Seattle City Council At-Large Position 9
Nikkita Oliver and Sara Nelson
The following responses were submitted by the Nikkita 4 Nine Campaign Team on October 6, 2021:
What’s your favorite historic place in Seattle and why do you think it’s important?
My favorite place is Washington Hall. In many ways, Washington Hall has become my second home. I often spend more time there than I do at my own house because it is currently the home for Creative Justice, the organization where I am Executive Director. It is a space for preserving history, making history, creating art, and telling our stories. I appreciate the way Historic Seattle has worked with our Black and brown communities and specifically our arts and culture communities in the Central District. Having safer spaces to be our creative, brilliant, and resilient selves is key to thriving communities. I hope that overtime, as a tenant of Washington Hall, we can work together to ensure this building eventually is in the care of Black and brown Central District residents. (This ties to question #4.)
As the City of Seattle prepares to update its Comprehensive Plan, what role does historic preservation play in planning and land use beyond designating landmarks and historic districts?
The most fundamental plan for any city is the Comprehensive Plan. The Plan’s primary function is to provide a roadmap for future development, preservation, and growth. Our Comprehensive Plan provides the necessary information for planning and zoning decisions, as well as capital investment. Seattle’s comprehensive plan went into place in 1923 and was influenced by known segregationist Harland Bartholomew; this has deeply impacted, and indeed, driven the widening racial wealth gap.
Historic preservation in Seattle begins with community members. Our historic resources provide tangible connections to the people and events that have shaped our communities and our collective histories. Seattle’s eight historic districts and more than 400 structures, sites, and objects of historic, cultural, architectural, and social importance are valuable cultural assets. Through the process of designating and protecting new and existing districts and landmarks, the city works with community members to promote the aesthetic, cultural, and economic strength of Seattle.
As we prepare our next comprehensive plan, we need to work with communities, neighborhoods, and organizations like Historic Seattle to identify historic properties and place them in the local, state, and national historic context. Unfortunately, many past comprehensive plans have glossed over historic preservation, providing little more than a brief description about the community’s historical development or a few paragraphs about local properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
We need to include historic preservation into various sections of our comprehensive plan —including those addressing housing, neighborhood and commercial district revitalization, zoning and land use, and economic development. Most of our naturally occurring affordable store fronts and residential units are in historic buildings and districts. Preservation will require retrofitting (and other safety upgrades) to ensure that these buildings are resistant to earthquakes and other natural disasters while being ADA accessible.
There is a significant relationship between historic buildings and affordable housing (including naturally occurring affordable housing) that has existed in Seattle for more than a century. They are the fundamental building blocks of most of the city’s neighborhoods. What programs or incentives would you create to promote the preservation of affordable housing in conjunction with rehabilitating historic buildings?
City of Seattle preservation incentives:
At the city level, we currently offer incentives to landmark property owners including zoning and building code relief, transfer of development rights, transfer of development potential and the special tax valuation program.
Certain types of regulatory relief are challenging in our region; we are very susceptible to earthquakes. While preserving affordable units, we must balance the need for safe structures with the importance of preserving historical spaces and culture. In order to make necessary changes possible, we must leverage funding at local, state and federal levels specifically for retrofitting, upgrading accessibility, and weatherization of historic buildings that have the capacity to double as cultural spaces, affordable housing, and other necessary services.
We can also leverage an easement program (not just facade easements) to offer incentives to both property owners and municipalities. When donating a historic preservation easement to a governmental entity or nonprofit organization, property owners could be allowed a tax deduction for a charitable contribution on their federal income tax return. The city, meanwhile, would be provided a low-cost mechanism for protecting historic properties from demolition and neglect while keeping the property on local tax rolls.
Lastly, the significant property tax increase that often follows a historic rehabilitation can be a deterrent to preservation efforts. Similarly, the cost of the rehab itself may be off-putting to property owners and viewed as exorbitant when compared to new construction. Factors like these can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more unattractive. Our state has a “special valuation” tax that revises the assessed value of a historic property, subtracting, for up to 10 years, those rehabilitation costs that are approved by the local review board. Given how expensive Seattle has become, finding ways to increase the time frame for the “special valuation” tax at the state level is important. The City can work with (and lobby) state level officials for this.
