Thousands of immigrants passed through its cells over the years. Now a private developer is poised to turn Seattle’s version of Ellis Island into an office building instead of the affordable housing called for by the International District community.
Developer Greg Smith wants to purchase the old Immigration and Naturalization Services Building from the federal government for $2.1 million and convert it into a design center for eco-friendly architects and builders, complete with an organic cafe.
Another proposal by the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority (PDA) would allow the non-profit to get the 1932 federal building on Airport Way South for free and turn it into 75 units of “workforce” housing, with rents ranging from $865 for a studio to $1,175 for a one-bedroom – plus eight two-bedroom units at $917 for federal Section 8 tenants.
Both redevelopment plans, which Mayor Greg Nickels will choose between in the next few weeks, would preserve the neo-classical architecture of the building and afford space for displays recounting the building’s history as an entry point for Asian immigrants. But both proposals depart from what the 1987 federal McKinney Act calls for – turning retired federal property into housing for the homeless.
Any transfer to private hands, says Art Skolnik, a former historic preservationist officer for the state, would be a “boondoggle.” Despite Smith’s focus on sustainable development, his proposal amounts to “just an office building,” Skolnik says. “Let’s not play games.”
The mayor’s office called for the proposals in March to facilitate transfer and redevelopment of the INS Building, which closed in 2004 and is currently at the disposal of the federal General Services Administration.
GSA Realty Specialist Fred Zderic, who is negotiating the transfer with the city, says the agency put out a notice last year to try to meet the McKinney requirement. But the only homeless housing proposal it received was from the Salvation Army, which Zderic says backed out over the high cost of rehabilitating the old structure, which is a protected landmark listed on the National Register.
In its proposal, which was filed with the city’s Office of Housing, the International District PDA says it can convert the building for $19.5 million. It lists the money coming from a combination of federal tax credits, fundraising, and a $5.4 million bank loan, with no cost to the city – one of the requirements of the city’s request for proposals.
Prior to putting out the request, says the Office of Housing’s Rick Hooper, the city held a community forum on what to do with the INS Building. Its 30 participants, he says, chose affordable housing as their top priority for the INS Building, with executives from Chinatown’s Interim Development and Uwajimaya’s grocery now backing the PDA proposal.
Hooper says the two proposals were reviewed by an advisory committee of city managers and community representatives that he declined to identify. The call for proposals, however, did not stipulate housing as a priority criterion, Hooper says, because the mayor wanted to be “open to all the different possible uses of the building.”
While Zderic believes the city is leaning toward the PDA proposal, Hooper says that route would involve the city taking charge of the property and leasing it to the agency – a more complicated transaction to which the mayor’s office appears less inclined, according to Hooper.
Smith’s plan “is the best route to take for the sale to go to a private developer without any long-term city ownership,” Hooper says. “We envision a simultaneous closing,” he says, in which the property would immediately pass from the city to Smith and his company, Urban Visions.
Peter Steinbrueck, chair of the Seattle City Council’s urban planning committee, which may have a say over the deal, credits Smith’s devotion to sustainable development and thinks a “green” design center is a great idea. But the INS Building, he says, “may not be the place for it.”
He also questions the International District PDA’s proposal and its focus on “workforce” housing, which calls for rentals affordable to people making 60 percent or more of the area’s median income. That price range, he says, isn’t affordable to working-class Seattle residents.
In today’s development parlance, the word workforce “is used to describe the middle of the workforce to the exclusion of lower-income wage earners,” Steinbrueck says. “The higher the income, the more housing choices a person has.”
“Until we have thousands more units that are affordable to the working poor,” he says, “we shouldn’t be shifting resources.”