Yesler Terrace: Retrofit or redevelop?

Seattle Housing Authority

Retrofitting urban infill buildings makes sense when you consider the economics and the amount of carbon produced from a new development. What I found interesting is the Leavitt article where Liz Dunn of Dunn & Hobbes talks about retrofitting low density rather than higher density redevelopment. I was curious how this strategy would apply to Yesler Terrace, a seventy year old low density public housing project that is planning high density redevelopment.

Liz Dunn’s argument for retrofitting low-density urban areas directly contradicts Edward Glaeser. He argues in favor of redevelopment of low density urban areas to high density for the purpose of keeping housing prices affordable in the most desirable cities. She counters by asking why neighborhoods should be torn down in desirable cities that already have established successful lower density neighborhoods? Success in this case is measured from a financial and social perspective. Does this logic include housing developments like Yesler Terrace?

Yesler Terrace is the oldest, public housing in the city of Seattle. It is centrally located on First Hill, which is adjacent to downtown, Harborview Medical Center, the International District, and Seattle University. Currently, Yesler has 561 units located on 30 acres with 18.7 units per acre. Unfortunately, existing conditions of Yesler are less than desirable, including home to vermin. In contrast, the proposed redevelopment would jump to 5,000 units. This increase jumps the units per acre to 166.67, assuming that redevelopment covers the same 30 acres.

There might be significant reasons for pushing for a Yesler Terrace redevelopment as opposed to a retrofit. It’s decrepit conditions may be so severe that, as chapter 5 of Carbon Efficient City suggests, “buildings so dilapidated suffer structurally making them some of the most difficult candidates for reuse or retrofit.” This building is probably at or past the “difficult” stage. Another point is that Yesler was built at the time of WWII as workforce housing. These buildings were typically erected quickly, cheaply, and presumably past it’s intended life span. Additionally, Yesler has received over $10 million in additional funding from HUD, making the cost for redevelopment more economical. Lastly, Yesler’s location probably has a higher land value due to its central location.

In conclusion, I am in favor of a general strategy of retrofitting low density instead of redevelopment of low density into high density. This strategy will work particularly well in lower density neighborhoods in desirable cities that are economically and socially successful. But, when buildings like Yesler Terrace are in such disrepair to be considered difficult candidates for reuse or retrofit, then redevelopment should be considered and have increased density to reflect the higher land value and character of the neighborhood.

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One thought on “Yesler Terrace: Retrofit or redevelop?

  1. Yesler Terrace is such an interesting example to me. For those of you doing the real estate studio this quarter, you should ask Al Levine about this, since he is intimately familiar with all the details of this project (it’s his day job at SHA).

    I may be putting words into his mouth, but I think he would say the benefits of redevelopment far outweigh the costs in this case. This is not an instance of tearing down an old building and replacing it with a similar, slightly larger new building. This is a case of redesigning and redeveloping an entire urban neighborhood under smart growth/sustainable design principles. Even if the overall carbon output per resident is greater, there are other aspects of sustainability that should be considered — on the human side, Yesler will not only become a finer grained, functioning, mixed-use/mixed-income, urban neighborhood, there will be a substantial increase in low-income units.

    This is not to say there is no controversy with the project, e.g. with the temporary displacement of residents. Yet, letting our justified fears about climate change derail all transformative real estate projects would grant credence to the view that environmentalism is nothing but reactionary, misanthropic disillusionment.

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