Home AEC Othello Square: Looking at Economic and Cultural Trends Shaping Southeast Seattle

Othello Square: Looking at Economic and Cultural Trends Shaping Southeast Seattle

Seattle, Weber Thompson, HomeSight, Barrientos Ryan, Spectrum Development Solutions, Washington Charter School Development, SKL Architects
Image courtesy of HomeSight

By Jack Stubbs

As home prices continue to rise in Seattle and densification continues to occur—and the threat of displacement remains a very real prospect for certain demographics of the city’s population—project teams for in-the-works developments are looking to lead the way when it comes to providing alternative means of accessing affordable housing in a rapidly-changing city.

Othello Square, a four-building project currently undergoing design review by the city, is set to bring more than 430 units of mixed-income, workforce and homeownership housing to the Othello neighborhood in Southeast Seattle, an area south of Beacon Hill and Columbia City.

Now so more than ever, issues around gentrification and the sharply-rising cost of living in Seattle mean that a forward-looking approach is needed when it comes to tackling housing affordability issues further afield, according to Dagliano-Holmes, senior associate at Weber Thompson, who designed three of the four buildings. “It’s important to think about the future as we consider the new waves of gentrification in the city. The project is trying to catch and hold onto the populations of diversity that are getting pushed further south and out [of Seattle],” she said.

The development, located at 7343 MLK Jr. Way S. and 3939 S. Othello St. and formerly known as the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center, is a collaboration between developer HomeSight, developer Barrientos Ryan, Spectrum Development Solutions, Washington Charter School Development, SKL Architects, NAC Architecture, NBBJ Architects and various other community stakeholders and non-profit organizations.

The first groundbreakings are expected sometime in early 2019.

Building A will include 200 units of mixed-income housing and the seven-story HomeSight Opportunity Center (HSOC), where the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund will grow local community businesses through accessible business loans and the non-profit STEM Paths Innovation Network will operate a youth-oriented tech innovation center. Building B will house the Rainier Valley Leadership Academy building, which will contain a public charter high school for roughly 450 students, while Building C will include a community healthcare clinic and approximately 170 units of equitable workforce housing. Building D will provide about 67 units of homeownership units, 100 percent of which will be affordable to families earning 80 percent area median income and below. Activities on the four-building campus will contribute to more than 300 living wage jobs at Othello Square.

More generally, the hope is that Othello Square will provide an opportunity for those looking to locate in southeast Seattle, according to Jeff Reibman, principal at Weber Thompson. “The Rainier Valley has always been a place of opportunity; it’s been a landing spot for wave after wave of immigration to Seattle and the rest of the U.S.,” he said. The genesis of Othello Square was NewHolly, a 100-acre, 1,400 unit mixed-use community located in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. NewHolly was was redeveloped around 2000 as the first new neighborhood in Seattle in 50 years, according to Seattle Housing Authority’s web site.

According to Tony To, executive director at developer HomeSight, one of the broader goals of Othello Square is to help individuals and neighborhood businesses from Rainier Valley continue to thrive in the area. “[The price of] land in Rainier Valley is going up ten percent right now. This is a phenomenon no one thought was going to happen…so we’re going through a very specific type of environment right now, and it can massively dislocate the city in a very short time,” he said. “When we talk about displacement, we have to find ways to help people who built the community stay and thrive in the community…Every small business owner in this community took a huge risk in staying here…if we can keep them there, many of them can finally get a return on their investment in the area.”

Plans for the four-building development were officially launched in September 2016 when the Othello Governance Committee, along with residents of the Othello neighborhood, established guidelines and criteria around their vision for Othello Square. Throughout the planning and design process, community outreach played a central role in the genesis and evolution of the four-building project, according to Reibman. “There was a deeply-engaged community outreach process to determine what could and should be built on the site with the goal of fighting against the displacement occurring in [Southeast Seattle],” he said.

Various community stakeholders were involved in the creation of HomeSight’s Othello Square Master Plan, some of which included the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, the Multicultural Community Center Coalition, East African Community Services, OnBoard Othello and the Othello Station Community Action Plan.

Starting in 2016, HomeSight met monthly with community members and neighborhood groups to solicit feedback about the project. In recent weeks, also, strides have been made with the project. On March 15th, 2018, HomeSight announced that it had reached an agreement with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to purchase the four-parcel, 3.2-acre site that would comprise Othello Square for an undisclosed price. On May 22nd, the 175-unit Building C of the project was approved at an Early Design Guidance (EDG) meeting, and Building D, the 67-unit homeownership portion of the project, was approved on June 12th.

In the context of the city’s design review process, specific attempts were made to successfully program the four buildings so that they would be culturally responsive to their surrounding cultural influences, according to Carey Dagliano-Holmes, senior associate at Weber Thompson. “From a design review perspective in Seattle, there’s a common language to a lot of the housing and residential buildings because of the materials available and the cost of construction. In the central area of the southeast, new development is working hard to be authentic and culturally responsive,” she said. According to the submitted design review proposal, 144 known languages are spoken in Seattle’s Othello neighborhood and 47 percent of the residents speak a language other than English, a figure that is more than double the rate in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area and double the rate in Washington State. Roughly 35 percent of Othello is a foreign-born population, which is about double the rate of the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area.

The broader objective with the development is to preserve the ties within the local community in southeast Seattle, according to Dagliano-Holmes, an area that has been integral to the evolution of the city since long before the plans for Othello Square were put into motion. “The current community has a history of working-class families and immigrants that have been in the Rainier Valley for decades since the inception of [Seattle].”

Socioeconomically, one of the hallmarks of the project is that it provides a wide range of housing opportunities for a broad range of demographics within the neighborhood. And ultimately, Othello Square was a community-led and designed project rather than a city-led vision, according to To. “All the things we are doing is of and from the community…this is not something that the Mayor decided she wanted to do. The last thing we wanted was another feasibility study to determine another planning process,” he said. “I’m not denying the need for subsidized low-income housing, but the specific need in the neighborhood is to have more mixed-income housing for the low-income people, who are now doing better, to step into. There’s a range of different low incomes in this neighborhood…but right now, we don’t have a way of keeping the people who are improving their [income brackets] in the neighborhood.”

And while the development does prioritize the provision of housing for a wide range of income levels, the longer-term goal is to provide a long-lasting community-oriented asset, To thinks. “The whole idea of this project is to maintain community ownership in all respects, metaphorically and financially,” he said. “We don’t want people to live in the Othello neighborhood or Southeast Seattle just because there is low-income housing [there]. We want people to want to live here so that they are able get the services that they want and need.”