By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Standing in front of a brick wall with rubble strewn behind him, Brad Padden kicked off construction of a project that he hopes will transform the Chinatown-International District (CID).
“I’m honored to be here and to be accepted into the community to bring a brighter future to this corner and hopefully more,” he said.
The development is a pioneer in a number of ways.
The building at 701 South Jackson Street will transform an unused vacant lot into affordable housing. It also takes advantage of Seattle’s progressive regulatory codes that allow builders like Padden to develop apartments without a requirement that he create parking spaces for the tenants.
Finally, the development is the answer to the hopes of many in the community for more activity on the streets—the density of the apartments will encourage the roughly 250 new residents to flood the streets—including going to local restaurants.
There are some uncertainties, however—as with any project that includes the city’s Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE). The building’s low rents partially rely on the city’s MFTE. This program is limited to 12 years.
This means the affordability offered by the city’s tax breaks may very well run out after that time.
“Buildings participating in the MFTE program typically have affordability periods of 12 years. This applies to the property, not the resident,” according to the city of Seattle’s renter guide. “For example, if an income eligible household moves in in year 8 of the affordability period, the rent restriction will only apply for four more years.”
In an interview with Northwest Asian Weekly, Padden said that most of the price savings on apartments in the building, however, come from the fact they are “congregate apartments”—with the MFTE program adding an additional, but not the primary, amount of savings.
Congregate apartments are the smallest apartments that can be built in the city of Seattle. As such, they are able to provide lower-cost housing for those who work or live in a community.
“Our focus is on the long-term wellbeing of residents,” said Padden. “That wellbeing also happens to represent real value for our investors as well.”
Each congregate apartment has a full bath and a kitchenette. But for full, fancy meals, the resident must traipse down the hall to a group kitchen.
“There is a full kitchen on every floor of congregate apartments,” said Padden, whose Housing Diversity Corporation (HDC) has identified such projects as a niche. “Overall, the community will have six common kitchens, three common lounges, and one lobby.”
At face value, Padden is idealistic. At the groundbreaking last month, he seemed enthused and arranged for a luncheon at the Joyale Seafood Restaurant afterwards.
“One of our goals is to be proactive—to get some of the elderly in the community into a building that has an elevator,” he said.
Asked about how senior citizens would cope with living in a building and suddenly having the MFTE end, which would raise the rent, Padden said the city is renewing the program for some buildings.
“The MFTE does sunset, but it is being renewed. It has to be voted on,” he said. “The government realizes it can’t afford to have units to revert to market value.”
Of 202 projected units, 20 of them will be 30-40% of the area median income. At present, that means the cheapest of those (the 15 congregate units) would go for $846 a month.
Even if the MFTE were to go away, under the worst-case scenario, in 12 years, it would still be the size of the units that determined their low cost. Rent would rise by a fraction, rather than double, if the price savings were entirely dependent on MFTE.
“We believe that everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home. This project will build upon the vibrancy that the community in the Chinatown-International District has cultivated,” said Nona Raybern, communications manager for the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing, in an email. “To meet the needs of this current housing crisis, we must look at all pathways to affordable housing. We need creative and innovative ways to build more housing for people and families who want to make this neighborhood their home at all income levels, and we know that housing that is close to transit, grocery stores, restaurants, cultural hubs, and parks is essential for communities to thrive. We’re looking forward to seeing this project move forward and become part of this community.”
During the long rounds of hearings with the International Special Review District (ISRD) Board, Padden at one point likened the congregate units to the single room occupancy (SROs) hotels and housing in the neighborhood over a century ago.
He had read books about the SROs in Seattle’s CID and understood the historical contexts that created them—which was racially and economically motivated. But they did serve a purpose.
“I got a little bit of a sharp rebuke from the board,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t want to recreate the SROs of the 1910s and 1920s.’ Among the many things we learned, this was a lesson that stood out.”
Overall, though, he described the process of working with the review board as congruent with the guiding principles of his organization—which address “mega trends,” such as sustainability, social equity, and inclusion.
“We approach the process as collaborative,” he said.
The design required revamping around massing, he said.
Originally, the development was a single structure that swept along Jackson Street, appearing as a behemoth relative to the adjoining low-rise buildings. But his team restructured the appearance and design so that now the development appears as two different buildings of different heights, adjoined at the waist.
Additionally, higher, longer windows on upper stories created the appearance of a building that was less forcefully uprising against the low-ceilinged background.
The project also contributes to the community by removing toxic ground soil. Formerly the site of a service station, with storage tanks underground, the project involves removing all the soil down to 15 to 20 feet down, under the structure, and sending it to a processing facility.
A vapor barrier constructed of thick plastic film will be inserted to ward off any fumes from soil in the street—that cannot be excavated.
“Imagine a bathtub,” said Padden.
The “bathtub”—or vapor barrier—will be placed atop crushed gravel. Above that, concrete will be poured. And atop that will be the foundation.
Another feature of the development, which has not been named yet, is that the builder is not required to create or provide parking spaces for tenants.
Padden, in fact, found his niche in 2010 when Seattle created regulations that allowed builders to create apartments and housing without the traditional requirement to provide parking for tenants.
Such developments must be in “urban villages”—such as the CID—and must be near transit.
According to recent high-profile research in sustainable development of cities, it is this “decoupling” of living spaces from the need to create parking that provides hope for climate change, as well as affordable housing (parking spaces create excess heat, and parking garages outnumber housing units 3 to 1 in many cities).
“Seattle loves its International District. And its International District helps define this great city,” said Maiko Winkler-Chin, director of the City of Seattle’s Department of Housing, at the groundbreaking. “This neighborhood needs quality equitable affordable housing for those living in the community now and for those in the future.”
The project will also create a memory space for the Mar family, longtime owners of the property.
“We have entered into an agreement with the Wing Luke Museum to gather historic and cultural materials, identify interpretive themes, and make recommendations to incorporate into the project,” said David Della, principal of Eco-Ready, LLC, who collaborated.
Construction is proceeding apace. HDC received approval from the ISRD board on May 26 after five public meetings. The groundbreaking was on June 17. Last week, Northwest Asian Weekly observed the lot churned up by cranes and construction gear. The project is expected to be completed in 2025.
Padden said he held meetings with dozens of community leaders and learned their desire for more activity on the street.
“The desire to live in the center of Asian culture, that unifies those who will come to live here,” he said.
The site was a service station for 70 years until it closed in 2015.
“It was a cornerstone of the community for a very long time. Pat Abe, in particular, managed it as a nexus for connection among individuals and groups across the communities of Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon,” said Padden. “It is important to us that we acknowledge his legacy.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.