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September 30, 2021

Nature and nurture in Renton's Cascade/Benson Hill neighborhood

  • COVID-19 has affected the social and emotional well-being of youth and families in Renton.
    Baylis Architects


    Doug Baldwin wants to give kids a chance to be kids — to experience what he calls “a real childhood.” That’s the vision behind his Family First Community Center, which is expected to break ground later this year on land donated by the Renton School District, adjacent to Cascade Elementary School.

    It is a simple wish in a complicated world.

    “A lot of children nowadays are not growing up in situations where they can experience that,” the former Seahawk wide receiver explains. “Their parents are fighting for survival in a number of different ways and the children are forced to be in situations where they can’t really have a childhood.”


    Baldwin speaks with heart about the years he experienced at the community center where he grew up near Pensacola, Florida — about the center’s empathic approach, the sense of belonging and accountability he felt, and the powerful effect it had on his formation as a man, and a citizen.

    “It created this safe space for me to be me; to be a child, to kind of find myself, and also to some degree to lose myself.”

    Photo courtesy of Baylis Architects [enlarge]
    The Family First Community Center supports city goals of enhancing social equity and resiliency and fostering safe, healthy and cohesive neighborhoods.

    It’s what every kid deserves, and what too many, especially those who are poor, or not white, have too little access to. The Family First Community Center (FFCC) aims to change that. Conceived as a multi-faceted community hub, it is designed to celebrate and support residents’ potential to thrive, by helping families in Renton’s Cascade/Benson Hill area achieve goals in education, fitness and overall health. Half the area’s 23,000 residents are people of color, 20% are 14 or younger and nearly 12% live below the poverty line.

    FFCC is a project of love that addresses neighborhood wellness on a holistic level, brought to life by four partners: Baldwin’s Family First Community Center Foundation; the city of Renton; the Renton School District, with plans for complementary educational and recreational programming; and HealthPoint, which will have a full-service primary care clinic on site.

    FFCC could not come at a better time — unless that time was before the pandemic, which was the original plan. A New York Times article published in June reports that nationally, the number of young people, including children under 13, who need urgent mental health care has been on the rise for years and spiked during the pandemic.

    King County is no exception. The Renton School District Health Profile and the Healthy Youth Survey (2018) show that 20% of Renton students considered suicide and 30% of students experienced frequent depressive feelings in the past 12 months. Both of these indicators are significantly higher than the county average and were reported prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Between March 2020 and June 2021, the county saw a nearly 19% increase in calls to the behavioral health crisis line (King County COVID Dashboard).

    Renton youth are experiencing stress, anxiety, uncertainty and isolation caused by prolonged social distancing, school closures and changes to their daily lives. COVID-19 has affected the social and emotional well-being of youth and families in Renton and has heightened the disparities in resources and services for many youth and families who were already vulnerable.

    Places like FFCC eliminate barriers to meeting mental and physical health needs and provide support and preventative measures that help keep emotional and behavioral health challenges from escalating.


    Healthy bodies, minds and spirits guided the program, uses and relationships in the building, and inspired a kid-friendly, welcoming design informed by biophilic concepts. From a design perspective, the defining challenge of FFCC was twofold: synthesizing the programmatic goals of four major stakeholders and implementing them within a $10.8 million construction budget. Close review of all spaces with each stakeholder helped whittle the space to its most essential functions, keeping the footprint as economical as possible.

    With its two-story gallery flanked by one-story, metal-clad volumes topped with green roofs, the building establishes a strong, inviting presence and neighborhood scale compatible with the nearby elementary school. Prominent sustainable elements, including the green roof, sunshades, community garden, solar panels and daylighting combine with nature-inspired patterns in the building’s siding and fenestration to celebrate nature as an essential nurturing element.

    Accommodating the services of each partner formed the programmatic requirements of the 21,000-square-foot building. The central axis of the building, the Gallery, is the spine connecting each partner to the whole. This wide linear space acts as the central nervous system not just to the building but to the community, providing a space for incidental connections.

    Branching off the Gallery are many elements that support a thriving life — a welcoming lobby where friends can gather, classrooms/maker-spaces that feed young minds and build new skills, a multipurpose space with a demonstration kitchen to support community initiatives, administrative spaces that support the center’s leadership, a neighborhood medical and dental clinic, drop-in childcare for visitors to the center, a dance studio and a fitness room. The Gallery culminates in the facility anchor, the gymnasium.


    Easy and visible access to each part of the center is part of providing “a space where people can feel safe and welcome and seen,” which, says Baldwin, is the central purpose of the Family First Community Center.

    Renton is an example of a city that urgently needs services the FFCC plans to offer, Baldwin says, citing services built around the individual, such as financial literacy and healthy cooking classes.

    “We’re trying to be as thoughtful and empathic as possible to the general population in this area so we can create a bigger return — not for the bottom line but for the health and wellness of the community,” says Baldwin. “If we can prove that concept here, then this center can be a model for other cities across not only the state but the country.”

    Meredith Everist is a principal at Baylis Architects. She is passionate about sustainable design, industry diversity and inclusion and childhood success.

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