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By Clair Enlow

May 4, 2016

Design Perspectives: New paths and parks make Yesler Terrace shine

Special to the Journal

Yesler Terrace is rising, but not too high.

In July, Vulcan Real Estate will break ground on the first of three seven-story apartment buildings. Over the next five years, Vulcan will bring over 600 new market-rate units to the neighborhood, all settled around an attractive new network of walkable streets and paved pathways.

This is a big step for Seattle Housing Authority's Yesler Terrace, a huge expanse of two-story public housing on First Hill that was developed in the World War II era.

And it's a new approach for Vulcan, better known for mid- and high-rise projects in booming South Lake Union. Sale of the central Yesler Terrace site to Vulcan for the apartments closed in January.

Vulcan's Lori Mason Curran sums up the reasons her company is there. “The views will be really quite extraordinary — south and west over Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, city views,” she said. “It's close to downtown. Walk to work. The streetcar stops right in front, going to Broadway and the International District.”

Renderings show Vulcan's apartments — designed by Runberg Architecture Group — will look rather straightened in style. But they'll be very neighborly, according to Mason Curran, clustered around courtyards that open to a plaza on the public right-of-way.

Image by Site Workshop [enlarge]
This plan shows a clear way through Yesler Terrace, as well as a pedestrian pathway around the center.

Image by Site Workshop [enlarge]
This rendering shows the future Yesler Park, with a soccer court in the foreground, a public plaza at the top and a grand pedestrian spine stepping down the middle of the sloping site to South Washington Street.

Vulcan will go even further, with a community kitchen at the plaza level. Occasionally, she said, apartment management will reach out to the entire community for events there.

New zoning for Yesler Terrace allows high-rise buildings. The idea behind the upzone was to optimize the sales price of the lots, and help offset the cost of low-income housing.

But Vulcan opted for low-rise instead. The 5-over-2 wood-frame construction pencils out for moderately priced market-rate units, a model that seemed right for the location, Mason Curran said. The 195 units in the current project include 39 set-aside for households earning between 65 and 80 percent of median income.

End of an era

Other public housing in the city has seen mixed-income redevelopment — Yesler Terrace is the latest. The old project was laid out on the south shoulder of First Hill like a suburban development, with rows of two-story clapboard units and mini-yards on outsized blocks. It's been a world unto itself, an enclave with no clear way out except on busy Yesler Way, and no reason to go in if you are not a resident.

That has already changed, beginning with the historic Steam Plant, an industrial relic with a landmark stack, that has been preserved and converted into Epstein Opportunity Center, with classrooms, offices and services.

The First Hill streetcar now winds through the middle of Yesler Terrace, connecting it to Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill and the rest of Seattle. Public art is visible around the recently developed community center, where Broadway meets Yesler Way. There are plans to activate the street with an “art truck” (mobile art studio) and other grant-financed projects.

Food trucks already congregate in the middle of the day on one of the redevelopment sites. On the hillside near Interstate 5 and facing Seattle, a consortium of agriculture activists has come together to convert vacant land for urban farming. Seattle Housing Authority's Mark Hinshaw said an off-leash area is planned.

The basic idea of the redevelopment is to replace as many low-income housing units (561, to be exact) as there were before, while transforming Yesler Terrace into an urban place that is more dense, more diverse and more like a city neighborhood.

SHA's Tom Eanes said the project has kept pace with the goals for replacing public housing, with 201 units open so far, in four projects.

Perhaps the most prominent is Kebero Court, designed by GGLO, that rises colorfully on the northeast corner of Boren Avenue and Yesler Way. In the heart of the new neighborhood is Raven Terrace, designed by Weber Thompson, a low courtyard complex settled on the slope next to the emerging East Ninth Avenue pedestrian corridor.

Coming soon are Hoa Mai Gardens, designed by SMR Architects, along the southern edge of Yesler Terrace near South Jackson Street, and Red Cedar, designed by SRG Partnership and Pyatok Architects, at East Fir Street and Broadway.

Inviting walkways

But the most important changes at Yesler Terrace are on the ground. A modified street grid breaks up large blocks and puts a connected ring of inviting walkways at the center.

Going through Yesler Terrace may be even more important than walking around it. A grand sloping pathway — part street and part walkway — now goes all the way through the heart. It starts at Harborview Medical Center on the northwest and gracefully steps down to Jackson Street below the hill on the southeast. The path threads behind Epstein Opportunity Center, crosses Yesler and then steps grandly down the middle of Yesler Park, now in the first phases of construction.

Image by Runberg Architecture Group [enlarge]
Vulcan Real Estate will build the first market-rate housing in Yesler Terrace.

In the completed park, it will pass Yesler Community Center, a sweeping lawn and lots of places for active recreation.

Among those is Soccer Spot, a practice area sponsored by a nonprofit arm of Seattle Sounders. There's a play space for young children, and a spray area with public art and water jets for them to get wet on hot days. Plaza seating is nearby.

Smaller pocket parks will be dotted around the area. Yesler Park was designed by Site Workshop.

(Editor's note: This column has been changed to reflect that not all the parks in Yesler Terrace are designed by Site Workshop. )

There is even a new drivable street, called South Washington Street, now rounding the hillside, making a nice edge on Yesler Park and completing the new Yesler Terrace grid.

Finally, the pathway created by the remade East Ninth Avenue will continue across South Washington Street to the south of Yesler Park, winding its way through new housing to the base of the hill at Jackson Street.

This is perhaps the most important connection of all, linking the new Yesler Terrace neighborhood with Little Saigon, an extension of the International District at the base of First Hill. That connection is clinched with a zig-zag paved walkway called the 10th Avenue South Hillclimb, which opens to the public this month. It's quite a walk.


Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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