Everyone seems to agree that the boarded up, decrepit houses and barren, grassy parcels along Northeast 65th Street in the Roosevelt neighborhood could serve a better purpose.
But what purpose, exactly? On that question, no one seems to agree.
On March 13, Mayor Ed Murray and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced a plan to seize two properties from notorious Seattle landlords Martha and Hugh Sisley. Over the past three decades, the couple has racked up $3.3 million in fines from hundreds of code violations in dozens of homes.
The city intends to build a new park on the parcels — an empty strip of land on the west side of 14th Avenue Northeast, across from Roosevelt High School (RHS).
“We want to break that economic model that makes it cheaper to be a slumlord than a responsible landlord,” Holmes said. “If a community has been suffering, the notion that you can turn it back into this positive good is a nice ending to the tale.”
A park, however, is not the “positive good” everyone is looking for.
While neighbors are eager to preserve open space in an area growing denser all the time, the decision to place a park there has drawn criticism from those who believe the parcels should be used for housing.
Their reasons vary: Some cite the city’s rapid loss of affordable and low-income housing, while developers say the decision undermines years of planning.
No matter the reason, many envision compromises that might satisfy everyone while meeting the need for both open space and housing.
“There are clearly folks on both sides of the conversation who have passion, urgency and interest in this land,” said Zachary Pullin, a commissioner for the Seattle Housing Authority. “I would hope that the community would feel compelled to respond to the challenges facing our city and create a solution that addresses both needs.”
The history of the Roosevelt area makes it ripe for contention. In 2011, plans for the area were mired in debate as neighbors, city planners and developers argued over rezoning the area to allow higher buildings, often called an up-zone.
With a new light rail station in the works, Roosevelt was deemed a prime spot for Transit Oriented Development — a high-density commercial and residential area built around a transit center.
In the end, the city council passed an ordinance to up-zone the blocks near RHS to maximum heights of 65 feet. The decision angered neighbors concerned about density and preserving views of RHS, and it left developers, who initially pushed for 120 feet, unsatisfied.
Today, the two blocks directly across the street from RHS are zoned for 65 feet, with a 15-foot setback to preserve views of the school.
On the block east of 14th Avenue, the Roosevelt Development Group (RDG) has design plans for a seven-story complex of apartments, townhomes, retail and a public plaza.
On the block west of 14th Avenue, on a small strip of land in the shadow of more of Sisley’s rundown houses, is the site of the proposed park.
Holding on to the green
The Roosevelt neighborhood is surrounded by Cowen, Ravenna and Green Lake parks. But Seattle Parks and Recreation spokesperson Joelle Hammerstad said the department’s 2011 analysis found a lack of open space in the area, a large factor in plans for the parcels.
“This is an opportunity to preserve that open space,” Holmes said. “We aren’t demolishing any housing to create this park, and if people think that every square inch should be built upon, that’s a pretty bleak landscape.”
For Kmbris Bond, Roosevelt Business Group chairwoman, and Rich Trifeletti, Roosevelt Neighborhood
Association board member, a park would be an oasis in an area booming with new steel and asphalt.
“That location, and its proximity to the high school, is so important to hold on to for community space and the betterment of the whole community while we still can,” Bond said.
Bond and Trifeletti, who both work at the fair trade shop Ten Thousand Villages, are already imagining Saturday markets, art walks and community events by the school.
To Roger Valdez, it doesn’t make sense to put a park on land that could be used for 65-foot-high housing complexes.
Valdez said the decision undermines the debate about zoning that already took place in 2011 and isn’t consistent with the city’s language of “housing crisis.”
“I thought we were facing a serious housing shortage, particularly affordable housing, and here we are turning land we fought to get zoned for more housing into a park,” he said. “[City officials] think it’s this stunning example of city government getting it right. It’s actually a shocking example of government getting it wrong.”
A group of housing advocates called the Community Housing Caucus (CHC) recently presented proposals to the mayor and the city council for addressing skyrocketing rents and displacement. One proposal was to develop a commission of housing experts to inventory all public land that could be used for affordable housing.
Jonathan Grant, CHC member and city council candidate, said this is the kind of situation that calls for that careful, coordinated response in determining the best use of the land.
“Otherwise, we are going to be losing opportunities left and right,” he said. “The city needs to look at it in a comprehensive way and use public assets wisely, especially these newly acquired ones from Sisley.”
He noted the sale of Ravenna’s Theodora Apartments, which provided low-income housing for elderly and disabled people before it was purchased by a private developer.
“I would think that we would want to use that space for affordable housing, given the loss of the Theodora,” he said.
On March 18, a group called City Builders sent a petition to the city suggesting an alternative plan: That the city use the parcels for a multifamily, super energy-efficient building — known as a passivhaus — for families earning less than 50 percent of the area median income.
The housing would be developed by one of Seattle’s housing nonprofits, and to mitigate the added density, the letter proposes using 14th Avenue for a public green space.
Signatories of the petition cross the spectrum of interests, from density advocates such as Valdez, architects and lawyers to climate activists, transit planners and low-income housing advocates such as Pullin.
Valdez said he wants the city to take a step back and rethink its plan.
“I support what Holmes is trying to do,” Valdez said, “which is to shut this guy down and move forward on something: To say this has gone on long enough. I just think they skipped a step.”
Some park proponents who are also low-income housing advocates say that although the city is facing a housing crisis, the controversy over these parcels is misdirected.
John Fox, of the CHC and Seattle Displacement Coalition, said there are better ways to address affordable housing within Roosevelt than by debating the parcels, especially given neighbors’ frustration over the up-zone that occurred in 2011.
“They deserve it,” he said. “It’s a tiny sliver of land. Give them the damn park and let’s walk away and be happy about it.”
Fox said that with so much market-rate development in the area, it is hypocritical to vouch for affordable housing on a small plot while ignoring the issue of new developments that aren’t required to mitigate the loss of low-income units.
He said it would be more productive to require new developments in the area, such as the future RDG complex, to include or replace a percentage of low-income units; one-for-one replacement is another CHC proposal.
Sally Bagshaw, city councilmember and chair of the Select Committee on Parks Funding, said she was unaware of the plan to build a park until she saw it in the media.
Bagshaw has been working with the Department of Planning and Development and the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association to plan a “green street” concept for the area for several years. The potential project would use portions of Northeast 66th Street to create wider, pedestrian-friendly greenways and connect some of the area’s existing parks.
Holmes said the green street and the park are two unrelated projects that would move forward independent of each other.
But Bagshaw said she believes her plan already has the potential to meet the neighborhood’s need for green, open space while allowing the parcels to be used for some affordable housing. She agreed that the area needs a park, but said the design might be reconsidered.
“There are ways to a solution here,” she said. “Everyone’s going to have to compromise somewhat, but this does not have to be ‘either/or.’ Don’t make this a fight. We can do all of this.”
The city council must approve land acquisitions and use of eminent domain, and the ordinance from the mayor to acquire the Sisley parcels will likely be introduced by the end of March.
Bagshaw said if and when it is, she plans to propose amendments to try to reconcile the various interests.
Whatever happens, Holmes was adamant that the city will pursue the acquisition of the Sisleys’ parcels, and that after decades of the neglected properties being a blight on the neighborhood, it will not be “business as usual.”
That is a decision the whole community will likely agree with.