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Wallingford fought developers decades before it was hip

Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood is known for its restored bungalows and for Gasworks Park. But some people worry it could lose its soul if the city’s affordable housing plan goes through.

The heart of old Wallingford is an old brick building called the Good Shepherd Center. There’s a big Jesus statue out front. It used to be a school run by nuns, a “home for wayward girls.”

Today it’s owned by the city. You can see a concert in the room known as the Chapel.

This building’s salvation was one of the neighborhood’s first big victories in a decades-long battle against developers.

Carl Slater saw the birth of that struggle. He was a known community activist in the early 1970s when Wallingford asked him to help save the Good Shepherd Center. A developer wanted to knock it down and put in a shopping center surrounded by parking lots.

Slater knew the fight to save the building would mean choosing community meetings over family life. “There are times when you have to go,” he said, “That means you leave the dinner table, or you don’t come to the dinner table, you have to do it. If you don’t do it, you won’t win.”

Slater almost turned down the request, because he feared it would tear apart his already struggling marriage. But his wife set him straight: “She said, ‘No, I’m gonna divorce you anyway, I want you to save that building.’”

“Did she divorce you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

"Was it worth it?" I asked.

"No, of course not."

But he saved the building, and the Wallingford Community Council was just getting started. It took in new members who made it their mission to protect single family homes.

At the time, the neighborhood was run down and polluted from the former gasworks. Developers were snapping up Wallingford’s old bungalows and turning them into duplexes for University of Washington students. Wallingford’s homeowners complained to the City of Seattle.

Mike Ruby worked for the building department at the time. “They came saying we’ve got this serious problem with these developers coming in and disrupting our neighborhood,” Ruby said.

Ruby gave them a roadmap for preserving the neighborhood. They followed his instructions, and new duplexes were outlawed. “It just basically kept the neighborhood more or less the way it was,” said Ruby.

Sixty years ago, you could buy a home in Wallingford for $10,000. Today, homes sell for easily 100 times that amount.

As the years went by, many Wallingford homeowners maintained their distrust of developers set on bringing density to neighborhoods dominated by single family homes.

And after the City of Seattle hammered out its affordable housing plan with help from developers in 2015, Wallingford’s Community Council emerged as a major critic. For this group, it’s not just about preserving a neighborhood. It goes back to the neighborhood’s historic distrust of what it sees as insufficiently scrutinized development.

Miranda Berner is leading the charge against the plan, known as HALA. “This is so clearly a developer giveaway,” she said.

The HALA plan involves loosening the rules on developers in parts of Wallingford (people call the rule changes "upzones," because they allow developers to build taller buildings). In exchange, developers must build, or at least pay for, affordable housing.

The problem, Berner said, is that the affordable housing could come long after the luxury townhomes.

“I looked at what HALA was proposing, and I saw it as speeding up economic displacement, instead of putting things into place that will slow it down or stop it,” said Berner.

City officials strongly disagree with that perspective. Sara Maxana, project manager for HALA, argues that development is the key to keeping Seattle affordable.

“When you have more housing choices across the city for a full range of incomes, that provides more opportunities for people to stay here,” said Maxana.

Both sides say they want affordability; the disagreement is over whether this plan will produce that affordability. That comes down to numbers. What is the right amount of pressure to apply to developers?

Too little pressure could be seen as a developer giveaway. Too much pressure could dampen the supply, causing rents and home prices to rise even faster.

The debate is happening publicly in Wallingford, where every yard seems to have a sign stating its resident's position on the matter.

Carl Slater, who saved the good Shepherd Center, doesn't consider developers an enemy. Miranda Berner, who's leading the charge against developers today, said she isn't fighting density.

So it's not fair to say these people are anti-development. It would be more accurate to say Wallingford views development skeptically and doesn't assume each project will benefit the neighborhood. This skepticism, combined with power and influence, has hardened into a kind of protective crouch. The shell grows thicker in response to criticism that privilege and wealth have clouded visions here.

Breaking through requires acknowledgement that the pain is real. Even as HALA brings value, it also costs something: It will change the neighborhood, and some of those changes are unpredictable.

"My conversation with folks in Wallingford is much more nuanced than we can see on a yard sign," said Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson, who district includes Wallingford.

Johnson supports HALA. But communicating that support can be complicated in a neighborhood where distrust of developers runs so deep. In a recent conversation, a homeowner told Johnson he blamed developers. Johnson listened, then explained how HALA is supposed to work.

"It didn't change their mind; they weren't going to take down their yard sign," Johnson said, "But I do think that it opened them up to dialogue."

This year, Seattle upzoned four neighborhoods, following the path laid out by HALA. Wallingford is one of 27 neighborhoods that could get upzoned next year.

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