Dubbed Rat City by its northern neighbor, White Center has long been Seattle's stepchild. Its one-story ranch houses are typically surrounded by chain-link fencing, and sidewalks are a luxury. Spanish is spoken more than English, and nearly half the residents aren't white but Latino, Samoan, Bosnian, East African, and Asian. The main commercial strip—a hodgepodge of smoke shops, pawnshops, and adult video stores that give way to pho joints, taquerias, and one very popular Salvadoran bakery—feels more inner city than county outpost. It's an area of above-average crime where, in one recent incident, a woman bit off her ex-boyfriend's lower lip during a spat at a halfway house.
The origin of the neighborhood's rodent-related nickname, which is widely used, is the source of some debate. One theory is simply that there was a prolific rat problem in the working-class borough during World War II. Another is that "rat" was taken from an acronym that classified Seattle as Restricted Alcohol Territory. Local lore says the servicemen who went to unincorporated White Center for the sauce called it Rat City. Whatever the source of its moniker, White Center is an unincorporated accident, part of a 6-square-mile smudge that King County Executive Ron Sims has been trying to unload for more than a decade. He says the county just doesn't have the tax base necessary to serve such a needy neighborhood. Until recently, White Center had no takers.
But now, everyone's scrounging for a piece of it, and no one more doggedly than Mayor Greg Nickels. For reasons that seem conscientious, calculated, or merely sentimental, depending on whom you ask, Nickels now wants to fold Rat City into the big city, bringing White Center into the official, loving embrace of Seattle. He's declared this goal a top priority during the remaining two years of his second term.
Nickels' campaign is being met with suspicion and resistance in many camps: White Center residents, competing cities, and recalcitrant state lawmakers who have been so far unwilling to give Seattle a tax refund it would need to digest the new hood. In the coming weeks, Peter Steinbrueck—the retiring City Council member and outspoken critic of the mayor who is widely thought to be planning a run against Nickels—will try to use a council vote to take the mayor's annexation option off the table.
The struggle over White Center is now shaping up to be as bruising as the battle royal over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and with some of the same grudges.
Just as when that first yuppie couple moves to your block, Seattle ownership of White Center will gentrify the neighborhood and propel property values up, Steinbrueck contends. "It will drive the low-income people out. People who think it will help the community are misguided."
"It's not an attempt to try and change the neighborhood," Nickels retorts. "We want to provide a higher level of services."
That can't come soon enough for Sims. When he talks about the neighborhood, the normally affable Sims grows agitated, almost breathless. "We can't sustain the service levels there. We can't. We can't," he says. He likens the county's limited spending in White Center to throwing a life ring out halfway: "You drown nonetheless."
The county has state law on its side. The 1990 Growth Management Act, which sets rules for curbing sprawl and strengthening urban planning, says cities, not counties, should be adopting unincorporated areas like White Center, and should do so by 2012. The act gives the county cover for cutting services, which Sims says is happening on a broad scale today and may become worse over the next few years.
Of the nine remaining unincorporated areas in King County, the one that the county calls North Highline (which includes White Center) is by far the biggest drain on Sims' coffers. This year King County will shell out $14.4 million for services like police, health care, and parks, and receive only $4.7 million in revenues—a deficit of nearly $10 million. (While none of the areas supported by the county are "profitable," the others operate at much smaller deficits of a few hundred thousand to a couple of million dollars.) It doesn't help that North Highline has by far the county's lowest median income, less than $40,000 annually per household, according to 2000 census figures.
Sims remembers trying to generate interest for annexation in the late 1990s, but says the city was already becoming preoccupied with redeveloping existing neighborhoods like South Lake Union. White Center as it exists today is no accident: "It's there by design," he says. (A phrase he repeats three times during a half-hour interview.) "People had been ignoring it for a long time."
Like any owner readying a shabby treasure for auction, the county has spent years prettying up the place to make it more desirable. Sidewalks were added in the business district, and most important, the county secured a grant from the feds to raze and revamp a sprawling housing project called Park Lake. The 95-acre development (now called Greenbridge) is the first thing you see coming up the hill from Seattle on Southwest Roxbury Street, a sort of welcome mat to a neighborhood in transition.
