Can commercial real estate development help heal this Seattle neighborhood?

Through its new cultural space agency, Seattle hopes to initiate a new model of cultural and business development led by communities that development typically leaves behind or displaces.

Crystal Brown wants her neighbors to take real power over the development of their neighborhood.

A self-described “kid from the Pacific Northwest,” Brown hadn’t heard much about Seattle’s South Park neighborhood until she moved there about five years ago.

Nearly one-third of South Park residents live below the federal poverty level, and nearly half identify as Hispanic or Latino. Freeways run through the neighborhood, making it a busy corridor for trucks. It is also found through the heavily polluted Duwamish River from King County International Airport, which is mostly used for cargo these days. Brown can’t ignore all of this, but it’s not what she thinks of first when she thinks of South Park.

“I’m a people person,” says Brown. “I was able to discover this neighborhood just by walking around. Being here in my 30s, this neighborhood really stood out for me as an amazing place for people.

With local owners Resistance Cafeshe’s met other neighborhood women, like Resistencia owner Coté Soerens, local artists Emily McLaughlin and Melanie Granger, and food justice organizer Mónica Perez, whom she calls her “personal superhero.” .

Along with a few other neighbors, the women formed a non-profit organization called Cultivate South Park as a vehicle to support their every effort. As reported in the Seattle TimesPerez used the nonprofit to develop an emergency pandemic food distribution effort at a full-fledged farmers’ market held on Tuesdays in South Park.

For their next and biggest act yet, Cultivate South Park has teamed up with the Cultural Space Agency — a quasi-public, mission-driven real estate development corporation licensed by the City of Seattle — to acquire three neighboring mixed-use buildings and an adjacent parking lot in the heart of South Park. Current tenants of the buildings include Resistencia Coffee and a handful of other local businesses, including South Park Hall, a century-old 3,800-square-foot performance and event venue that Granger recently took over.

The ultimate vision is to transfer these properties into a new community land trust, called ‘El Barrio Community Trust’, with community members serving on the board of the trust and playing a key role in the future development of their neighborhood. as collective owners. Brown hopes he can give this historically marginalized neighborhood a chance to set the direction of its own development instead of remaining totally at the mercy of outside developers and financiers.

“A lot of people had never heard of community land trusts,” says Brown. “But it’s important that our groups know that Cultivate South Park cannot be the controlling force. We really have to take a step back, we don’t have to take control and decision-making. We need to help direct the process of discussion, education and empowerment into the hands of community members. It’s a beautiful thing when neighbors can understand what these community land policies and trusts can do for their community.

This is the first community acquisition made with the support of the Agence Espace Culturel. As Next City covered at the time, its December 2020 inception came after at least seven years of organizing and advocating for communities of color in and around Seattle. It was also directly inspired by the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, an arts-focused real estate nonprofit with a similar mission in the Bay Area.

The Cultural Space Agency is technically a public development authority, similar to local public housing authorities, economic development corporations or local transport authorities. Generally, they must be established by a legislative authority, through a city council or state legislature, and the exact process can vary from state to state. These types of entities are particularly useful when cities wish to combine public resources, including property or funding, with private support from philanthropy or corporations.

The City of Seattle has already chartered eight public development authorities, protecting and preserving famous or important sites such as Pike Place Market, the Seattle Museum of Art and Pacific Hospital. The Cultural Space Agency is unique in that it is the only one of Seattle’s eight chartered public development authorities whose governing body has no mayoral nominations — instead, he was nominated entirely by members of Seattle’s Black, Indigenous and other Seattle communities.

Although anyone can submit building project ideas to the Cultural Space Agency, its initial pipeline of projects was drawn from alumni of the Build ArtSpace Equitablement (BASE) certification program, created and funded by the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. The goal of the program is to “build the capacity of communities of color to build affordable permanent cultural spaces and expand the ‘access road’ to commercial real estate development further into cultural communities.” Soerens, owner of Resistencia, graduated from the program in 2021.

