By Joel Sisolak and McCaela Daffern
The most expensive public works project in Seattle’s history is quietly heading toward City Council approval. Let’s hit pause and consider how the project will impact adjacent neighborhoods and how the developer should internalize costs that will otherwise fall on Seattle taxpayers, including the cost of housing the development’s own workforce.
In case you’ve missed it, the Washington State Convention Center (WSCC) is slotted for a makeover to the tune of $1.6 billion dollars – an eye watering price tag bigger than Safeco and CenturyLink combined. It will reshape a large part of Seattle’s city center, result in four years or ongoing construction, disrupt downtown traffic, and permanently remove 1.28 acres of streets and alleyways to use by the public.
And the benefits are less than certain. WSCC claims that the addition will provide “a host of economic benefits, including as much as $240 million annually in visitor spending, as many as 3,900 direct and indirect jobs.”
But convention center projects both here and in other cities regularly fall short of delivering on their boosters’ promises. In fact, the last time the WSCC expanded in the 90s, it doubled in size, but the promised doubling of conventions never materialized.
Even if we take the WSCC at its word on the benefits of this expansion, there will be undeniable adverse impacts upon the neighborhoods directly adjacent to the project: Downtown, First Hill and Capitol Hill.
In February 2016, the WSCC issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that forecasted the impacts of their project: reduced air quality, utility disruptions, noise, more traffic and increased demand for parking, park space, public services and housing.
WSCC suggests that tax revenue from the project will allow the City to address some of these impacts (e.g. the demand for more cops) and offers strategies for mitigating some others, but there is a major impact that is not identified for mitigation. WSCC states:
“No significant population, housing or environmental justice impacts have been identified and therefore no mitigation is necessary.” (Emphasis added.)
This statement doesn’t pass the sniff test. WSCC itself claims the expansion will create at minimum 2,300 new permanent jobs in hospitality-related businesses. Where will all of these new workers will live?
This is an issue of economic and climate justice which all Seattleites should care about. Without building enough housing to accommodate residents at all income levels, we are exacerbating the economic segregation splitting our city apart. If we are content to push our low wage workers to the south suburbs, we are inviting even greater traffic congestion on our streets and pollution in our air.
We are in the midst of a housing shortage. We can no longer afford to boast how many jobs a project will bring to our city without thoughtful consideration of where these new workers will live.
The City of Seattle agrees. They’ve asked WSCC to better estimate the number of employees and households the project will bring, including how many will be extremely low income, very low income and low income.
WSCC’s final Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled for release this Friday. In the meantime, we took a crack at projecting the housing need based on information currently available to the public.
A very conservative estimate is that the projected 2,300 new WSCC workers translates to approximately 1,729 households (assuming some of these workers will have roommates or live with a partner). Of these, we could assume 519 of those households will earn less than 50% of the area median income, roughly $31,000 for an individual or $45,000 for a family of four.
There is no hope that these low wage workers will be able to afford the rent of a market-rate apartment in Seattle, let alone a place in close proximity to the WSCC.
That is why we are asking for a fair deal from WSCC: a $57 million investment to fund affordable housing in or around our downtown core. $57 million could be used by affordable housing developers to leverage $87 million in tax credit and bond financing to build over 500 permanently affordable homes in our city.
There are several opportunities for the WSCC to invest in these benefits for their future employees. WSCC already has committed $5 million to King County for affordable housing as part of its $147 million acquisition of the publicly-owned four acres currently home to the Convention Place Bus Station.
The next opportunity is a contribution of $33 million as part of a public benefits package set to go before the Seattle Design Commission on February 16th. Capitol Hill Housing and the Housing Development Consortium have joined forces with seven other community partners from across the city to advocate for investments in affordable homes and other worthy projects as mitigation for street and alley vacations.
We’re calling it the Community Package, and it gets us on the road to a fair deal. Learn more about how you can support our collective efforts here.
McCaela Daffern is Capitol Hill Housing’s Sustainability Manager. She has a background in community development and urban planning. Joel Sisolak is Sustainability and Planning Director at Capitol Hill Housing.