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Originally published September 5, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified September 6, 2012 at 10:44 AM

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Yesler Terrace plan could lead the way

Yesler Terrace plan may change the face of public housing.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The new vision for Yesler Terrace is a bold step toward building an economically integrated urban community.

There are ways in which it could go wrong, but I think the risks are worth taking.

I checked with a former co-chairman of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, and he was ecstatic about the redevelopment plan.

"This will be catalytic," Ron Sims said, "It will change how urban areas develop."

Tuesday, the Seattle City Council approved legislation that allows the Seattle Housing Authority to move forward with its plan — subject to conditions intended to protect the interests of people who depend on public housing.

I sought out Sims for his opinion because the issues involved in this kind of project have been at the core of his political career.

Sims spent more than a decade as King County executive before going off to the other Washington to serve as deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Because his community ties created a potential conflict with his federal job (he left that job to come back to Seattle last year), Sims recused himself from evaluations of the plan, but he has been watching the project develop.

Housing is about more than buildings, Sims said and Seattle has been a leader in recognizing that.

Housing affects how children do in school, it gives adults the stability they need to hold down jobs. It is at the heart of communities, the environments that nurture or hold people back so that attention to housing needs is a critical part of sound social policy.

And yet, public housing has often been no more than warehousing of poor people. For a long time the problems inherent in that approach have been evident.

In some places, the words "notorious" and "housing project" seem inseparable. Places like Cabrini-Green in Chicago were known for incubating the worst kinds of behaviors.

Yesler Terrace has had problems, too, smaller-scale ones, but it has also generated a lot of good feeling and nostalgia.

But because the buildings are 70 years old and in need of repairs, and because government money is tight, the housing authority decided to replace the complex and to do so in a way that does not segregate people by income.

That's what Sims finds so remarkable. "We tend to silo, poor people over here, commercial over there, wealthy over there," he said. "Seattle is built that way, but this changes all that."

This project uses condos to help subsidize and pay for housing for people who are poor, he said, in a way that doesn't separate poor from the commercial sector or from mixed-income housing.

"People will be coming here to see this, and they will go, 'Wow,' " he said.

Sims said that as the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) has redeveloped other housing projects it has gotten better at creating mixed-income communities, learning more each time.

This project exceeds all of them. It uses private-sector money and preserves a place for low-income families on prime real estate.

And Sims is impressed that the project goes beyond providing a roof over people's heads. The goal, he said, is not just housing creation, but community creation with health, education, economic opportunity and environment part of the mix.

The project won't be painless, and it has critics. The Seattle Displacement Coalition is concerned that SHA won't live up to its obligations to maintain the same number of units for the lowest-income residents. And some people in nearby Little Saigon worry about the project's impact on their community.

The City Council wrote conditions into its enabling legislation that address those issues, but it's good that outside organizations and the council will be keeping an eye on the redevelopment as it proceeds.

Current tenants will be most affected by the redevelopment. Kristin O'Donnell, one of several Yesler Terrace residents on the redevelopment citizen review committee told the council the uncertainty of the project is scary.

There were a lot of unhappy people, including my mother, when an urban-renewal project bulldozed the neighborhood where I grew up. But the disruptive change ultimately provided safer, cleaner, more conveniently located housing.

The Yesler project makes a huge break with the past for the promise of a better future. It is a risk worth taking.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter @jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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