Funding sources for community real estate projects can come and go, and some funding sources require so much paperwork and headaches that they’re not worth pursuing if you’re not a real estate organization that consider making it a routine. But the real world, and especially real estate, doesn’t always have the patience to wait for historically marginalized communities or artists to find sources of funding and ownership structures that work for them.

Groups like the Cultural Space Agency in Seattle or the Community Arts Stabilization Trust in San Francisco have emerged to serve as holding entities that can help with fundraising, and perhaps serve as temporary or partial owners of properties, so that communities or arts organizations have time to figure out everything else. out. In the case of El Barrio, the Cultural Space Agency formed a joint venture with Cultivate South Park to take possession of the properties until the El Barrio Community Trust could establish board and governance processes rooted in the community.

“We saved time, and that’s really significant,” says Soerens. “We are very grateful for that.”

The Cultural Space Agency has approached the former owners of the El Barrio properties to talk about a mid-2021 acquisition. The former owners group told executive director Matthew Richter that they were in fact close to putting the properties up for sale.

“These are older buildings that, without significant investments, which we plan to make, are reaching the end of their life,” says Richter. “They are not what the market would generally consider the highest and best use in terms of zoning and density. These buildings represent, I believe, a significant development opportunity for someone interested in a more exploitative version of what real estate development is generally, in these developing and growing neighborhoods.

Also in mid-2021, the city announced a new “Strategic investment fundslaunching a request for proposals for total funding of up to $30 million for “land and property acquisition to address disproportionate displacement pressures affecting Black, Indigenous and communities of color.” Agence Espace Culturel quickly got to work on a handful of proposals, including one in partnership with Cultivate South Park. The city informed 13 winning respondents in September 2021.

Cultivate South Park was among the winners, earning $2.3 million from the city. The city dollars allowed the group to put down a deposit for the purchase and begin collecting the rest of the dollars from other sources.

Another way to think of the role of the Cultural Space Agency is to serve as a mini-investment bank for its pipeline of projects led by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Richter is constantly in talks with all kinds of lenders, from conventional banks to federally licensed community development financial institutions, impact investors and philanthropists, to inform them of opportunities to support projects in the pipeline. of the agency.

At the Resistencia cafe, Richter sat down for one such meeting with three wealthy people. The three anonymous wealthy people had come to know the neighborhood through a variety of initiatives, from the local response led by Mónica Perez to pandemic food insecurity as well as happier initiatives like “building”, a monthly showcase of local arts and performances co-curated by Melanie Granger and hosted at South Park Hall.

Richter says he offered high net worth individuals the opportunity to support the project as co-investors in the properties, as lenders to help acquire the property or as donors. All three chose to donate a total of $3.5 million – enough to acquire the El Barrio properties debt-free. Richter says other philanthropic donors are now considering supporting needed rehabilitation work on the properties.

“It was a great story to hear that these anonymous donors were driven to do this because of the work people like Melanie and Monica have done that has gone unrecognized and marginalized for so long,” Brown said.

Richter also believes that anonymous donors were also attracted by the mission represented by this project, as the first acquisition supported by the Agence Espace Culturel. A handful of storefronts, an event space, three second-floor apartments and a parking lot might not seem like a huge project on their own, but Richter says they’re gaining prominence as firsts in an emerging model of cultural development. and commercial driven by the communities that development usually leaves behind or displaces.

But the hardest part has only just begun – the work of bringing this community into this conversation now that something real is at stake in these properties.

“It’s a great mission, but we’re going to have a lot to do in terms of healing and trauma, and all these other historic things,” Brown said. “But we are ready to work with our community and our neighbors and the city and other community partners, people who have been in [other] The South Park agencies, who have been in South Park long before us, the beautiful collaborations that already exist, and the healing that we hope will be part of this work.

Oscar is Next City’s senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City Editor-in-Chief from 2018-2019 and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

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James C. Tibbs