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New mini-city to rise on site of Yesler Terrace housing project?

Ashley Gross

Big changes are likely in store for Seattle’s oldest public housing project. A total overhaul of Yesler Terrace, just up the hill from downtown, will create a mini-city of high-rise apartments and an office tower. The Seattle city council on Wednesday is holding its last public hearing on the redevelopment of Yesler Terrace. 

There are flowers and little gardens outside the squat rowhouses at Yesler. But the housing project where Jimi Hendrix and Gary Locke grew up has seen better days. They were built in the early 1940s and haven't had any major upgrades since. Anne Fiske Zuniga is the Yesler redevelopment project manager for the Seattle Housing Authority.

"A number have significant mold issues, sewer backups are unfortunately commonplace," Zuniga said.

So to overhaul the site, Seattle Housing Authority has come up with what some people are calling a mega-project. The agency will sell off part of the land to market-rate developers. The housing authority will use that money, plus federal and city dollars, to build new low-income housing to replace the 561 units that are there now. But all around that low-income housing will be new apartment towers filled with more affluent people, who can afford higher rents.

Zuniga says selling off the land to market-rate developers provides the money to rebuild public housing – and meets federal requirements that the funding be a partnership between public and private sources.   

"Frankly, that’s federal policy now is some portion of federal money goes into the project with the expectation that you’re bringing in a whole lot of other dollars to the table to make it happen," Zuniga said.

But there’s a lot of skepticism. Advocates for low income housing say there need to be more units for people at the very bottom rungs. And many people say they're concerned about what will happen to the residents while the site is redeveloped.

Solomon Wenderfiel has lived at Yesler for 17 years. He says he thinks the project is just a land-grab on behalf of well-to-do white people. And he’s not interested in moving back when it’s all done.

"It’s not going to be a family-oriented community because class will definitely segregate a lot of the community members," Wenderfiel said.

Zuniga says no question, there’s going to be a lot of change.

"But change for the better, really, from our perspective, with all the improved housing, improved parks, green space, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, wider sidewalks, better transit, so the whole package we think is a tremendous change from now, but not everyone is up for a more urban setting for their home," Zuniga said.

After the public hearing, the next step is for a city council committee and then the full council to vote on rezoning and other legislation – probably by early September. If it passes, the housing authority says it plans to break ground in January.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.