What was once a dilapidated ghetto is now a shiny collection of crayon-colored, energy-efficient homes complete with sidewalks, front yards, and matching fences. So far, more than 500 former residents have moved back into their new homes. Construction continues across the street on phase two. Farther south, however, a version of the old Park Lake still exists, a depressing collection of low-slung, paint-chipped ramblers gathered in a valley, surrounded by chain fencing. (The county will continue to run the properties controlled by its housing authority, even if they become part of Seattle.)
As always in Seattle's neighborhood battles, some believe the government is making improvements in order to push out the poor, and some believe that by attempting to accommodate the poor, the government is dumping on the neighborhood.
Liz Giba, a 33-year White Center resident and vice president of the Unincorporated Area Council, an advisory group to the county, is in the latter group. She was elected to the council as part of a well-organized effort that systematically rid the body of all pro-Seattle members over the past couple of years. Giba, who owns a home there, believes Nickels is coveting North Highline as a place to stash more low-income and affordable housing while developers in Seattle fill the city with high-end condos.
"We already have a high concentration of social services," she says. "It's bad public policy. What you do then is create poor neighborhoods." She says White Center doesn't have economic diversity today, "it has diverse poverty."
She's animated, almost fuming: "We're talking about a neighborhood that deserves more respect than it gets. Now it seems like a resource. We're being seen for our land....I'm not saying we don't want anybody else. I just don't want our community used." Giba's group favors a plan in which White Center would run into the waiting arms of Burien, to the south.
But longtime White Center activist Jesus Rodriguez says members of the Unincorporated Area Council don't represent the community. "They really represent white interest, to be honest with you," says Rodriguez, who helps lead an organization of White Center multicultural groups, called Trusted Advocates, that's pushing for Seattle annexation. "I hate to use the word racism, but they are narrow-minded. They're mostly property owners who want to keep things the way they are. They're afraid of immigrants."
The divisions within the community are making it even harder for Nickels to get the tax credit he needs from Olympia in order to make the annexation pencil out.
In 2006, legislators approved giving cities a larger slice of sales tax revenues as a way to help pay for annexing unincorporated areas. But the bill, authored by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, included a population cap on the credit—a cap that purposefully left Seattle out.
It's all part of the long-running Seattle-Olympia divide. The state's largest city has historically been unpopular in the state Capitol, and the last legislative session was no exception. Seattle officials descended on Olympia asking for help with the Sonics and the viaduct and got neither, in part because they were unable to agree on solutions themselves. Legislators from the rest of the state, accustomed to thinking Seattle expects too much, had a heyday stonewalling the local pols, who were mostly seen as grandstanding anyway. And House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, didn't do his hometown any favors, often siding with the Seattle-spends-too-much crowd.
So lawmakers were not very receptive when Seattle pushed a measure, sponsored by former Rep. Joe McDermott, D–West Seattle, to give the city access to the sales tax credit. (McDermott was recently appointed to the state Senate.) His bill, in its original form, would have generated about $9 million annually, but negotiators ultimately shrank it to $3 million—and earmarked 20 percent for Burien so it could hire additional police to make up for the 24 county officers it would lose if Seattle gobbled up North Highline. The House approved the compromise, but it died a slow death in the Senate, snuffed out by Prentice. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This story previously misstated the amount of money that would have been generated by McDermott's bill. It has since been corrected.)
Dow Constantine, who holds Nickels' old seat on the King County Council, observes: "People in Olympia make their living blocking Seattle. There are all sorts of issues that can get mixed up in this." He mentions negotiations over the Sonics, for example. Prentice has been a strong advocate for keeping the team, or even bringing them to Renton, while Seattle officials have shown little interest. "Not that that has anything to do with North Highline," says Constantine, "but it has a lot to do with the relations between city and state legislators."
Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says Prentice had concerns that Seattle would go after her neighborhood, West Hill, next, though he says the mayor assured her Seattle wasn't interested in West Hill. Pressed on what really happened, Ceis gets pensive, "I've known her for a long time," he says. "We have an interesting relationship. She likes small cities."
Prentice, for her part, isn't talking. Attempts to interview her over the phone resulted in her hanging up—twice.
Before hanging up the first time, she said that the legislators who represent the unincorporated area should speak about the bill. The second time we spoke, Prentice inexplicably denied her role as committee chairwoman in deciding what bills are heard. "This is not an issue. I don't know why you're pursuing this," she said. When pressed on whether she'd take the proposal up this year, Prentice said: "I presume not. Nobody's approached me about it," before offering the dial tone, again.
But former Sen. Erik Poulsen, D–West Seattle, who represented the unincorporated area, rejects the anti-Seattle conspiracy theories. He says the reason the sales tax credit died was much more simple: Annexation was "too hot to handle." By the time the bill reached the Senate, he says, bad feelings between White Center's pro-Seattle and pro-Burien factions had escalated to an all-out war.
"It really became a fiasco. There were a lot of people who were ordinarily very professional, very courteous, very savvy as far as politics go who absolutely lost it in my office, yelling, making accusations, veiled threats, political consequences for working one side or the other. It just got ugly," Poulsen said. "There was so much anger and conflicting information coming from both sides of the [annexation] debate, senators really didn't have time to figure out where best to fall."
He says he decided to let some time pass, to "take the steam out of the issue."
Just as public officials did with the viaduct.
Nonetheless, Nickels says he plans to meet with Prentice later this month and has already been chatting with Seattle-area legislators in order to prepare for round two. "I'm optimistic we'll get a hearing in Olympia," he says.
Meanwhile, Seattle and Burien continue to feud over White Center's future. Burien, an up-and-coming burg that became a city in 1993, is also making a play for the area, though Mayor Joan McGilton says her interest is primarily defensive. Right now, there are two fire stations in North Highline that serve her city, which is just to the south. There are also 24 King County sheriff's deputies patrolling the unincorporated area who cross into Burien free of charge to answer emergency calls. If North Highline becomes part of Seattle, all that could go away.
McGilton isn't willing to buy Ceis' argument that Seattle, because of its social service agencies, is simply better equipped to take care of the unincorporated area. She thinks the city's motives are less altruistic. "Mayor Nickels is clearly concerned with low-income housing and where does it go," she says. "Seattle sees strong economic benefits to coming and annexing these areas."
Ceis counters that no Seattle neighborhood generates revenue— and he doesn't expect North Highline to be any different: "Last time I checked, the city isn't a profit-making venture," he says. Seattle's best estimate of what it would cost to support the entire unincorporated area annually is $5.2 million.
The two cities also discussed splitting it up: Seattle would take everything above Southwest 116th Street—including the neighborhoods of White Center, Top Hat, Shorewood, Beverly Park, and Glendale—and Burien would take the southern neighborhoods of Salmon Creek and Boulevard Park. But no agreement was reached. Partial annexation would actually cost Seattle about $1.3 million more every year because property values are lower in the northern neighborhoods and the human service and public safety needs are greater. In anticipation of the unincorporated area being split, Ceis actively lobbied Burien officials on how to divvy up the spoils. He says he suggested Seattle take the most contentious prize, a fire station on Southwest 112th Street that Nickels is particularly keen on acquiring because it would also help the city better serve Arbor Heights. Ceis says Seattle wants to hammer out a plan that doesn't harm Burien.
But Burien's mayor says her recollection of the conversation was one of less give-and-take. "Pretty much what we heard from Seattle is, 'We're taking it all. Thank you very much.'" McGilton says.
Meantime, the city of SeaTac is now eyeing a small piece in the southeast corner of the unincorporated area, too. SeaTac City Manager Craig Ward says the area "is closer to our city limits than either Seattle or Burien." The SeaTac City Council is weighing the pluses and minuses and will decide whether to throw its hat in the ring by year-end.
