Gay TOD: A vision for an LGBT center in Capitol Hill light rail station development

In late September, some of the most powerful people in gay Seattle including a state representative, a state senator, two city council members and the heads of several businesses and gay and lesbian organizations gathered to talk about LGBT priorities for the city. Topics included the City of Seattle’s budget woes, HIV/AIDS funding and an interesting discussion centered on Capitol Hill. The city needs an LGBT community center, a few of the more vocal attendees asserted, and it should be on Capitol Hill.


Louise Chernin, executive director of the Greater Seattle Business Association, was the leading voice at the table that day and is quickly becoming the leading voice in the city calling for a plan to create an LGBT center as the centerpiece to the transit oriented development, or TOD, around Broadway’s light rail station.

While there are significant barriers to overcome, creating community space as part of the station ranked highly in a community charrette process to explore possibilities and establish priorities for the Sound Transit owned development. “A cultural center and space for community activity is currently lacking on Capitol Hill. Providing such spaces – including a dedicated space for the LGBT community – is desired,” read the consultants final report on the community process.

Michael Wells, head of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce was also at the September meeting hosted by Council members Tom Rasmussen and Sally Clark. “Chernin has a vision of a gay and lesbian center on that site,” Wells said. “We’re trying to figure out what that looks like.”

By “what it looks like,” Wells isn’t talking about design. He’s talking about business structure and the level of services a true community center could deliver. “We’ve talked about a nonprofit community plus business structure,” Wells said. “Now the worry is social services.”

 We asked Chernin for more information about her priorities for establishing community use as part of Sound Transit’s TOD plan. She sent us the following statement:

My goal is for the progressive city of Seattle, in its planning of the four parcels of land in the heart of Seattle’s LGBT historical and cultural district, is to build an LGBT Community Center. Not just a community center but an LGBT Community Center, where all are welcome.  Yes, LGBT folks live everywhere, but we all think of Capitol Hill as the heart of the LGBT  community. 

Seattle is home to the 3rd largest LGBT population in the United States and is one of the only metropolitan areas that does not have an LGBT Center. If NY, Philly, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, MN, and San Diego and others are able to support vibrant LGBT Centers, surely Seattle should be able to as well.

The City of Seattle conducted a survey of the LGBT community this summer which concluded that the #1 need of the LGBT community is a Community Center. And, that community center needs to be a full-service “Gay Y”. It should include direct services for seniors and youth; a child care center, a visitor’s center, meeting space for nonprofit boards and community groups as well as office space for the nonprofit LGBT Community, which could share administrative resources.  

I attended an LGBT Senior Care Conference two weeks ago and was saddened to hear from service providers that as our community ages, they feel forced to go back in the closet due to the increased harassment and discrimination at senior centers and nursing homes. Certainly, our youth who have been working on Queer Youth space will readily tell of the lack of safe space for youth to meet and socialize.  Given the national reporting of the number of LGBT youth suicides, there should be no question as to the urgency of this need.

Nearly every underrepresented constituency has a community center (Asian Counseling Referral Center, El Centro de la Raza, and others) but, even given the size of the LGBT population in Seattle and the documented discrimination and lack of services, this is the time to finally build an LGBT Community Center on Capitol Hill.

For Chernin’s vision to become reality, a sprawling, multi-year public process must play out to shape Sound Transit’s actions for the land surrounding the Capitol Hill light rail station. One key component will be achieving “fair market value” for any use of the development. Sound Transit faces legally mandated restrictions in its development plans so that its projects achieve calculated value at parity with the market. If it sounds like an equation rife with politics and interpretation, you’re only partly right. In the end, the development needs to pencil out. Figuring out a way for the community use to support itself — or, more likely, be supported — is the key.

One recent example where social services “penciled out” is Federal Way’s Korean Women’s Association’s senior housing project that was part of a transit center development. The project combines senior housing along with office space for service providers and, with a key organization at the center of the project, was able to secure funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the King County Housing Program, the City of Federal Way Community Development Block Grant Program to build the $18 million complex. That’s quite a roster of support and an example of how high organizers will have to reach to make a similar project on Capitol Hill work.

Wells and Chernin are also sensitive to concerns that an LGBT center won’t be open to everybody — especially given the broad support such a project will likely require.

“There is a desire for a sense of naming and ownership. It’s a big space. We don’t want the LGBT component to be oppositional,” Wells said. In some ways, then, this is about a name and, if you will, branding. But Chernin also thinks it should be about serving a key Seattle community.

[We] need to create a welcoming named space for those who do not feel safe or welcome in other spaces,” Chernin said.

Chernin thinks the environment on Capitol Hill is ready to support the project and, perhaps more importantly, the economics make sense. The largest LGBT organizations on the Hill are currently paying market rate rent, Chernin believes, and could more than support some of the business structure around the development. She also says there will be space for the little groups. “Our mission could include providing no to low cost meeting space to the smaller grassroots groups but not depend on them to pay the rent or mortgage,” Chernin said.

