Urban Design: Early Thoughts on the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center

Known as a community rich in ethnic and cultural diversity, the Othello neighborhood of Seattle has been a growing hub for small, family-owned businesses for decades. Despite the community’s unique diversity, the lack of culturally-appropriate access to education, good-paying jobs, and business services in the area might hinder its future economic growth. 

This week, our Project Manager, Josh, introduced us to a unique urban development in the Othello neighborhood — the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center (SEOC)— as he revealed how this project is being designed to address the pressing needs of the local community. 

 The highlighted portion shows the future site of the SEOC.   |   Image of Google Earth via  Helloothello

The highlighted portion shows the future site of the SEOC.   |   Image of Google Earth via Helloothello

Written by Josh Janet, Project Manager | PE:

Access to quality health care, postsecondary educational opportunities connected to job development, and small business assistance are common concerns for all Americans. The need for these services is even greater among low-income, immigrant, and refugee communities, such as those which have grown in Southeast Seattle. A means to address their needs is currently in development- the Southeast Economic Opportunity Center (SEOC).

The first report outlining these needs was completed in 2014 by SkillUp Washington. The original idea was to provide a “one-stop shop” with integrated services related to employment, financial counselling, economic support, and educational opportunities in the Rainier Valley, mimicking the Opportunity Center for Employment and Education on the North Seattle Community College campus. If you were a recent immigrant and wanted to start your own business, but you did not have a strong grasp of local permitting processes (let alone the English language), this center would be able to provide you all the support you needed to help you through it.

This idea has since expanded substantially to an entire campus of integrated services, ranging from a potential new extension of the Seattle Children’s Hospital to affordable and market-rate family housing to child care services to a potential charter school. Led by local nonprofit HomeSight, there has been enough momentum built over the last two years for this project that a site across from the Othello light rail station has been secured along with over $6 million in initial funding.

I volunteered this past Saturday with HomeSight for a community engagement opportunity at the New Holly Learning Center. The intent of the meeting was to provide the community with an update on where the project was heading and to allow neighbors an opportunity to ask questions of those partners that may be involved in the development. That is, they could ask questions about not just the preliminary site layout, but what type of health care services may be provided at the new clinic, whether the organizers would consider an expansion of services for existing schools in lieu of a new charter school.

 The SEOC Community Meeting was held at New Holly Learning Center.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet

The SEOC Community Meeting was held at New Holly Learning Center.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet

An architect from the firm Weber Thompson (WT) provided slides and posterboards for the massing models and preliminary site layouts developed to date. These maps provided text in seven languages to allow for a diverse group of community members to feel included in the discussion.

A map overlaying the existing and proposed zoning changes from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was provided, but a few individuals expressed confusion to me over what exactly an “NC3P-95” zone means compared to an “SF 5000.” Seattle zoning seems to be the only language not well read by community members.

 The presented maps included legends in seven languages.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet 

The presented maps included legends in seven languages.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet 

Carey Holmes from WT also provided a presentation, and it is always interesting to see what questions come up at this stage. One question I’ve heard come up many times before is “what does the height allowed/proposed translate into stories”? Carey provided a good answer- it depends! When developing commercial space, higher floor-to-floor heights are common (say 12- to 13-feet) while housing may range from 9- to 10-feet. For the final height of the structure, the team will also weigh the benefits of more space with the increase in construction cost for additional floors as well as the visual impact that a taller structure would have on the surrounding neighborhood.

Another interesting question was about why WT proposed pulling back the edge of the massing from South Othello Street. Carey explained that between existing pedestrian traffic and anticipated traffic with the new campus, pulling the building back allowed for more space for pedestrian circulation into the campus. They were concerned about the building otherwise appearing uninviting or cramped. The proposed massing allows for more sight lines into the campus along South Othello Street. 

 Discussion highlights from previous meetings were displayed during the SEOC community meeting.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet

Discussion highlights from previous meetings were displayed during the SEOC community meeting.   |   Photo by Joshua Janet

The amount of parking provided was asked, as is typical for most public meetings. The housing will include parking below and there may be other on-site parking locations, but the team is relying on the site’s proximity to the Othello light rail station for access to the campus.

Additional community meetings will be held over the next few months. It is going to take time for the various partners to enter into formal agreements with HomeSight, and the timing and access to various funding sources may dictate which building on campus comes first. I’ll close out this post with some of the language provided from HomeSight on the project, in case the preceding text left any unanswered questions as to what the project will include and what purposes it will serve.

“It will be a culturally competent, relevant, and welcoming place where community members in Southeast Seattle and beyond can access opportunities for higher education, good paying jobs, childcare and health services, and support to start and keep a business.

Core elements of the future Opportunity Center:

  1. Postsecondary education connected to job development and early childhood development

  2. Small business assistance and entrepreneurship center

  3. Employment services and connection to career jobs

  4. Affordable commercial space for neighborhood businesses and cultural organizations, to stabilize services to the diverse residents of South Seattle

  5. Affordable (60% AMI and above) market rate rental and low-income rental to ownership housing, to balance market rate and very low income projects already funded at Othello.

The SEOC embodies the implementation of community priorities from a decade of community activism, engagement, and planning. These priorities include: providing a much-needed hub for higher education to respond to the desperate need of working people in South Seattle and South King County to increase access to education, job training, and small business development skills; preserving supporting, and expanding the unique cultural diversity and neighborhood character, catalyzing economic opportunity; locating services- from employment services to social and health services to childcare facilities- in the midst of the communities who access those services most; and providing a wide range of affordable housing options.”

For those who are interested in attending the next SEOC Community Meeting, the next meeting will be held at the New Holly Gathering Hall on Saturday, March 4th from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.