Once One of Seattle’s Highest Crime Areas, High Point Has Transformed Into a Thriving, Diverse Community
When West Seattle’s low-income High Point neighborhood was redeveloped more than a decade ago, it was a bold experiment to create a thriving neighborhood of residents from different income and demographic backgrounds.
By Erica C. Barnett October 5, 2017
At first glance, High Point looks a lot like any other master-planned community developed in Seattle around the turn of this century: Modern houses, townhomes and modest condo buildings with Craftsman-style details line narrow, winding streets flanked by pocket parks and planting strips spilling over with wild grasses. A carefully tended P-Patch stands behind a fence constructed from a tree salvaged from the property, and a few steps away, the West Seattle Bee Garden offers information about pollinators and a chance to see a working apiary in action. Ducks and geese paddle across a wide lagoon, and kids ride by on bikes on their way to a large park in the center of the neighborhood.
Look deeper, though, and you’ll learn that nothing at High Point happened by accident. The parks are designed to give kids of all ages access to outdoor open space—the pocket parks, located on every block, give toddlers a place to play just outside their front doors, and the central park gives older kids a safe place to hang out close to home. The lagoon is actually the centerpiece of the first large-scale natural drainage system in the Pacific Northwest, diverting 80 percent of the stormwater runoff that would ordinarily flow into Longfellow Creek. And those meadow-like plantings have a purpose as well—they’ve been placed in artificial swales to capture rainwater and allow it to filter slowly into the ground.
Photograph by John Vicory. Pocket playgrounds are located near housing.
But the most important intentional aspect of High Point is who lives there. High Point’s residents are a carefully calibrated mix of people of many different incomes, from senior citizens living on Social Security to upper-middle-class homeowners who prefer to live in a diverse community. Of roughly 1,500 units of homeowner and rental housing, about half are low-income and half are for rent or sale at market rates. This is very much by design: High Point is the last in a series of projects built in Seattle as part of the federal Clinton-era HOPE VI program, which aimed to remove the stigma associated with public-housing projects by redeveloping them into mixed-income communities, in accordance with the grand social theory that both rich and poor benefit from living together in the same neighborhoods and sharing the same libraries, parks and community centers.
Today, more than a decade after many residents moved into the redeveloped High Point, the experiment appears to be a success. And the lessons learned here are reflected in the ongoing redevelopment of (and debate over) Yesler Terrace, a compact complex of low-rise apartments nestled on 30 acres between downtown and the Central District. The new Yesler Terrace, which is being built under a HOPE VI successor program called Choice Neighborhoods, will be denser than High Point, include about 3,500 units of market-rate housing (compared to High Point’s 800), and have 88,000 square feet of retail space and 900,000 square feet of office space when redevelopment is completed in about a decade.
High Point master planner Brian Sullivan, who now runs the firm Community + Housing Consulting, says the new Yesler Terrace will reflect many of the same principles in place at High Point, including streets that integrate into the existing grid, a central park surrounded by many satellite parklets and green features such as a solar hot water system in a community building and rainwater collection.
Photograph by John Vicory. Pea patches and the West Seattle Bee Garden are among the amenities available to High Point residents.
High Point actually is the highest point in the city (at 520 feet, about 70 feet higher than either Queen Anne or Capitol Hill), and from its position above the West Seattle Golf Course and Camp Long, it has offered sweeping views of downtown Seattle ever since the area was developed in 1942.
More recent is the community’s status as a place where homeowners who can afford to live just about anywhere choose to put down roots. High Point began during World War II as housing for men who worked for companies that contributed to the war effort, like Boeing, together with their families. Starting in 1951, it was converted into housing for low-income families. Minimum rents for the one-, two- and three-bedroom duplexes that sprawled across High Point’s 120 acres ranged from $13 (for a 473-square-foot one-bedroom) to $20 (for a 738-square-foot three-bedroom), according a Seattle Daily Times article from 1955.
By the 1970s, however, High Point had fallen on hard times, with gang activity rampant and many units unoccupied, thanks in part to a Nixon administration that drastically cut funds for public-housing maintenance. In 1973, the federal government agreed to enlarge some of the units and tear down others, creating private yards and giving the area a more suburban feel. But by the late 1980s, gunfire was commonplace at High Point, with rival gangs migrating to West Seattle in response to police crackdowns elsewhere in the city.
Finally, in 2000, the federal government pledged $35 million in HOPE VI program dollars to redevelop the project, demolishing all 716 units of the very low-income housing that made up the original High Point; Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) pledged to replace them with new, improved units for low-income and very low-income tenants, along with nearly 800 units of market-rate housing and 56 units for low-income homebuyers. In redeveloping High Point, SHA wanted to ensure that everyone who was very low-income had a right to return if they wanted to, or to move elsewhere in the city (and many have), either to other SHA properties or to private rental housing using Section 8 vouchers.
Jamila Johnson, an attorney who grew up across the street from High Point before it was redeveloped, and who eventually bought a market-rate condo in the new development, describes the old High Point as “a place that Godfather’s Pizza wouldn’t deliver to, that people wouldn’t come to visit, and that the outside world was generally terrified of. You would hear gunshots frequently; there were people you knew who would get injured. It was, if not Seattle’s worst crime area, one of the worst.”
Today, that once isolated neighborhood—whose previous layout is described by master planner Sullivan as a “plate of spaghetti”—is reconnected to rest of Seattle, both physically and economically.
“At High Point, we have salt-and-pepper neighborhoods,” Sullivan says. “Instead of putting all the low-income people over there and all the people buying houses over here, we consciously mixed them up,” with blocks interspersed with public housing and market-rate housing. “When you have people in different stages of their life and at different income levels living side by side, that helps toward a better understanding, rather than having this prejudice about low-income people,” he says.
