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Speak Up! Urban Development in Belltown

May 9th, 2012 by Seattle Repertory Theatre

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Our current production of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony-nominated Clybourne Park explores issues of race, gentrification, and real estate. And while the play itself may be set in a fictional Chicago neighborhood, we recognize these issues’ relevance to Seattle’s own growth and development.

In an effort to start a conversation about these topics at home, we put together the Speak Up! series, which offers community members the chance to discuss the themes of the play as they relate to Seattle. Each discussion is held after Saturday matinee performances of Clybourne Park at Seattle Rep and features a panel of civic leaders, local academics, and community residents.

One of our Speak Up! panelists, Elizabeth Campbell, President of the Belltown Community Council, volunteered to participate in all three Speak Up! discussions, and was gracious enough to share more of her thoughts on the impact of urban development in Belltown on our blog.

Read on to learn more.

Belltown Community Council President, Elizabeth Campbell, on Urban Development in Belltown

When we talk about gentrification or urban development in its current incarnation, we speak of it as if it were a new phenomenon. Actually, social engineering by creating housing designed to attract one or more specific groups to a neighborhood has long been employed.

Belltown Cottage Park:

In Belltown, three cottages now landmarked as historic remain of 11 built originally in 1916 to be rented to blue collar workers. Located in the middle of what is now the Belltown P-Patch, the cottages were the first dwellings designed to appeal to workers with families. The story of the cottages falling in and out of repair over the years is heartening: overhaul and renovation geared toward preserving the integrity of the original design saved the cottages in the late 1990′s, and the Department of Neighborhood Large Project Funding helped to mitigate, renovate and preserve the exteriors once again last summer. The cottages and the surrounding P-Patch are one example of small-scale urban development that has succeeded in beautifying, preserving history, providing a working amenity to the community and affordable housing for local professional writers.

Balancing the history and culture of a neighborhood like Belltown with the creation of needed and profitable housing for Seattle’s downtown commuters has never been without controversy. During most of the late 20th Century, Belltown was home to warehouses and shipping, but also a thriving community of artists. The creative community has largely shifted to other neighborhoods as eclectic “cheap” housing has given way to 14 story “high security” buildings, and rent prices have climbed dramatically. Some stalwarts have remained as the “old guard” of Belltown. The dismantling of a once tightly knit community resulted in a negative and unintended consequence: housing driven gentrification in Belltown.

As the President of the Belltown Community Council, and the founder of Sustainable Belltown, one of my goals is to attempt to facilitate discussions that might bring the current community together with these artists. The loss of connection with the creative side of Belltown’s “edgy” reputation can still be addressed: possibilities like this provide some incentive for organizers and activists alike. I’m heartened by the Belltown Business Association’s interest in and effort to revive the Belltown Art walk, as a way to begin dialogue between the artists who helped to keep the community alive and the new urban professionals who reside there today.

As a community leader, my goal is always to represent the needs of Belltown’s near 7,000 residents. Proactively creating connections between existing organizations of neighbors and strengthening our community’s voice as we talk with City Departments and City Hall, welcoming and advocating for sustainable small businesses, and supporting the local arts and press are all a part of my work. While remedying some of the missed opportunities of the past and encouraging activism and mindfulness around present work, I try to envision Belltown’s future as providing ample living opportunity to a wide age and socio-economic demographic: with expanded public services and amenities as well as welcoming housing choices for all.





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