It's difficult to pinpoint why Nickels is willing to expend so much effort (and political capital) to get his hands on White Center and the larger North Highline unincorporated area. His predecessor, Paul Schell, for one, passed on it. Speaking by phone from his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., Schell says his staff looked into pairing North Highline with another more profitable annexation so the city didn't lose out financially. "But we never came to a resolution," he says.
"I wouldn't race for it," says Schell. "To chase it, I think the only reason would be one of political advantage."
Schell isn't alone in wondering if there's an ulterior motive. Steinbrueck suggests White Center may be an easy way for Nickels to grow his base in preparation for a 2009 re-election bid.
That notion causes Nickels, his cheeks a little rosy on a brisk November morning, to chuckle. "I don't think there's a neighborhood in or around Seattle that doesn't know who I am," he offers.
Nickels is never one to shy away from the political, but his reasons for wanting White Center appear to be more personal. He lives in neighboring West Seattle (as do Deputy Mayor Ceis and City Attorney Tom Carr). And he's quick to point out that he represented the North Highline area for 14 years while serving on the King County Council. In fact, it's the first reason he gives to explain his interest in annexing the neighborhood. He adds that some of his favorite childhood memories happened there—like finding the first family dog, a dachshund they named Molly, in White Center Park. "Growing up, I never felt like White Center wasn't Seattle," Nickels says.
Nickels' deputy and deal-doer, Ceis, gets almost giddy when he talks about the annexation plan, his eyes bright under that signature swoop of salt-and-pepper hair.
"It should be something we want to do rather than saying, 'It's going to cost us too much money,' or, 'They're too needy,'" Ceis says. "Our job is to serve."
But Steinbrueck, the lame-duck Seattle City Council member, is quietly working to take the city's bid for North Highline off the table before his term expires in January—and before the mayor sends his big guns down to Olympia for round two. Steinbrueck's Urban Development and Planning Committee will vote later this month or early next on whether to remove the possibility of annexation as part of an annual process that amends the city's comprehensive plan. The proposal will then go before the full council.
Steinbrueck says the vote will be close, but by most accounts it's a long shot. The council voted 6-3 in favor of keeping the potential annexation area on the table last year, and there's little evidence that members have changed their minds.
Council member Richard Conlin, for one, says he doesn't understand how anyone could be opposed. "This area feels like Seattle. It's an integral part of making growth management work, and there's strong support from folks in the community. I think we can work out the financial part. I don't know what's not to like."
Ceis will be spending the next few weeks reminding the council that the only thing it's doing by not playing along with Steinbrueck is simply keeping the possibility of annexation on the table. "Nothing will happen unless the council wants it to," he says. "This just gives us a chance to work things out. [The council] has the final say." (The residents of the unincorporated area also get a vote, as required under state annexation rules)
All the while, the owner of White Center's Salvadorean Bakery—a restaurant often mentioned by Seattle City Council members touting their love for the neighborhood's color—would rather stay independent. "The county has more ease with us," says Julio Castro. "The city has more regulations, more taxation." (The mayor's office projects that, with annexation, businesses would pay an average of $250 more a year under Seattle's business and occupation tax.)
Castro, who emigrated from El Salvador 26 years ago, says he didn't even know White Center wasn't part of Seattle when he opened his bakery in 1995. Cities may mean well by providing things like housing and help for businesses, but Castro says he and other immigrants would rather be left alone. "We come from other countries that are less developed. We progress through hard work and don't ask for aid," he says, adding that he sees more police officers as a nuisance.
Asked which neighboring city he'd opt for, given that the state requires annexation, Castro says there's no choice in that decision.
"What, pick between one evil or the other evil? There's no freedom in that," he says. "In a way we're inside-outsiders. We've been incorporated into this country's economic and political system, but we also lived abroad for so many years. We know evolution's inevitable, even if it's not our choice. We know our utopia's not going to last. Someone's going to pop the bubble. We're going to have to face it and go ahead with it."