was here. Now we don’t have any coffee.”
Except for the Starbucks counter, inside the Safeway that almost closed a few years back.
“I’ve lost track of the number of businesses that have closed,” says Ray Akers, who helped organize the community groups that convince Safeway to stick around.
He knows District 2 like the back of his hand. He’s a life-long resident of Southeast Seattle and a Realtor.
He says along with the sirens that have become a daily sentinel of crimes and accidents in the neighborhood, he’s upset about the city’s spending of local taxpayers money to subsidize buildings like the one Ana Martinez is in, because he says they’re poorly planned by big developers and owned by faceless, out-of-town investors.
“I believe most everyone that has opened there has also closed there,” he says, standing near the empty storefront where Deo Valente once served gelato and pastries along with the coffee.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s a nice looking building, it anchors the neighborhood. But it’s also I think an example of failure - not the structure, not the building, but in planning,” Akers says.
He wants the City to do a better job of listening to the neighborhoods and encouraging grassroots development that comes about slowly and organically -- or even follow Tacoma’s example and put a moratorium on new projects until planners can regroup and figure out what’s making so many businesses in the area fail.
Akers says he’s not sure who to vote for. But he’s certain it won’t be the incumbent, because he feels the current council is adding too much high-density housing without the infrastructure to support it.
And he says the light rail line isn’t made for residents – it’s made for people heading downtown or to the airport.
The stops are too far apart to serve many locals. And without park and ride lots near them, only those who are able-bodied enough to walk a mile or ride a bike can consistently use the system. Akers says trying to force people to get out of their cars is another nice idea that just isn’t working.
“I’m a voter, I’m persuadable. Demonstrate that you know my community,” Akers says of his hopes for a new representative in the city council. But he says so far, none of the three front runners have convinced him.
“Talk about what our needs are. Do you know what our needs are? Do you live here? Do you really know what’s going on?”
Parking’s less of a problem for Ana Martinez. But she shares the concern about out of town developers. She wants a city council rep who can help her stay in business.
“What I want is not so much talk and more action,” she says, “to make sure that we are going to preserve the community and to really understand the people, that we need to belong to a community.”
But creating that sense of belonging in one of Seattle’s most diverse corners is no easy task.
Sentiments like these are what drove the change to district elections. It’s supposed to make the city council more accountable to their constituents and could make it harder for incumbents to stay in office.
Ballots from Seattle residents must be post-marked by August 4th.
Additional District 2 facts:
-- District 2 has a higher percentage of female residents than the city as a whole, 52 percent to 50 percent;
-- It also has a higher percentage of children under five years old, 7.2 percent to 5.3 percent;
-- It has the lowest median income of any council district at $47,000 annually.
-- District 2 is the most racially diverse district in the city.
Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey 2013
Registered candidates for the 2015 District 2 Primary:
Joshua Farris, farrisforseattle.com;
Bruce Harrell, electbruceharrell.com;
Tammy Morales, MoralesForSeattle.com
Crosscut.com: Meet the Districts;
The Seattle Times: district map and information.
About this series:
KPLU is exploring an issue central to each of the seven new districts in the upcoming city council primary election. Last Monday, we explored South Park in District 1 and residents' concerns about crime. On the following Tuesday, we were in District 2 at the Othello light rail station, where residents wait for as-of-yet undelivered new commerce. Then on Wednesday, we went into District 3 and the Central District where locals fears gentrification is changing the neighborhood for the worse. The next day, Thursday, we went to District 4 where we talked with group of neighbors who were able to limit a developer’s proposal to build five townhomes on a lot currently containing a classic single-family home. On Friday, we discovered why walking is a little riskier in in far-north District 5 than in other parts of town. Yesterday, we heard from District 6 where Ballard residents are concerned about the breakneck pace of development. We wrapped up primary election district coverage with District 7, where an apartment building on Queen Anne's Roy Street has traditionally has been home to service-industry employees. But now residents there are wondering how much longer can they afford to live in the neighborhood.