Day-labor agency's move stirs 11th-hour opposition
Most residents didn't know about CASA Latina's plan until last month, when a story appeared in The Seattle Times announcing Seattle City Council would help fund the relocation from their current site in Belltown.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Many people thought the postcards that arrived in their mailboxes were ads for a new Mexican restaurant that was moving into the neighborhood.
As a result, hardly anyone showed up for two open-house meetings, both scheduled in the weeks before Christmas, to learn about CASA Latina's plans to relocate its administrative offices, day-worker center and other social-service programs to the northwest corner of South Jackson Street and 17th Avenue South in Seattle's Central Area.
According to Maria Beppu, a neighborhood business owner, most residents didn't know about the plan until last month, when a story appeared in The Seattle Times announcing the Seattle City Council's approval of $250,000 to help fund CASA Latina's relocation from its current site in Belltown. Beppu has helped collect more than 1,000 signatures as of Friday for a petition opposing the move.
"They've slipped through the back door on us," said Beppu, who worries that the agency — which helps connect Latino day laborers with homeowners and contractors — will attract transients and "tag-alongs" who will bring more crime and social problems to the neighborhood.
But Hilary Stern, CASA Latina's executive director, said her agency did its best to notify the community — and received support from neighborhood agencies and associations.
Stern said there's a lot of misinformation now being disseminated that's feeding people's fears that CASA Latina will be a de facto homeless encampment, something she says is just not true.
Early on, CASA Latina contacted members of Japanese Congregational Church, the agency's future neighbor, said Pastor Steve Luttio.
"It surprises me people are getting up in arms at this point because we thought everybody kind of knew," he said. "We support helping people and we're behind it."
The sale on the property, which cost just over $1 million, closed on Friday. CASA Latina plans to renovate an existing building and will move its administrative offices and classrooms to the site sometime next year. The agency will then build a facility for its day-worker center, which is expected to open in late 2009.
Neighbors gave their petition with more than 700 signatures to council members Monday. It is unclear what their next steps might be.
Joe Ike is a board member at Kawabe Memorial House, a 10-story apartment building for seniors two blocks from the CASA Latina site. He said it was City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, not CASA Latina, who first advised the Kawabe board of the agency's planned move into the neighborhood.
Though Rasmussen raised concerns about community notification and tried to postpone the council's vote, he was overruled — and Kawabe Memorial House raised the only opposition before council members approved the request for $250,000, Ike said.
Rasmussen said CASA Latina now needs to work with the neighborhood to address concerns, and the mayor's office needs to help that effort because "they were the ones who said there was adequate support in the community."
"The money has been released and we can't rescind that decision," Rasmussen said.
"I'm just really disappointed ... It seems more could've been done to let people know early on."
Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said CASA Latina spent months talking to people in the neighborhood and garnered significant support from community groups.
"This wasn't something that happened overnight," she said. "Certainly, CASA Latina can continue to do outreach, and they should, but the council and the mayor believe this is a good site and it can work."
CASA Latina first tried to relocate to the old Chubby & Tubby garden center on Rainier Avenue South but met stiff opposition. It abandoned that plan after entering into mediation with community members. In May 2005, CASA Latina said redeveloping the site cost too much and began looking for a new location.
After spotting the Central Area property in July 2006, Stern said CASA Latina embarked on a community outreach program, contacting social-service agencies and neighborhood groups and sending out postcards to all neighbors within 1,000 feet of the new site.
Stern said the loitering, public urination, drinking and fights that occur on Western Avenue are "indigenous to Belltown," which has a 60-year history as a worker-pickup site. Once the agency moves, employers looking to hire CASA Latina day workers will call ahead and pick up laborers inside the facility, she said, adding that it's not in the agency's self-interest to have loiterers hanging around the property. There's no reason to think workers not associated with CASA Latina will migrate to the Central Area because there won't be any employers to flag down, Stern said.
"We were very surprised it was so noncontroversial when we did our outreach" around the new site, Stern said. "We were greeted with not just tolerance but welcoming from the people we talked to and we were very excited about moving in."
But Beppu and Ike said CASA Latina focused its attention on city organizations and social-service agencies and failed to talk to residents and business owners. The postcards that were sent out contained vague information, they said, and the community meetings were scheduled when most folks were getting ready for the holidays.
From the front window of his dental office, Dr. Steven Nakamura can look across South Jackson Street to the CASA Latina property, where a 1950s wood-frame building, once home to an architecture firm, sits next to an empty lot. Though he, too, thinks more should have been done to notify the community, Nakamura said he went to Belltown to learn about CASA Latina's programs.
Though he still has concerns, Nakamura said: "I was definitely against it but now I'm leaning more to accepting them in the neighborhood."
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