Increasing Housing Supply Through Community Engagement
Multi-family housing developers often face skepticism or outright pushback from the surrounding community members, especially in areas with rapidly increasing population density. This should surprise no one. New residents with options generally choose to relocate into neighborhoods which seem suitable as they are, while longtime residents grow accustomed to their now-familiar surroundings. In both cases, the prospect of rapid or extensive neighborhood changes—particularly when they come without consultation, or often even advance notice—predictably triggers negative reactions.
Seattle’s Design Review process empowers residents to express their reactions to proposed projects “on the record”. Resident opposition can slow a project substantially; trigger costly redesign requirements; or even halt construction altogether. The few developers who may not have experienced these reactions firsthand have still heard the painful stories. As a result many developers sour on community engagement, viewing it as a minefield to be avoided whenever possible.
We understand this reaction. As owners of Cubix at Othello, our philosophy and experience has been the opposite. NexGen Housing Partners, with the help of John Morefield of Jackson | Main Architecture, has had the great fortune to work with the remarkable Othello neighborhood community. Questions and suggestions from representatives like Mona Lee, Daphne Schneider, Dick Burkhart, and many of their colleagues demonstrate their deep commitment to the Othello neighborhood and appreciation for the challenges it faces. In particular, without more multifamily projects, the neighborhood redevelopment will increasingly displace families who have long made Othello their home. Learning from them helps us be responsive, and frankly, better developers and property managers.
We began meeting with Othello community representatives shortly after purchasing our site in 2015. Neighbors were eager to hear details of our plans for Cubix at Othello, and they offered a number of thoughtful suggestions. These included design elements like trim colors, modulation details, and amenities. They asked that some units be larger than studios, to better accommodate couples and small families. And they wondered what plans we had to mitigate street parking congestion. Happily, because our meetings began so early in the development process, we were able to address these requests and do so in a manner consistent with our vision for the project. We believe that these accommodations resulted in better community relations. While neighbors appreciated the accommodations themselves, perhaps the more important factor was their feeling genuinely consulted about the project. As a result, we believe they have come to think of NexGen more as civic partners than as stereotypical, “greedy developer” adversaries.
Aside from this consultation in venues like community meetings and design review boards, we also make an ongoing effort to spend time in the neighborhood, learning about what makes it special. Since 2017, we’ve been proud sponsors and enthusiastic participants in the wonderful fair the Othello community holds each August. Every chance we get we bring our investors to Othello via light rail, then dine with them at one of the many fantastic local restaurants. The pho at Huong Dong is one of our favorites and we may have enjoyed a tad too many pastries at family-run Le’s Deli & Bakery. These activities give us wonderful opportunities to converse with hundreds of residents who might not participate in design review or community meetings.
So how effective have these efforts at outreach been for us? Very effective, we think. One tangible measure: every comment offered at our design review hearing supported our project. We take great pride in this result, which as far as we know is unprecedented among (often controversial) micro-apartment projects.
Developers should take note that as of July 1 2018, community outreach became mandatory for new Seattle projects. As detailed on the SDCI web site, “All projects going through streamline, administrative or full (board) design review now must conduct community outreach before their early design guidance meeting.” Our own experience leaves us viewing these requirements as less a burden than an opportunity. Especially if they are carried out as early as possible in the process, genuine community engagement results in better buildings, with less drama, fewer costly design changes, and reduced risk of expensive delays. And that’s not only good for developers! By providing more housing in a city that desperately needs it, it’s good for Seattle as well.
In a future blog post we will salute another key stakeholder in the success of Cubix at Othello: our construction lender, Nina Webster of Amalgamated Bank. We met Nina when she was hanging out a Seattle shingle on behalf of New Resource Bank, a fellow mission-aligned bank based out of California which was acquired by Amalgamated in 2018. Nina has visited the site numerous times and spent time at the Metric factory, where our apartments for floors 2 through 6 are nearly complete and ready to be shipped to Othello at the time of this writing.
Nina says: “We are pleased to have worked with NexGen Housing Partners to help bring a bright next chapter to the Othello community. NexGen Housing Partners has made a clear commitment to putting the community first from the start, ensuring the long-term success of the building and neighborhood. Finding a developer focused on affordability, access for small families, transit options and sustainability is hard to come by. As America’s socially responsible bank, this is exactly the type of project that we are excited to help make possible and Amalgamated is proud to support organizations, like NexGen, who are working to make a positive impact in their communities.” Stay tuned for our next blog post guest authored by Nina.
Submitted by : Dave Hanson, NexGen Housing Partners