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities need greater investment in preservation of the places and spaces that are significant to them, and this can be directly tied to growing generational wealth. How would you work to identify potential strategies and implement them?
Our Black communities, Native communities, and communities of color have experienced rapid gentrification and displacement. Upzones and the density needed to address housing affordability and homelessness crisis have been isolated to just a few neighborhoods and urban villages such as the Central District, Rainier Beach, Columbia City, ChinaTown International District, South Park, Ballard, and the University Distrct.
In our historically Black Central District, this has resulted in a disturbing amount of Black homeowners being economically evicted and displaced from Seattle. A few things we need to do are:
- Prioritize working alongside our Native communities, such as Duwamish Tribal Services and our local Tribes, to preserve sacred sites, land, and to develop in ways that are honoring of Native history, values and practices.
- End exclusionary zoning and equitably share density through the entirety of the City push back against property taxes rising extensively in just a few neighborhoods.
- Promote homeownership, cooperatives, community land trusts, public development associations, and establish clear equitable development zones which prioritize funding from the Economic Development Initiative and the Office of Housing specifically for keeping marginalized and vulnerable communities in our neighborhoods.
- Listen to and work with our community experts such as Africatown Community Land Trust, Rainier Beach Action Coalition, and the CID Coalition.
- Address our permitting process that may extend the amount of time it takes to rehab a building and thereby gravely increase the costs for communities that already do not have much access to wealth, capital or other resources.
- Transfer buildings and land into community care through community land trust, cooperatives and public development associations.
Ultimately, ensuring that BIPOC communities have access to land, buildings, and capital is key to addressing the racial wealth gap that keeps people from having access to cultural spaces, significant cultural landmarks, and wealth.
A comprehensive, city-wide survey and inventory of Seattle neighborhoods does not exist (though some neighborhoods have been surveyed and inventoried in the past few decades). Many large municipalities in the United States have funded city-wide surveys and inventories to identify and document historic and cultural resources, and Seattle needs one that is primarily focused on BIPOC communities whose stories have been historically marginalized or just not told. Do you agree that this needs to happen now and how would you support this effort?
Yes, I do agree that this needs to happen, especially as we enter into our next comprehensive plan. The most strategic thing we can do is work alongside grassroots Black, Indigenous, People of Color organizations and organizers to implement city-wide surveys and inventories to identify and document historic and cultural resources. Rather than the City spearheading this, it would be important to allocate funding to community-based organizations to take the lead. We could implement such an opportunity through the Department of Neighborhoods and it could have a similar model to participatory budgeting–which we are already building up at the city-level. Training up multi-generational teams of community members, from youth, to young adults, and elders, to do this work is an opportunity to bring financial resources into BIPOC communities. Meanwhile, we would be creating natural pathways for cultural work and storytelling that builds stronger relationships and connectedness, and help the City identify key spaces for preservation and investment as identified by BIPOC communities.
The cultural spaces which many people feel define Seattle are increasingly at risk of redevelopment. The global pandemic has made many of these places even more vulnerable. Do you feel that it is important to preserve these places, and how can we accomplish this?
Yes. As with all policy proposals, this will require material investment on the part of the City to provide assistance to owners facing the threat of selling or foreclosure as well as support for rehabilitation and retrofitting. The City needs to leverage our state and federal funding options, progressive revenue generating options, and private public partnerships to protect and preserve our cultural and historical landmarks. Working with our Office of Arts and Culture, the Department of Neighborhoods, and the Economic Development Initiative, we should develop a short-term plan for “bailing out” key cultural spaces now while also building a long-term strategy for sustainability.
There are hundreds of unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings in Seattle. Seismically retrofitting these historic buildings is a green investment, but more importantly an investment in community and public safety—saving housing, offices, restaurant, retail, health care, cultural venues, and places of worship. Do you see this need, and how do you plan to support it?
Yes. I do see this as a need, especially when it comes to preserving our naturally occurring affordable units (like those on First Hill). Currently the JumpStart tax generates a little over 200 million dollars per year. 120 million of which is going towards building housing to address the homelessness crisis, while the other 80 million is earmarked for weatherization and the Green New Deal advisory committee. I propose we increase the JumpStart tax and set aside a percentage specifically for the much needed retrofitting of historic buildings. Doing so is a green investment, in my opinion, and has the added benefit of making our current supply of naturally occurring affordable housing safer.