However the effort is shaped, this is only the beginning of the discussion. Below is the timeline for Sound Transit’s guiding “request for qualifications/request for proposals” process that will play out starting in 2012. It leaves the Hill community just over one year to shape the requirements and the framework for the requirements Sound Transit will include in the bidding process for others to buy or build the land near the Capitol Hill light rail station.

RFQ/RFP Process (2012-2013)

• Request for Qualifications / Request for Proposals

– 2 stage process to select TOD developers

– Results of community feedback provided to developers

– ST will identify requirements and preferred design

recommendations, with associated evaluation criteria

– Developers required to pay fair market value but will be

encouraged to think creatively to achieve goals

– Details of RFQ/RFP to be determined

• Phasing strategy

• Number of RFPs

Source: Sound Transit TOD Forum Presentation (PDF)

With 2012 on the still distant horizon, Wells likes the Chamber’s and the community’s chances of driving a good solution for Capitol Hill. Wells said the Capitol Hill Champion joint venture between the Chamber and community groups like the Capitol Hill Community Council doesn’t yet endorse Chernin’s plan but they’re positioned to make sure the idea gets the proper attention and effort from the transit agency. Wells said the Champion group has fought for that seat at the table with Sound Transit. “They had to choose us because we did enough groundwork in the community and at City Hall. We learned a lot from what happened in other parts of the city.”


Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

8 thoughts on “Gay TOD: A vision for an LGBT center in Capitol Hill light rail station development

  1. We had a LGBT center on Pike next to what is now Boom Noodle and it closed. If we’re going to do this, we need to make sure it’s funded and can continue to operate.

  2. When we can look at towns like Corvallis Oregon and see that they have more actual tangible resources like a community center it strikes me as horrible that our own community can’t find a way to make it happen. We need to have someone that knows how to manage the money to keep it solvent. Maybe if we have a community center that is part Senior Center and Part LGBT center to meet the needs of both the LGBT population and the Senior Population and the people that are in both populations would be a good marriage of need and access. There is more funding available through grants for senior centers. It is something we have been discussing at the meetings of Old and Proud: Senior LGBT Advocacy Group (SLAG) and hopefully can find ways to address.

  3. If money is a concern, wouldn’t you want to put such a center in an older building with lower rent? And just being the Devil’s advocate: If the GLBT community hasn’t managed to create and support such a center in all these years, including years when Capitol Hill was more of a GLBT center than it is now, isn’t it possible that many in the GLBT community don’t really see such a need for it? Who funds the centers in the other cities mentioned?

  4. I too am very concerned about the financial viability of a center like this. I actually think that money could be found to build it, but in the longterm, how would it operate? Would every gay org in the city move into the space and pay market rent to support the operation of such a space. Would we want to be “ghetto-ized” in this way anyway? I would seriously doubt that gay orgs are paying “market rent” in a brand new fancy building. Meaning, there is a reason they are located in old falling down buildings like the one on Pike – they can’t afford to pay much for rent, because like all other nonprofits, gays have a hard time raising money, especially now. I applaud Louise for wanting to think this through but it isn’t something that should be supported unless there is a seriously viable funding strategy. Any rich gay people out there want to have naming rights and underwrite it?

  5. I have to say, as a gay man, that there are so many GLBT resources available in this city already, for both youth and adults, that a community center isn’t really needed. I can’t help but wonder if the old GLBT center on Pike closed because no one was really using it, and if that is the case, why waste scarce tax dollars to fund a new one?

    Frankly, if they think a center is a top priority, then Chernin, the GSBA, and other “advocates” in the community should open up their checkbooks and make it happen.

  6. 1)There are no older buildings with “lower rent” on Capitol Hill. That is why everything that is non-profit is getting forced off the Hill.
    2)Yes, there is a need for a WELL-FUNDED, LGBTQ Center with a clear and strong mandate.
    3)Yes, there are lots of great services/orgs on the Hill but not all needs are being met.
    4)The previous Center closed due to gross mismanagement and lack of a mandate. (and, for about 800 other reasons). People DID use it however and many of the people who used it and needed it are the disenfranchised: the young, the poor, minorities, the newly out and struggling, the trans community.

    There is a need but there has to be a STRONG, VIABLE, POWERFUL AND CONNECTED group of people on the Board with a clear direction and the clout to get things done…and, most importantly, can raise at least $10million bucks to establish an endowment to adequately staff and maintain the Center and to have programs that are an aid to the community. There were some very nice people on the Board at the previous Center, (and, some yutzes) but NO ONE with any clout and power. Boards for big non-profits MUST have a strong Board that knows how to RAISE money. Good intentions are awesome, but you have to have tough wheeler dealers who know how to shake down the rich and corporations for serious donations.