We’re the government. We’re here to help you lead “the good life,” to guide your hand, reduce your calories, stub out your cigarettes, kill your car, shrink your foot print. We are either the taxpayers’ collective desire to stem earth-killing excess or the Super Civic Nanny without the charming British accent.
I chair the Seattle City Council’s Committee on the Built Environment, the committee for land use and zoning, and spend a fair amount of time praying for a usable crystal ball. I hope for great outcomes but often worry about the possible travesties of design, construction and profit-at-public-expense made possible by my votes. My colleagues and I talk about using our positions as policymakers to “set the table,” to unleash great actions by others by virtue of the right government rules and government spending. Like others before us, we hope people won’t look back years from now and ask, “What could they have been thinking?”
In the coming two years, Seattle will re-tool zoning and development rules for several neighborhoods, including Rainier Beach, situated in the far southend of the city. Rainier Beach is Seattle’s most ethnically diverse and impoverished neighborhood, and an update to its plan has just commenced. Few “big dogs” will play in the debate over Rainier Beach; it will fly below the radar as it has done for decades, despite the promise of its location between Lake Washington and the light rail.
When it comes to supporting children and families, Rainier Beach has scores of social service saviors doing great work, but poverty, continuing patterns of neglect and fractured families continue to shorten horizons. In 2009–2010, at Rainier Beach High School only 14 percent of 10th graders were deemed proficient in math and only 49 percent of students enrolled in a four-year college within one year of graduation. Southeast Seattle children experience higher asthma rates than their peers in other parts of the region, and adults report higher levels of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
It’s hard not to see these challenges reflected in the landscape. The development errors of the past, compounded by unique landscape hurdles and a history of urban flight and failure, mean a reasonable definition of “the good life” sits out of reach for too many. Standing at the corner of Rainier Ave. S. and S. Henderson St. you have a sense that the good life hasn’t stopped here in a long, long time.
What are we willing to do about that?
There are systemic economic and institutional factors, as well as personal accountability factors, that plague multiple generations of Rainier Beach families, but a persistent regard for Rainer Beach as a suburban neighborhood holds back progress, as well. Development in this area should change the very shape of its core and contribute to new opportunities for this part of Seattle.
In 1937, Rainier Ave. changed from supporting rail to automobiles, effectively shrinking the city and setting off the in-city suburbanization Rainier Beach still grapples with today. Approximately 10,000 cars per day pass through the area’s central business district on a four-(sometimes five) lane roadway as they travel to and from Renton, Skyway or the South Ryan Way ramps to I-5. On one end of the business district, a small community heart beats lightly at the intersection of Rainier/57th Ave. S. and Seward Park Ave. S. but the volume and speeds on Rainier sap its strength. On the other end, the corner of Rainier and Henderson presents the largest, most complex and potentially most expensive challenge for planners and advocates of urban density. This northern crossroads of the business district is a no-man’s land of set-back buildings and indefensible spaces dominated by cars and, too often, crime.
The intersection of Rainier Ave. S. and S. Henderson St. has been a hot spot for drug deals, for random shootings, for fights. It’s one of the last places neighborhood people would choose to take a walk or spend time in. And yet it is the crossroads of the community, the way to get anywhere else—to the grocery store, the community center, the lake, light rail and the Chief Sealth bike path.
Instead of forcing people into austerity to save the planet, we can give people options that are both personally and globally satisfying. In Rainier Beach, we are further from providing people with these options than we are in almost any other Seattle neighborhood. Despite the incredible natural surroundings of the area, willing (if not impatient) community advocates and significant investments by government, the urban – rather suburban – landscape works against us.
In the same way that “we” – government and the private sector – chose South Lake Union for investment, we can choose Rainier Beach. Choosing means changing the land use rules (e.g. building heights) and public investment. We can choose ways that fulfill the neighborhood plan’s vision of development and benefit the community without displacing it—development that provides stability and opportunity for the people living there now as well as new comers attracted to the area by features such as the lake and light rail. Rainier Beach calls us to do something more than talk about zoning heights. It’s a neighborhood where we must check our rhetoric about sustainability and diversity—and then step up.
In regard to Rainier Beach, I worry less about people in the future asking, “What were they thinking?” and more about them saying, “Why didn’t they do anything sooner?”