April 9, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 15

Director's Corner

Ideas collide downtown at the corner of Second and Madison

By Timothy Harris / Executive Director

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Two ideas of downtown collided last week at the corner of Second and Madison, where the Federal Reserve Bank building, with its six floors and 86,800 square feet of usable space, has sat empty since 2008.

According to Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act, surplus buildings suitable for homeless services must be made available to qualifying nonprofits. It’s the law.

We most recently saw this at Sand Point, where six naval buildings were turned into housing for homeless families and individuals. Despite the usual neighborhood objections, the development went forward to completion.

Now 162 units of safe and dignified housing exist in a quiet and beautiful space near Magnuson Park. Since Sand Point Family Housing first opened in 1999, more than 2,000 people have stayed at these facilities as part of their journey from homelessness to stability.

This year, the One Night Count rose by 14 percent to a record high of 3,123 unsheltered homeless people. In the face of this rising count, the need for new resources is clear. But not everyone agrees.

Just days before a coalition of homeless service providers submitted a federal application to turn the building into a new multi-service center, eight downtown organizations led by the Downtown Seattle Association emerged to advocate that the abandoned bank be used instead as a downtown elementary school.

A letter intended to undermine the service providers’ federal application made the rounds at city hall, but failed to gain traction and died. The school versus homeless debate, however, is likely to continue.

If downtown groups want to use the Federal Reserve Bank building to highlight the legitimate need for a downtown school, I get it, but I hope they have other options in mind. Federal law, in this case, prioritizes services for homeless people.

The inconvenience of taking a school bus to Capitol Hill or Queen Anne compares unfavorably to the consequences of not having basic shelter. To put it more bluntly, no kid ever died because they couldn’t attend school downtown.

This is not to say their needs aren’t real. Nine percent of Seattle residents live downtown, where population density is at three times the city average. Children aged 5 to 9 are among the fastest growing downtown demographics. As the Seattle school board, along with local and state officials, have failed to prioritize a downtown school, frustrated families have left for other neighborhoods.

Cities have become centers of dense residential living, and for this to work, certain amenities such as schools and supermarkets are no longer optional.

And yet, cities are also places where the needs and desires of the haves and the have-nots exist in tension. There are two versions of Seattle that will never happen, and the sooner we get our heads around this, the better for all of us.

In one, all the homeless people have been Giuliani-cized or otherwise evaporated, and families stroll from Pike Place Market to Benaroya Hall or The Cheesecake Factory and back with no one ever asking for spare change or otherwise offending them by being visibly poor.

In the other, all the young tech workers from Amazon and Facebook move back to San Francisco or Redmond or where-ever-the-hell they came from, and our downtown reverts to the Portlandian days of 1984, when rents were cheap and the domestic beer flowed freely.

The poor and homeless are here, and so is downtown density. Deal with it. A downtown that works for all of us balances these realities and seeks solutions that are in the long-term best interest of all. We can have the homeless services we need, and we can have a school. It’s not either/or.

But find another building. This one’s ours.

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