Evolution of Urban Renewal

An Evolving Program

As Seattle's urban renewal program continued throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, the annual workable programs prepared by the city show a growing emphasis on community participation and support. Partly as an effort to increase citizen support and involvement in urban renewal projects, SURE reorganized into the Seattle Planning and Redevelopment Council (SPARC) in September 1966. As described in a 1967 Workable Program progress report, SPARC's goal was to "extend and maintain an effective information network with citizen groups and organizations which are interested in planning and redevelopment of the city." Individual SPARC committees were formed for each project area, focused on supporting resident participation and providing relocation assistance. In addition, the newly formed regional Forward Thrust Committee, whose non-partisan, citizen membership successfully pushed for the passage of capital improvement bond measures in 1968 and 1970, was enlisted by the city to assist with urban renewal program goals in an advisory capacity.

Seattle Model Cities logo, 1968
Seattle Model Cities logo, 1968
Box 1, Folder 22, Record Series 5400-03

In 1966, Congress passed legislation establishing the Model Cities Program. Model Cities was an effort at reformed urban renewal, intended to combat urban poverty and blight through improved coordination of existing urban renewal programs, with an emphasis on citizen involvement and social services. Also administered through HUD, the program was available for eligible cities to receive funding towards projects in designated neighborhoods.

Seattle's Model Cities grant application defined the Model Neighborhood as the Central Area, Pioneer Square, and the International District. The population of this geographical area comprised about 10 percent of the city's population and about 61% of the city's non-white population. The initial application stated, "Seattle is a city which is still short of the crisis situation of the older urban centers. The Model neighborhood is in the initial stages of decay, not the final stages. It is because we do still have time that we have developed the sense of urgency to attack our problems now." The application also explained that the Model Cities program offered "more promise of significant achievement in securing the goal of the workable program than any other tool available."

Signing of contract between Health Advisory Board and Odessa Brown Clinic, 1970
Signing of contract between Health Advisory
Board and Odessa Brown Clinic, 1970
Image 77412, Record Series 5412-03

In 1968, HUD announced that Seattle would be the first city to receive federal funds under the program. The program was expanded in 1971 with three additional neighborhoods added: north Seattle, southeast Seattle, and southwest Seattle. Programs and services funded under Model Cities included the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, Black Arts/West, El Centro de la Raza, and Seattle Career Opportunity Program-Education (SCOPE). Funding also went to support youth recreation, consumer protection, addiction recovery, legal and relocation services, mental health, and environmental clean-up initiatives. Improvements such as new bus shelters, improved lighting and streets, and renovated playgrounds and recreation facilities were also included. Seattle's Model Cities funding ended in 1974, although many projects continued under community organizations, larger institutions, City agencies, and other governmental entities.

CAMP worker interviewing resident about the Model Cities cleanup project
CAMP worker interviewing resident about the
Model Cities cleanup project
Image 69317, Record Series 5412-03

In early 1973, as the city prepared to submit a new survey and planning application for the Mann Minor area, officials learned from HUD that funding for existing urban renewal projects was scarce and already spread thin, and that applying to fund a new project would not be worth the effort. In February, Councilmember John R. Miller proposed setting aside $5 million from federal revenue sharing funds to establish a capital revolving fund for housing rehabilitation. The funds would be used to focus on "those areas which have demonstrated the greatest need and desire for rehabilitation and have been or are being largely ignored by federal housing assistance." It called for a coordinated private-public partnership to target neighborhoods for rehabilitation funding, focused on local resident participation and "sensitive code enforcement," with loans administered through a chartered neighborhood corporation. A six-month pilot housing rehabilitation program in partnership with the Seattle Housing Authority was authorized in April 1974, eventually becoming the Neighborhood Housing Rehabilitation Program and supporting projects in the Mount Baker and Mann Minor/Madrona neighborhoods.

Legacy of Urban Renewal

In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act, ending the Urban Renewal and Model Cities programs and creating the Community Development Block Grant Program as a new effort to support locally administered rehabilitation and social service projects.

Notice of public hearing on Pike Place Market project, 1969
Notice of public hearing on
Pike Place Market project, 1969
Record Series 1628-01

Although plans for urban renewal projects were often modified versions of what was originally envisioned, for the most part the projects in Seattle were implemented. One notable exception was the urban renewal plan for Pike Place Project, which called for demolishing the Market and replacing it with high-rise buildings and a 7-story parking garage. The plan had the support of the Mayor, City Council, and the business community, but citizens across the city rose in opposition. A group called Friends of the Market was formed and sponsored an initiative to establish a historic district around the Market, ensuring it would be rehabilitated and preserved. The initiative passed by a 3-to-2 margin.

The effects of the urban renewal program in Seattle have been long lasting. The program funded infrastructure improvements in project areas, such as underground wiring, street and sewer improvements, traffic signals, and bus shelters. It also funded the development of new parks and the rehabilitation of existing park facilities, led to the construction of new fire stations, and created new housing projects. For example, Operation Breakthrough's multifamily housing project and the Kawabe Memorial House, both in the Yesler-Atlantic area, collectively provided over 200 new residential units for various income levels. However, an estimated 500-plus families and businesses were displaced by urban renewal projects in the city, and many more were displaced through code enforcement.

In Seattle, as in cities across the U.S., urban renewal's stated goals to improve housing and revitalize neighborhoods did not fully materialize. A report published in 1984 by Seattle's Department of Community Development on the disposition of land still owned by the city in the Yesler-Atlantic project area acknowledged that the original project's promises of "substantial public and private housing development" had been "slow to develop," and that the project had "failed to meet many of its objectives." Another department report in 1981 evaluating the background of housing, population, and land use in the Central Area pointed to urban renewal as a direct contributing factor to that area's overall decline in available housing. Rather than improve and build housing, the report stated, demolishing buildings under the program mainly resulted in "the accumulation of vacant land, since almost no new structures replaced those destroyed." 

As recently as July 2021, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church called on the City to redress the harm done through the forced acquisition of the church's property for urban renewal in the Yesler-Atlantic area. The following month, City Council passed Resolution 32015, condemning the displacement caused by the project, apologizing for the harm done, and urging "all City Departments to make reparation for that injustice." 

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