nehemiah studio central district policy review

Why Develop?

The goals of the Nehemiah Initiative directly relate to the interests of the community. Outlined below are some of the key interests, as expressed by community members and Nehemiah Initiative leadership. Churches in the Central District have a unique opportunity to contribute to these goals in that they already own a significant amount of land that can be developed to provide a combination of the below listed interests.


Affordable Housing

In recent years, Seattle has become well known as a hotspot for population growth and development due to a variety of factors, including expansion of the tech industry, geographic constraints that prevent east/west growth, and regional proximity to other west coast growth and business hubs. The Central District has experienced high displacement and commercial turnover over the past few decades as a result, especially because of its ideal location near downtown Seattle. Consisting of over 2,111 acres, the Central District houses over 30,000 people as of 2017. The rapid increase of new residents to the metropolitan region has spurred an increase in housing costs and put a strain on the city’s housing stock. Without adequate levels of housing to keep pace with population growth, long-time residents of the Central District are outbid by new, high-income residents and must move out of the area to find housing within their budget. Additionally, residents and congregation members have expressed a lack of affordable housing as a key reason that they left the Central District. It is also the most important factor in assessing whether to return to the area. Affordable housing has become a priority to the City, and City Council and city staff have taken a proactive approach to mitigate the numerous issues that arise when housing costs become burdensome. Some of the responses from Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development and the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiative include:

  • Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda
  • Mandatory Housing Affordability
  • Renewal of the City of Seattle Housing Levy

While the City’s housing strategies in the Central District aim to mitigate displacement, new development of affordable housing and upzoning could lead to greater loss of community character and a growing threat of rapid transformation without input from current residents. The Nehemiah Initiative understands that any new development in the Central District must consider the opinions and needs of the people in the area as the main priority. Residents of the Central District are more likely to not have completed high school (6.2%) than residents of Seattle as a whole (3%). Additionally, the Central District had a larger portion of residents struggling financially, with 8.5% of families living under the poverty level compared to 6.7% citywide. And, 26.43% of children under the age of 18 in the Central District were living in poverty compared to only 13.4% of children in Seattle as a whole. In order to reduce community displacement, it is clear that the addition of affordable housing units would benefit the residents of the area.

Some City of Seattle resources that provide more in-depth information about affordability in Seattle include:

Family Housing

In addition to affordable housing, much of which consists of one-bedrooms, studios, or micro-studios, the Nehemiah Initiative recognizes the need for family-housing of two- to four-bedroom units that allow for families to grow and stay in place. Paired with affordable housing, family and middle-income housing is a way to support a wider diversity of households in the neighborhood. It is important to note that household sizes in the Central District tend to be larger than Seattle generally. The average household size in the Central District is approximately 2.21, compared to 2.11 citywide. Additionally, research indicates that neighborhoods with more diverse housing are more resilient in economic downturns. Higher housing diversity is also associated with lower rates of sale and foreclosure. By recognizing the need for a range of housing options, the Nehemiah Initiative aims to allow residents the ability to stay in the neighborhood even when their housing needs change.

Currently, there is little policy support for family-housing, as most Seattle initiatives are focused on increasing affordable housing. Though affordable housing can also be family-housing, the return for developers is higher for smaller units. As such, much of the affordable development in Seattle has focused on units that are one-bedroom or smaller. There is an opportunity for the Nehemiah Initiative to step in and fill this gap, though it will likely mean that development will be less profitable.

Small Business Incubation

Cultivating small businesses in the Central District is a priority of the Nehemiah Initiative. Recent gentrification has pushed out and closed the doors of many neighborhood staples. In a process of redevelopment, churches have the ability to provide retail and micro-retail space to host entrepreneurs who may otherwise be forced to close up shop or look to other neighborhoods to build their business. Cultivation of these businesses can be accomplished through:

  • Reduced-cost commercial rent for small businesses and businesses returning to the neighborhood.
  • Reduced-cost commercial rent for businesses that are certified WMBE by the State or City.
  • Provide resources for small businesses to obtain loans, financing, and business counseling.
  • Partner with other organizations that are working to promote small business success in the Central District.
  • Establish a small business co-op network with reduced cost to customers that shop within the network.

