Laying the Groundwork

Moving towards "renewal"

Although Seattle's Urban Renewal Program officially began in 1957, the groundwork for the potential of a such a program started years earlier.

Planning Commission photo, "Beginning of Blight" 933 N. 88th St, April 1950
Planning Commission photo,
"Beginning of Blight"
933 N. 88th St, April 1950
Box 1, Folder 2, Series 1650-14

From the time it was established in 1930, Seattle's Planning Commission completed numerous studies evaluating existing conditions and trends related to topics such as population, land use, zoning, traffic flow, and street classifications. By the early 1950s, the  commission was also investigating evidence of "blight" in Seattle. Generally defined, a "blighted area" was one that was unsightly and unhealthy due to substandard housing and unsanitary living conditions. Programs of "urban redevelopment" beginning to take root in cities around the country in the early to mid 1940s were intended to combat blight by clearing and redeveloping such areas through the power of eminent domain. As early as 1948, the Planning Commission, together with the Law Department, drafted proposed state legislation that would enable the cities in the state to undertake similar clearance and redevelopment programs. Letters to the mayor from groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Real Estate Board expressed support.

Letter of support from the Civic Unity Committee of Seattle, 1956
Letter of support from the Civic
Unity Committee of Seattle, 1956
Clerk File 229693

The federal housing acts of 1949 and 1954 provided the foundation of federal financing for so-called "slum clearance" associated with urban redevelopment programs, later called urban renewal. The Planning Commission began conducting pilot studies on the quality of housing in Seattle to investigate "blighted and deteriorating areas" and determine, "in a general way, those residential areas which require some form of urban renewal." Before Seattle could participate in the federal urban renewal program, however, Washington State had to pass enabling legislation authorizing municipalities in the state to apply. Local community groups such as the Jackson Street Council and the Civic Unity Committee of Seattle endorsed the drafting of this legislation and urged the city to begin preparing urban renewal plans to be ready to apply for federal funds when available.

Washington State's Urban Renewal Law was eventually passed and signed into law in March 1957. It enabled municipalities in the state to participate in the federal urban renewal program, authorizing them to:

  • declare the existence of blighted areas and designate them as appropriate for an urban renewal program
  • supply funds, services, facilities, etc. to aid urban renewal projects
  • dispose of property with restrictions to prevent future blight
  • acquire property through the power of eminent domain; issue revenue and general obligation bonds
  • levy taxes and make assessments
  • provide for an urban renewal agency and define its powers

In addition, cities were required to have:

  • adequate local codes and ordinances
  • a comprehensive plan for guiding community development
  • analyses of blighted neighborhoods to determine treatment needed
  • adequate administrative organization to carry out the program
  • the ability to meet financial requirements
  • responsibility for adequately rehousing displaced families
  • ability to provide opportunities for citizen participation

If they met these requirements, cities could qualify for the two basic federal tools: technical assistance and financial support. 

A lengthy explanation of what constituted a "blighted area" was also included within the state Urban Renewal Law, giving cities a legal definition by which they could assess neighborhoods and potentially qualify for the program. Elements of blight as defined in the law included: a densely populated area with structures that were deemed dilapidated; inappropriate mixed uses of land or buildings; "defective or inadequate" street layouts; "diversity of ownership"; or other "insanitary or unsafe conditions" contributing to an area that "substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the city or its environs, retards the provision of housing accommodations or constitutes an economic or social liability, and/or is detrimental...to the public health, safety, welfare, and morals in its present use and condition." 

In June of 1957, City Council asked the Planning Commission to officially investigate and report on the existence of blighted conditions in Seattle, specifically for the purpose of applying for federal urban renewal funds. The commission's report, submitted in August, confirmed the existence of blight in Seattle as defined by the state law, and outlined suggestions for developing a workable program to counteract it. The following month, City Council passed Ordinance 86463 confirming the existence of blight in the city as defined by the Urban Renewal Law, and that "rehabilitation, redevelopment, or a combination thereof" was necessary. 

