Yesler Terrace Redevelopment to Come to Council

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Yesler Terrace (photo from the Seattle Times)

The Seattle Housing Authority has been working for years to create a redevelopment plan for Yesler Terrace, the last of its WWII era housing projects.  The other three (New Holly, High Point, and Rainier Vista) have all been redeveloped as mixed income communities, with new and better housing for the low income residents. Now the SHA Board has completed an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and formally adopted a plan for Yesler Terrace.  The proposal will require several actions from the City Council.  I will Chair a Special Committee on Yesler Terrace with all nine Councilmembers participating, and we will consider the authorizing legislation over the next few months. Yesler Terrace currently has 561 low income units.  SHA proposes to dramatically reshape this community by adding the area between 12th and 14th to the east of the current property, and then building up to 5000 units of housing (4.3 million square feet) in the combined property, along with 900,000 square feet of office, 65000 square feet of neighborhood services, and 88000 square feet of neighborhood retail.   The plan is designed to take full advantage of the property’s proximity to downtown and the First Hill medical centers to develop significant density and to be affordable to SHA through a complex financial structure.

Yesler Terrace, 1940s (photo by Calvin Schmid, found on

While developing low income housing has always relied on financial structures that leverage public dollars many times over through private investments and tax credits, the three earlier projects were given financial boosts by the federal HOPE VI program, a Clinton initiative that focused on rebuilding the nation’s low income housing stock.  Unfortunately, HOPE VI lost its funding under the Bush administration, and federal funds will likely be much more limited in this project.  Fortunately, the Yesler Terrace property offers the best opportunity to leverage other investments due to its high value characteristics. Included in the 5000 units of housing will be 661 extremely low income units (less than 30% of median income), 100 more than currently occupy the site, along with 290 very low income units (less than 60% of median income) and 850 low income/workforce units (less than 80% of median income).  These units will be partially financed by the market rate housing and office space also incorporated in the project. The Council will be asked to:
  1. Adopt a land use code amendment that will allow the diversity of uses, set limits on non-housing development, and provide for the overall density and building heights.
  2. Approve a Planned Action Ordinance that allows all future development consistent with the EIS to proceed and adopts design standards.
  3. Adopt a street vacation ordinance that reorganize the street grid and vacates some streets while rededicating other rights-of-way.
  4. Approve a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that establishes phasing and timing for the replacement housing, approves any City funding, and establishes sustainability parameters.
The land use code amendment and street vacation ordinance are the same instruments used for the other three developments, with the major controversy here expected to be over the density and height of the project.  The Planned Action Ordinance is a new mechanism that has been used in other cities, but never before in Seattle, although it has been suggested for the Northgate area.  The MOA will identify and define performance metrics for the sustainable infrastructure plans for the new development, and may include a water and energy district as well. SHA has already secured a $3.1 million grant from HUD to rehabilitate the historic steam plant as a job training, daycare, and community meeting space, and is one of six finalists for a $27 million Choice Neighborhoods Grant (3 or 4 will be awarded), which will develop 154 low income housing units and fund other community improvements. The initial legislation will come before the Council later this year.  The redevelopment of Yesler Terrace is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a whole new community in this important location.  The Council will carefully scrutinize the SHA plans to ensure that they are workable and appropriate.  We will recognize that there are significant financing challenges that require carefully balancing subsidized housing with market rate and office development that will be essential for SHA to be able to finance the low income housing.  We look forward to a partnership with SHA on this important project for Seattle’s future.