Beginning in 2015, the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development spearheaded an interdepartmental effort to align community interests with city policies to promote the commercial vitality of the neighborhood, resulting in the development of the Central Area Commercial Revitalization Plan. One of the primary goals in the plan is to “establish, retain, and grow independent, micro, and small businesses in the Central Area.” This is to be accomplished through the following strategies:

  • Develop a coordinated marketing strategy for small businesses in the Central Area.
  • Offer technical and professional development support to Central Area business owners.
  • Provide the financial and technical support needed to make Black business ownership more affordable and accessible in the Central Area.

Current local, state, and federal strategies to help small businesses are focused on providing resources and counseling support to entrepreneurs. Other strategies are heavily dependent on nonprofit and community support, which is removed from city policy. Working within these limitations, participating Nehemiah Initiative churches can cultivate support systems from their congregations and other community supporters.

Green Space

As an area that is experiencing rapid development and densification, green space is increasingly important in the Central District. It is a goal of the Nehemiah Initiative to incorporate greenery and ecological practices into its projects, and in doing so to build beloved human and non-human communities. The Bullitt Center and the Bertschi School are excellent examples of green building/site design close to the Central District, not to mention the many green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) projects and P-Patches nearby.

Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections has a number of “Green Building Permit Incentives”.  Of note for the Nehemiah Initiative are the Priority Green Building Expedited and Facilitated programs, which help to streamline the permitting process for projects that reach high standards of sustainability. Additionally, SDCI requires a baseline of stormwater management through the Green Factor Score, which focuses on landscaping elements and providing permeable surfaces for slowing and storing stormwater. However, the Green Factor does not apply to all downtown, and industrial zone regulations, which have different requirements to meet.

SDCI also currently has pilot programs for obtaining additional building departures through ecological building design. The Living Building Challenge and the 2030 Challenge for Planning are both certifications/programs that require new development projects to utilize green/healthy materials, manage stormwater runoff, and generate more energy than they consume. In return for accomplishing these objectives, developers can receive up to 25% additional floor area, and up to 30 feet in additional height (depending on the zone in which the development lies).

Providing space for gardening, recreating, dog-walking, and education are all important to the Nehemiah Initiative as well. Seattle’s P-Patch program is run by the Department of Neighborhoods, and may be a good resource if community gardening is of interest to any member Churches. There is a noticeable need for more dog-walking and recreating in the Central District, and spaces devoted to those activities could be designed to accommodate multiple uses, also including outdoor education.

Community Spaces

The Nehemiah Initiative at its core is comprised of a group of neighborhood and religious leaders that understand the need to foster community in the Central District. Creating strong neighborhood ties and relationships will benefit everyone in the area. A key goal for the Nehemiah Initiative is to build community spaces, such as gathering rooms or banquet halls, for residents to rent or reserve and host gatherings. Community members have expressed a sense of loss of community spaces to convene and build relationships with other residents – many of which have been in local businesses that had strong ties to the community. Former residents also indicated they would like to see events such as art displays and theater performances organized by the community that can serve as special occasions to return to the Central District and gather with friends and family who are now dispersed across the city. As such it is an important part of the discussion to create welcoming places at their disposal and for the community to enjoy.

Child Care and Early Childhood Education

From discussions and surveys with community leaders, congregation members, and residents of the Central District, child care providers and education centers are services that residents would like to see added to the community. There is a need for affordable, quality, twenty-four hour child care for residents in the Central District who may require greater flexibility with their schedules but do not want to travel far outside the area. Additionally, having child care within the Central District allows residents the ability to further deepen community relationships and build a network for parents to lean on each other when they need additional assistance. A goal of the Nehemiah Initiative is to build a neighborhood that can satisfy the needs of residents within the area, and providing child care nearby is a key component of that mission. The Nehemiah Initiative also hopes to provide educational facilities in new developments. Though there are schools within the Central District, Nehemiah Initiative leaders see an additional need for small, focused, private school education for neighborhood residents. It is extremely important to the community and to the Nehemiah Initiative leadership to support young residents of the area throughout their life, and to help them build ties within the neighborhood from a young age.

To assist low-income Seattle residents, the city has developed a Child Care Assistance Program through the Department of Education and Early Learning that subsidizes the cost of child care by up to 70%. Qualifying families can apply through the program’s website and can choose from more than 200 providers. Many of these providers are located within the Central District, though none are listed as providing twenty-four-hour care. Additionally, not every family will qualify for the program leaving many parents with expensive child care bills. The Nehemiah Initiative recognizes that such expenses can be burdensome to young families, and that they may choose to leave the area in order to afford their household expenses. For these reasons, providing reasonable child care is a priority to the Nehemiah Initiative in an effort to reduce this pressure.