Seattle's Urban Renewal Program

In December 1957, City Council passed Ordinance 86767, authorizing Mayor Clinton to appoint an urban renewal coordinator, as well as a citizens' advisory committee to assist with urban renewal planning, as required by federal law. The ordinance also established an official Advisory Board on Urban Renewal, composed of City officials such as the Superintendent of Buildings, the Director of Planning, the Director of Public Health and the City Engineer, as well as the Executive Secretary of the Seattle Housing Authority.

Soon after it was established, the citizen's advisory committee decided that they could more effectively promote the urban renewal program as in independent action group with its own funds and staff, while still serving an advisory function. The group incorporated as the Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprise (SURE) in November 1958. SURE's goals were to work with the City in developing the urban renewal program, provide a liaison between the city and residents, promote fundraising, help coordinate efforts to secure federal funding, and raise awareness in the city about the need for urban renewal.

Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprise Office, 114 21st Ave, 1960
Seattle Urban Renewal Enterprise
Office, 114 21st Ave, 1960
Image 63671, Record Series 2613-07

Talbot Wegg was appointed as the city's first urban renewal coordinator on a half-time basis. His initial task was to coordinate the creation of a "workable program" which would outline the city's urban renewal needs, plans, and goals. This document was required by Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to be eligible for federal funds and would essentially serve as Seattle's blueprint for urban renewal activities. As required, the city's workable program would be updated annually to report additional objectives and activities, and newly submitted to HUD each year. During this time, work was also progressing on drafting a Minimum Housing Code, which was another prerequisite to receiving federal assistance for urban renewal. 

In July 1958, Wegg submitted the city's first workable program for approval by the Mayor and City Council. In it, he claimed "there are clearly evident symptoms of blight, the municipal cancer which afflicts every city to a greater or lesser degree. Urban renewal, the proven remedy, is indicated." The plan described existing relevant city codes, such as building, fire prevention, electrical, and plumbing codes, and argued that those codes, coupled with the city's new comprehensive plan, Planning Commission work, Council and community support, and already existing neighborhood and land use studies gave Seattle a strong foundation for effectively carrying out the work of urban renewal.

Front cover of Seattle's first Workable Program, 1958
Front cover of Seattle's first
Workable Program, 1958
Clerk File 234996

Renewal projects were generally defined by three types of action: conservation, rehabilitation, and redevelopment. Conservation was seen as a "preventative program" largely carried out through the enforcement of codes and ordinances. Rehabilitation combined conservation with "spot clearance," often supplemented with improvements to public facilities such as schools, streets, and playgrounds. Redevelopment, involving the acquisition, clearance, and resale of land for private development, was meant to only be used in areas of extensive blight. The plan quantified Seattle's blighted areas as covering 219.37 acres. 172.06 acres were determined to be "near blighted areas," 261.22 acres were "areas of arrested development," and 813.94 total acres were considered "conservation areas." Thus, it estimated that Seattle's urban renewal "prescription" would be comprised of 15% redevelopment, 30% rehabilitation, and 55% conservation.

In the plan, blight in the city was attributed to two main causes - a lack of regulatory measures and "incompatible land use" - both of which, according to the plan, had developed unchecked over the previous 50 years and could have been avoided if a "proper" zoning ordinance and a minimum housing code had been in place during that time. Without citing numbers or specific evidence, the plan acknowledged that "the non-white population probably occupies a disproportionate share of substandard housing." Although redlining and racial covenants were common practice in Seattle during this time, and open housing legislation did not yet exist nationally nor in Seattle, the plan also claimed, "There is evidence to substantiate the belief that non-whites in Seattle have more freedom of choice for housing than in older cities and that any relocation problems resulting from redevelopment may therefore be minimized." Until 1968, it was legal to discriminate against minorities in Seattle when renting apartments or selling real estate (see our exhibit on the Seattle Open Housing Campaign for more information). 

In June 1958, the part-time urban renewal program position was expanded to full-time and additional staff were hired. 

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