And while one early question about High Point was whether the privately owned homes that were in a mixed-income community would keep their value, that’s no longer a concern. Data from Seattle-based real estate marketplace Zillow indicates that home values in High Point have risen right along with Seattle as a whole; some High Point homes have been listed at around $575,000.
Max Vekich, a longtime West Seattleite and a leader in the local longshoremen’s union, bought into the mixed-community theory when he purchased his condo at High Point for $375,000 back in 2006. “I liked the idea of a mixed community with some ownership, some rentals and some subsidized housing.” Vekich started out planning to buy a townhouse, but was convinced by some neighborhood kids to look at the condo where he and his wife, Marcee Stone-Vekich, still live today. “They walked by and said, ‘Mister, what are you looking for?’ and I said, ‘What do you guys think is a good place to live?’ They told me, ‘We’ve played in every one of these buildings, and those condos have the best view,’ and they were right.”
Megan Bissonette lives with her partner and two children in the same unit she first rented 13 years ago, when the new High Point first opened. Bissonette moved to High Point from transitional housing in Redmond. She says the neighborhood, including the homeowners who live across the street, have always been “very welcoming…I just feel like there’s a mutual respect among the residents here.” Vekich agrees that “there’s a good sense of community that has persisted” in the neighborhood.
High Point, like many neighborhoods where affordable housing is abundant, has seen some dramatic shifts in its short time as a mixed-income community. Johnson says that when she was growing up, most kids played basketball and rode their bikes in the street; today, it’s much more common to see kids playing soccer, which is popular among the East African immigrants who make up much of the community.
Photograph by John Vicory. High Point master planner Brian Sullivan says many of High Point’s design principles will be reflected in Yesler Terrace, currently under redevelopment.
Of the 700 households that participated in SHA’s relocation process, according to the agency, 144 stayed at High Point during its reconfiguration or came back later; the rest are new renters and homeowners. About 11 percent of the renter population turns over every year. “Today, you have a large Somali population; in earlier years, it was Vietnamese, Hispanic, Cambodian and African-American,” Sullivan says. “These are normal cycles, but they don’t seem normal in the immediate time frame. People have asked, ‘Why don’t we have Somali focus groups to design what kind of outdoor spaces to have for them?’ and my argument has been, ‘No, because the populations will change over time. You have to respect all the communities, but not be so tight in your design that it can’t grow and change as the community changes.”
One thing that hasn’t changed about High Point is its focus on families; more than other SHA developments, High Point is designed for families of every size; almost all of the homeowner condos and all of the houses have two or more bedrooms, and more than half of the rental units have three bedrooms or more, including 45 units with four bedrooms or more.
Although Johnson says today’s High Point has nowhere near the number of children it did when she was growing up—“My memory was that three out of every four people in High Point were children,” she says—SHA estimates that 1,400 children live in High Point’s 1,529 units. Sullivan also points to a number of features—from narrow, traffic-calming streets to “Breathe Easy” homes (see below), constructed using processes and materials designed to reduce the risk of asthma attacks—incorporated to make High Point a safe place for kids.
High Point still has its challenges. The neighborhood is located in a “food desert,” with the nearest grocery store, the West Seattle Thriftway, located a mile away. Public transportation consists of the bus routes that run along SW Morgan Street and 35th Avenue SW, which are quite a schlep from the far corners of the community and can be unreliable; a monorail that was supposed to serve High Point was voted down in 2005, and the nearest RapidRide line won’t open until 2020 at the earliest.
Bissonette says the lack of a nearby grocery became a hardship in 2008, when a record-breaking storm dumped more than a foot of snow in the Seattle area, forcing residents to rely on a nearby drugstore for basic supplies. “We were pretty much living out of the Walgreen’s, food-wise, and they ran out of milk and eggs,” Bissonette says. Before she got a car, she recalls, “there were many times we had to take the bus to get to Safeway or Thriftway.” In a tacit nod to the lack of transit access in the area, SHA designed High Point with plenty of parking.
Johnson recently relocated to New Orleans, reluctantly leaving the neighborhood she spent so many years watching grow and change. Today, she considers the HOPE VI experiment a success, if for no other reason, she jokes, than “Amazon Prime delivers there now.” She didn’t choose to grow up in the neighborhood, where her mother still lives, but she loved her time there. “That neighborhood shaped a lot of who I am.”
Total Residential Units: 1,529
Market-Rate Privately Owned Houses: 538
Affordable-Rate Privately Owned Homes: 56
Market-Rate Rental Apartments: 104
Affordable Rental Housing: 250
Public (very low-income) housing: 350
Market-Rate Senior Housing (rental): 156
Low-Income Senior Housing (rental): 75
20 acres of parks, open space and playgrounds
4-acre central park
Pond, jogging trail and pocket parks
High Point includes 60 homes dubbed “Breathe Easy” because they were built with a goal of minimizing risk factors associated with the development of asthma.
While all High Point homes include features like low-off-gas vinyl flooring and whole-house fans to remove moisture, Breathe Easy homes include many other features such as ventilation systems with air filtering, HEPA filter vacuums to remove allergens and linoleum flooring in many rooms.
A study done on some original Breathe Easy home residents found that children with asthma who moved into Breathe Easy homes showed significant improvement of their asthma symptoms; they experienced 63 percent more symptom-free days than before moving into the homes, and also had improved lung functioning. As a result, quality of life improved for the children and their families, with fewer missed workdays and school days, increased exercise and outdoor activities and lower medical costs.